Ideas of Disorder

The Modern House as Ruin; Cadbury-Browns’ 3 Church Walk, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, 1962

3 Church Walk; Framework for a Film

I was introduced to 3 Church Walk, the house of modernist architect H.T. ‘Jim’ and Betty Cadbury-Brown in 2012 by a writer friend, Jonathan P. Watts. Cadbury-Brown had died three years previously and the house appeared abandoned, the garden overgrown. Peering through the windows we could see furniture still in place, wood by the fire, records stacked up and pictures on the walls, as if he had only recently departed. There were many questions to be answered and making a film about the house was, for me, a way of attempting to raise and answer some of these. 

Coming across it in this way, the garden having almost subsumed the house, its rectilinear form and clean modern lines hidden from view; the only clues to its inhabitants in the few possessions remaining, was like finding a modern ruin.

Cadbury-Brown was a British architect best known for his contribution to the iconic Brutalist development of the Royal College of Art, and earlier work on pavilions for the Festival of Britain in the summer of 1951. It soon became clear, through our research, that Jim Cadbury-Brown and his wife, Betty Dale, who had met whilst working in Ernö Goldfinger’s office, designed and built the house in 1962 on a site originally earmarked by the composer Benjamin Britten for the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts’ first opera stage.

3 Church Walk had been Grade II listed in 2000, so was clearly regarded as being of significance. However, when the architect died there were legal issues with his estate, which led to the house being left empty for over three years. A copy of a self-published book in the local library, Cadbury-Brown: The Family Behind the Modernist Architect (Wheatley, 2011), led us to its author, his niece-in-law, Natalie Wheatley. Delighted at our interest in the house, she gave us permission and so the process of making the film began.

Cadbury-Brown thought when you enter a building you are starting on an enforced choreography. He preferred to think of architecture as the framework for a dance rather than frozen music, as it is so often referred to. So, the house became the framework for a film, the choreographed camera moving through the interior describing the experience of the lived space, the objects, furniture and artworks left behind. The space itself and the position and arrangements of these objects and furniture reflected its former inhabitants, who had not only lived in the house until their deaths but had designed every last detail. If a house can be seen as a reflection of an interior mental space, this unique moment caught in time was an opportunity to explore the thoughts and ideas of Cadbury-Brown made manifest in this apparently abandoned house he left behind. If, as Ken Worpole notes writing in his book, The New English Landscape, ruins are “a reagent of memory, their incomplete, fractured elements demanding to be visualized or imagined whole again. Ruins evoke empathy, and the free play of historical query. . . .” (Worpole, 2013, p.73), then 3 Church Walk was inviting this visualization, this questioning, this reactivating. This visualization requires what Bergson termed in Matter and Memory (1911, p.118), ‘attentive recognition’ where the viewer moves between seeing an object, recalling it as a memory image and coming back to the object, perceiving it anew in context of the memory image it is now bound up with. This is an engaged viewing experience, which was key to reactivating the space of 3 Church Walk. Marks points out (2000, p.48) that attentive recognition is a participatory notion of spectatorship, whose political potential should not be ignored. 

To take an example in 3 Church Walk, the lamps arranged in the main space are objects that are not perceived simply as objects but as stand-ins for human presence. Images and experiences of the Anglepoise lamp, a classic with particular socio-historical significance, may be conjured from memory. As an object, it takes the viewer into the realm of memory and experience and offers a connection that evokes contemplation and attentive recognition in the way that Bergson describes. It could also be seen as a fetish object or fossil, an historical artefact which invoke a description of cinema as archaeology, which is also linked to this reactivating of the past through film, and relevant to 3 Church Walk.

In The Skin of the Film (2000), Marks introduces the idea of haptic visuality in film, which closes the distance between the optical and the image allowing for a close looking that is more akin to touch. Much like Bruno’s (2002) voyeur becoming voyageur, Marks’ viewer is in touch with the film, engaging with it physically as well as intellectually.

‘Haptic’, having entered the English language in the late nineteenth century was used as a medical synonym for tactile and developed a psychological sense to describe blind individuals whose perception depended primarily on touch, hence the term having a broader psychological meaning than ‘tactile’. Haptic can mean to grasp or perceive as well as to touch relating to our sense of proprioception, an awareness of the position and movement of the body in space, which encompasses both Marks’ and Giuliana Bruno’s ideas about film that are key to this project. The sense of touch is being appropriated into digital media via haptic technologies in numerous ways that could see us interacting with remote virtual objects, which will again alter our relationship to film and the moving image.

Marks talks about a kind of filmmaking that is open to moments of thinness, suspension and waiting that allows for a full emptiness, a quality of stillness that occurs in the reimagining of the past or the reactivating of memory spaces in film and this requires attentive recognition to imagine these fragments whole. Sound can play an important part in this, as I will discuss later. The viewer completes, or partially completes the picture in their mind. Sound has a major role to play in this activation.

Film has the ability to articulate space through edited, framed shots and its pairing with sound can create Marks’ notion of haptic cinema. This embodiment and call to the senses allows for spatial experience to be mirrored or created in a way that goes beyond the optical or purely aesthetic description of space towards a fuller, richer experience, a psychology or philosophy of images in film. A building is a way of thinking, film is a way of thinking and where these two meet is where the film 3 Church Walk is focused.

The articulation of space by the camera is complemented by the sonic interpretation of the house. The calling up of sounds dormant in the fabric of the house activates the space and brings the viewer into the present. There is a play between past and present that recalls ideas of haunting, where that which cannot be seen is nevertheless present, in this case through sound.

Playing the house as if it were an instrument links not only to Britten’s use of materials ‘as found’ for his compositions but also to Cadbury-Brown’s writings, Ideas of Disorder and Notes on an Opera House for Aldeburgh, which contained his thoughts on the social-historical dynamics of sound, performance, audience and space. In Ideas of Disorder Cadbury-Brown writes his scheme for an architectural vocabulary:

  1. An awareness of depth and time, continuity with the past and even perhaps allusion to it
  2. To make the best use of physical contact between men and buildings
  3. To take advantage of the rebirth of materials and thus of buildings
  4. To provide a background bold enough to take strong variation (which seems to imply a sculptural approach)
  5. An awareness of rhythm and movement whether it be of people running down an escalator or opening a door or processing a convocation Architecture would be better described as the framework of a dance rather than as frozen music. And I add to this (CB) the study of quality in all its aspects, for example the quality of light as it spills around the end of a wall or onto a ceiling, the quality of sound within buildings, and I do not mean acoustics, the study of synthetic materials most responsive to the touch, an awareness of silhouette is especially important in England (Cadbury-Brown, 1959, p.82-88)

Perception and the senses work together in order for the viewer to become aware of space, light and sound in an audio-visual experience of moving image work. The audio-visual experience calls on this sensory knowledge and Marks discusses the haptic image and haptic visuality, for example seeing a close up of hair on screen calls up the sense of touch (Marks, 2000, p.162). However, I would also argue that the light play in space coupled with the sound of the materials, objects and surfaces in 3 Church Walk is able to call up a rich sensory experience of being in that space, and the fact that the space is empty allows it to be reactivated through the experience of watching the film. The question is: what is reactivated?  The recently vacated space suggests an absent presence, which activates the senses and memory that is inscribed in the space itself.  Together with the sound this creates a haptic audio-visuality, the senses of touch, hearing and sight are brought together to create a sensory cinematic experience in 3 Church Walk.

Cadbury-Brown thought that the building was instrumental in our experience of moving through and around a space and that the body is directed by the architecture itself. A doorway or corridor can determine how one enters, moves through and exits a building. This flow through a building was an important aspect of modern design and 3 Church Walk is a good example of how we are directed through a space following a pattern designed by the architect.   The enforced choreography of the visitor to the building is mirrored in the film by the camera choreography as the house is approached. The hand-held point of view of the camera reflects the enforced choreography of the space as the view through the window is seen and the house is entered. A physical relationship to the space, the here and now of spatial experience, is communicated through the use of this hand-held camera as we enter. The opening shots of the exterior, where glimpses of the house can be seen through the over-grown garden, are interspersed with inter-titles giving a context and location akin to traditional forms of documentary filmmaking. Yet as the camera closes in on the house, and views of the interior can be seen through the windows, coupled with the reflections of the garden, there is a shift towards an embodied camera, which, as it enters the house, begins to move away from an objective point of view to a more subjective one. This is achieved through the change from static tripod shots of the exterior to the more fluid hand-held camerawork through the windows and in the interior. There is also a shift from the naturalistic sounds of the environment to the description of a different experience of the space through the recordings of the glass. A wavering note created by rubbing the glass ruptures the purely objective viewpoint, bringing the viewer into the present and thus begins the enforced choreography.

Activating the space sonically and using materials and objects in the house to transform them into instruments came about through discussion with Jonathan P. Watts and Simon Limbrick. When the picture was shot and edited, initially the idea was to create a live score for the film using the sounds of the house itself, to play the house literally as an instrument using the surfaces and objects corresponding to the image. For practical purposes this idea was then adapted to forensically recording the surfaces and objects and composing a soundtrack that mirrored the image in the sense that the sound is emanating from the materials and objects within that particular image. Initially there was a thought to include sounds of human presence within the house, sounds of daily life. As the space was now unpopulated the question was how to activate the space sonically. Using sounds of the past, i.e. the people who once lived there, would have perhaps only allowed for a narrow reading of the film. Along with a voice-over these sounds were taken out.  Eventually only the sounds recorded in the house in its present state were used for the final soundtrack.

This question of how sound can reactivate architectural space is one that I have examined using the premise that by listening, giving one’s full attention to sound as an active process, it is possible to tune in to an environment or location and start to hear the place in terms of spatial relationships. Pauline Oliveros termed this ‘deep listening’ to differentiate between the involuntary nature of hearing and the selective nature of listening resulting in a heightened awareness of the sonic environment. I have attempted to highlight this in the soundtrack of 3 Church Walk in the way that two distinctive types of sound are present in the film, an observational exterior recording of what the viewer would expect to hear alongside the image and a more composed element, layered from very close recordings of the interior, which changes the viewer’s relationship to what they are hearing and seeing by bringing an awareness to the sonic nature of the space and its contents.

The natural environmental sound from the exterior and the text at the beginning of 3 Church Walk use conventional documentary practices to set the context for what is about to be seen, but the way the sound then changes as the film enters the interior shifts from a receptive mode to a perceptive mode of viewing. The space is activated sonically, the camera is hand-held, human presence is felt by the camera, the walking along the corridor, sounds of the cork tiles underfoot and the breath as the camera moves through the space. This reactivates the space both visually and sonically. There is an embodiment in the sound, which when put together with the absence in the image creates an experience of the space that brings an awareness of the mineral life of the house, its materiality and its decomposition. It is this bringing the image back through the sound to itself that allows for such an engaged experience of the space. The activation of a sensory experience through sound and its role in the creation of a memory image simultaneously leads to the viewer projecting themselves into the image in such a way that gives a particular experience of the lived space, one that feels very alive. The materiality of the space is keenly felt. In its haunted emptiness it becomes the framework for the film, a space for action to take place or having taken place.

Talking about his house at 3 Church Walk Cadbury-Brown said:

The result is far from being the sterile kind of text book or museum representation of a modern house, where everything is ‘designed’ and of the same period. The effect comes from the accumulation of objects in space and light, continually changing and hard to capture in photographs. (Cadbury-Brown, 1959, pp.82-88)

Here and in his Architectural Association presidential address introducing Mies Van der Rohe, Cadbury-Brown expresses frustration with the purely optical nature of the still photograph, fixed in time. I wonder whether he would find the audio-visual experience of an artists’ film more fitting to describe not only the space he designed but its embedded narratives? I propose that my approach enables aspects of the architecture to be expressed through film that cannot be adequately captured in a photograph, aspects that go beyond the confines of the optical to a haptic audio-visuality capable of articulating space more fully.

The temporal experience of the film emphasizes the idea of suspended time that is present in the house in its semi-abandoned state. This reflexive relationship is made evident through the methods employed in 3 Church Walk and allows for contemplation within the viewing experience of the film. This experience of suspended narrative time is different to that of the ‘story film’ or conventional narrative. The emphasis on the slowing or suspension of time creates an experience of narrative that comes from the image and sound itself, and the house itself rather than a traditionally constructed story narrative.

Filmic space is always framed, composed, edited and constructed. In these respects there are similarities to architectural space, but the latter is real and exists in the real world; it requires human presence in a different way to activate it. We have to be present with our body, which is not true of film in the same way. Film requires a different kind of presence, one that can be more physically passive but mentally active.


An extract from Articulating Space: The Translation of Modern Architectural Space into Filmic Space through Artists’ Film and Moving Image Practice, Emily Richardson 2018