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Site-Seeing: The Cine City

Giuliana Bruno locates the history of Film in the study of Architecture. 

Giulia Bruno13 December 2018

Site-Seeing: The Cine City

Atlas of Emotion is a highly original endeavor to map the cultural terrain of spatio-visual arts. In an evocative blend of words and pictures, Giuliana Bruno emphasizes the connections between “sight” and “site” and “motion” and “emotion.” In so doing, she touches on the art of Gerhard Richter and Louise Bourgeois, the filmmaking of Peter Greenaway and Michelangelo Antonioni, media archaeology and the origins of the museum, and her own journeys to her native Naples. Visually luscious and daring in conception, Bruno’s book opens new vistas and understandings at every turn, and is a key feature on our student reading list.

Atlas of Emotion is 50% off as part of our End of Year sale until January 1.

Here we present an extract from Chapter 1 Site-Seeing: The Cine City, where Bruno locates the history of Film in the study of Architecture. 

Site-Seeing: The Cine City

Space … exists in a social sense only for activity—for (and by virtue of) walking … or traveling.

Henri Lefebvre

Film’s undoubted ancestor … is—architecture.

Sergei M. Eisenstein

This book, written by a resident alien, appropriately begins with an “error.” The title of the first chapter is deliberately misspelled. Sightseeing has become site-seeing. An error implies a departure from a defined path; the semiotics of the term incorporates the notion of erring, or wandering. [1Error—the deviation from a route, a departure from principles—is bound to such wandering. As an act of navigation on a devious course, it implies rambling, roaming, and even going astray.

Atlas—a map of theoretical and emotional itineraries—has developed as an errare. Woven over the course of several years, it bears the textural layering of a palimpsest. The work proceeds by making tours and detours, turns and re-turns, opening up on different vistas of the production of space. In this errant way, foreshadowed in the prologue, it investigates cinema—the “movies”—as a multiform practice of geopsychic exploration. To traverse this psychogeography is to “err” through the shifting grounds of socio-cultural mobilities. In such peripatetic fashion, we thus set out to wander in the topography of interiors with a filmic map, to design an atlas of emotion pictures.


The path of errare unfolds, first of all, as a theoretical turn that looks at the history of cinema from an architectural point of view. As an error, site-seeing partakes in a shift away from the long-standing focus of film theory on sight and toward the construction of a moving theory of site. As it designs a cartography of film’s position within the spatial arts and their practices, our erring is ultimately a movement from the optic to the haptic—an affair that touches on a range of movements. [2]

The English language makes this transition from sight to site aurally seamless. Site-seeing, too, is a passage. As it moves from the optic into the haptic, it critiques scholarly work that has focused solely on the filmic gaze for having failed to address the emotion of viewing space. Many aspects of the moving image—for example, the acts of inhabiting and traversing space—were not explained within the Lacanian-derived framework, which was not interested in pursuing the affect of spatiality, even in psychoanalytic terms. Locked within a Lacanian gaze, whose spatial impact remained unexplored, the film spectator was turned into a voyeur. By contrast, when we speak of site-seeing we imply that, because of film’s spatio-corporeal mobilization, the spectator is rather a voyageur, a passenger who traverses a haptic, emotive terrain. Through this shift, my aim is to reclaim emotion and to argue, from the position of a film voyageuse, for the haptic as a feminist strategy of reading space.

The premise of site-seeing contests another aspect of the theory of the gaze as well: its favoring of a perspectival, optical geometry as a model for film. Confined to an optical position, this theory has tended to conceive of film space as a direct heir of Renaissance perspective and, understanding this in a narrow and reductive way, has reduced spectatorship to the fixed, unified geometry of a transcendental, disembodied gaze. [3] We now recognize that an optical model of this kind is unfit to account for the type of displacements that are represented, conveyed, and negotiated in the moving image. It not only has excluded a spectatorial articulation of the notion of public but has failed to engage in the sentient voyage and embodied psychogeography housed in the movie “house.” In order to explore this realm and to expose the shortcomings of the optical-geometric model of film and its ocularcentrism, we do not, however, need to subscribe simply to an oppositional dichotomy. That is, we need not insist on positions that are skeptical or denigratory of visuality; nor need we treat visuality solely as a site of regulatory power over our bodies. There is another path to follow in tracing a composite genealogy for a filmic architectonics. [4] It involves an engagement with environmental history and its inhabited, lived space.

To build a theoretical map of an architectonics as mobile as that of motion pictures, one must use a traveling lens and make room for the sensory spatiality of film, for our apprehension of space, including filmic space, occurs through an engagement with touch and movement. Our site-seeing tour follows this intimate path of mobilized visual space, “erring” from architectural and artistic sites to moving pictures. Haptically driven, the atlas finds a design for filmic space within the delicate cartography of emotion, that sentient place that exists between the map, the wall, and the screen.


Mobility lies at the heart of the historian’s method.… Knowledge depends upon travel, upon a refusal to respect boundaries, upon a restless drive toward the margins.

Stephen Greenblatt

In keeping with the kinetic origins of the cinema, known in its early days as the “kinema,” a passage to site-seeing involves, first of all, locating a geography of movement for cinema within the haptic map designed by the modern age. In this respect, my efforts converge with recent work in cinema studies that focuses on early cinema and gives attention to film space. [5] Looking at the emergence of cinema in terms of a cultural space enables us to articulate the link between cinema and the culture of modernity. [6] Film came to place itself within the perceptual field that has been described by art historian Jonathan Crary as the “techniques of the observer.” [7] It emerged out of this shifting observational arena and was affected, in particular, by the panoramic spectacle of  display (especially anatomical display). A product of this representational architectonics, the motion picture developed from what cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch has called “panoramic vision,” and especially from the architectural configurations of modern life and their circulation. [8]

On the eve of cinema’s invention, a network of architectural forms produced a new spatiovisuality. Such venues as arcades, railways, department stores, the pavilions of exhibition halls, glass houses, and winter gardens incarnated the new geography of modernity. [9] They were all sites of transit. Mobility—a form of cinematics—was the essence of these new architectures. By changing the relation between spatial perception and bodily motion, the new architectures of transit and travel culture prepared the ground for the invention of the moving image, the very epitome of modernity.

Film shared much in common with this geography of travel culture, especially with regard to its constant reinvention of space. I have argued elsewhere that spectatorship is to be conceived as an embodied and kinetic affair, and that the anatomy of movement that early film engendered is particularly linked to notions of flânerie, urban “streetwalking,” and modern bodily architectures. [10] As wandering was incorporated into the cinema, early film viewing became an imaginary form of flânerie, an activity that was—both historically and phantasmatically—fully open to women. By way of the cinema, new horizons opened up for female explorations. A relative of the railway passenger and the urban stroller, the female spectator—a flâneuse—traveled along sites.


Against this background of the intersection of filmic and architectural motion, and on the threshold of a geography of the interior, we begin our first site-seeing tour with a panorama of the cine city in history. This tour is not universal but subjectively localized. It returns often to the cinema of Italy, drawing on the filmography of a country particularly attuned to design, one that has “fashioned” the body and architectural space “according to its rich history of visual representation. Drawing specifically on my own cultural map, this “cinetopophilic” travelogue offers a personal, partial view of the Western cine city that is meant to provoke some thoughts on the urban screen in general. [11]

A product of the era of the metropolis and its transits, film expressed an urban viewpoint from its very inception. As Paul Virilio put it: “Since the beginning of the twentieth century … the screen … became the city square.” [12] Addressed primarily to urban audiences, early film fed on the metropolitan consciousness and unconscious. The city is present as “mise en abyme,” to use Tom Gunning’s metaphor. [13] An international genre of panorama films composed of “scenics” or “foreign views” made traveling through sites an extensive practice in the very early days of film and became instrumental in the development of the language of fiction films. [14] This travel genre was known in Italy as dal vero, or “shot from real life.” In a mirroring effect, the life of the street, views of the city, and vistas of foreign lands were offered back to urban audiences for viewing.

Early movie theaters hosted a panoply of mobile urban picturing. The turn-of-the-century travel-film genre reveals how film began articulating its language by striving for a form of vedutismo, which became, as we will later see, a practice of “view-tracking” and “view-sensing.” [15] Following the course of view painting and pursuing its representational route, a composite practice of spatiality was born in film that mobilized place and transformed it into a site of landscaping. Early cinema envisioned “panoramic views” that incorporated site-seeing journeys and the spatio-visual desire for circulation that had become fully embedded in modernity.

From the depiction of foreign and domestic views to the simulation of traveling through space, filmic representation is never static. Not only do the subjects of urban views move, but the very technique of representation aspires to motion. A film like Panorama from Times Building, New York (American Mutoscope and Biograph, Wallace McCutcheon, 1905), for example, offered vedute in motion, portraying New York’s aerial cityscape by first tilting upward and then panning across an urban bird’s-eye view. In panoramas like this, the camera strives for diverse viewing possibilities from the height of buildings or from different perspectival points in the city. As seen in Panoramic View of Monte Carlo (Edison, 1903), the genre was also attracted to the street motion of urban strolling and frequently represented the daily urban circulation of male and female city dwellers.

Public circulation takes cinematic shape in these films, and the sidewalk becomes the site where gender openly dwells. In At The Foot of the Flatiron (American Mutoscope and Biograph, Robert K. Bonine, 1903), a film that records a street scene, architecture and body are more than metonymically conjoined as the camera scrutinizes the ankles of passing women at the “foot” of the building. The camera catches the reactions of passersby of all sexes when, at the windy street corner, women’s skirts blow upward, revealing even more flesh. Architectural tours turned into gender travelogues as the sidewalk began to embrace sexual mobility and freer circulation for a growing female urban public. In Panorama from the Moving Boardwalk (Edison, 1900), the moving sidewalk—a novelty of world expositions—became a filmic scenario and the platform for traveling shots, which female urban strollers appear particularly to have enjoyed.

In the city travelogues, the camera practiced circular pans, up-and-down tilts, and forward, vertical, and lateral tracking motion, offering a variety of vistas across the city space, from panoramic perspectives to street-level views. In this way, the genre reproduced the very practice of urban space, which involves the public’s daily activity and circulation. These moving panoramas were instrumental in developing films that eschewed static, theatrical views in favor of architectural motions. In the travel genre, film cameras were placed on railroad cars, incline rail cars, subway cars, boats, moving street vehicles, and even balloons for attempted aerials. [16] Movement was also simulated. Beginning with Hale’s Tours and Scenes of the World in 1905, phantom rides were offered to spectators, who would watch films in movie theaters designed like railroad cars, with the screen placed at the front of the vehicle. [17] The attraction involved the very means that produced the moving visual space and affected the architectural shape of the movie house itself.

When the camera is placed at the very front of a moving vehicle—in trains, most typically; in subway cars, as in Panoramic View of Boston Subway from an Electric Car (Edison, 1901); on streetcars, as in Panoramic View of the Brooklyn Bridge (Edison, 1899); or on vehicles moving through the street, as in Panorama of 4th St., St Joseph (American Mutoscope and Biograph, A. E. Weed, 1902)—the camera becomes the vehicle: that is, it becomes, in a literal sense, a spectatorial means of transportation. [18] The travel-film genre inscribed motion into the language of cinema, transporting the spectator into space and creating a multiform travel effect that resonated with the architectonics of the railroad movie theater that housed it. 

Atlas of Emotion is 50% off as part of our End of Year sale (until January 1).

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[1] For the Latin root of the word error, see P. G. W. Glare, ed., Oxford Latin Dictionary, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982, p. 618.
[2] Although the notion of the haptic permeates the entire construction of this book, for a discussion that addresses specific uses of the notion, see chapter 8.
[3] To understand the notion of the gaze in film theory within the larger context of a history of ocularcentric discourse, see Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994; and Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993.
[4] Throughout this book, I use the term genealogy in the Foucauldian sense, not to mean a search for origins, but to designate a set of circumstances defining the production of a discourse or series of discourses. See Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977.
[5] For an introduction to the rich field of research on early film space, see Thomas Elsaesser, ed., with Adam Barker, Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, London: British Film Institute, 1990.
[6] On this subject, see (along with works cited later) Leo Charney, Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity, and Charney, Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity, and Drift, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998; Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz, eds., Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995; Edward Dimendberg, “The Will to Motorization: Cinema, Highways, and Modernity,” October, no. 73, Summer 1995, pp. 91–137; James Donald, “The City, The Cinema, Modern Spaces,” in Chris Jenks, ed., Visual Culture, London: Routledge, 1995; and Mary Ann Doane, “Technology’s Body: Cinematic Vision in Modernity,” Difference, vol. 5, no. 2, Summer 1993, pp. 1–23.
[7] Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990.
[8] See Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986.
[9] See Anne Friedberg, Window-Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.
[10] See Giuliana Bruno, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993; and Bruno, “Bodily Architectures,” Assemblage, no. 19, 1992, pp. 106–11.
[11] Committed to a Foucauldian awareness of “the position from which one speaks,” I have restricted myself mostly to Western views, with occasional contaminations, in order to avoid the risk of attempting a world encyclopedia. This includes refraining from comment on the private life of cultures about which I do not feel qualified to speak, for this is a critical dialogue that draws (and draws on) the geography and viewpoints I have inhabited, both in my skin and on the screen.
[12] Paul Virilio, The Lost Dimension, trans. Daniel Moshenberg, New York: Semiotext(e), 1991, p. 25.
[13] Tom Gunning, “From the Kaleidoscope to the X-Ray: Urban Spectatorship, Poe, Benjamin, and Traffic in Souls (1913),” Wide Angle, vol. 19. no. 4, 1997, p. 33.
[14] After a few examples dated 1896, the genre took off in 1897. By 1907, the number of titles thinned, but the genre continued through the mid-twenties. The teens do not appear to have brought substantial innovations in style, nor to have brought about a real exploration of editing potential.
[15] See, in particular, chapters 2 and 6 for a discussion of these ideas.
[16] Not many of the balloon films appear to have survived. Among them are Bird’s Eye View of San Francisco from a Balloon (Edison, 1902) and Panoramic View of Electric Tower from a Balloon (Edison, 1901). The latter is misleading, for the representation results from the up-and-down motion of the camera and, despite the film’s title, it is not clear that it was shot from a balloon. Sometimes, rather than strictly aerial photography, one finds lateral tracks. There are also pans of the city below, from the relatively static position of the balloon.
[17] On the culture of the railroad film, see Lynne Kirby, Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.
[18] Given the camera’s position in these train films, one is transported not only along but into the landscape. It is interesting that instead of offering lateral views—the ones that a passenger would see from the train’s windows—these films offer the frontal views that the person who operates the train would see. The frontal view is developed, for example, in Panoramic View of the Gorge Railroad (Edison, 1901); Panoramic View of the White Pass Railroad (Edison, 1901); Panoramic View of the Golden Gate (Edison, 1902); Panorama from Incline Railway (AM&B, Robert K. Bonine, 1902); Panorama from Running Incline Railway (AM&B, Robert K. Bonine, 1902); Panorama of Great Gorge Route over Lewinston Bridge (Edison, 1901); Panoramic View, Horseshoe Curve From Penna R.R. (Edison, 1899); Panoramic View, Kicking Horse Canyon (Edison, 1901); Panoramic View, Lower Kicking Horse Canyon (Edison, 1901); Panoramic View of the White Pass Railroad (Edison, 1901); and Panoramic View, Albert Canyon (Edison, 1901).”

This book is 50% off until the end of September as part of our Back to University sale. See all our Architecture and Cities reading here, and see all our reading lists here.

Atlas of Emotion
Atlas of Emotion is a highly original endeavour to map a cultural history of spatio-visual arts. In an evocative montage of words and pictures, emphasises that “sight” and “site” but also “motion” ...