February 22, 2012

Pop/Building Combo: The Architecture of a Hopeless Place

Rihanna's "We Found Love", and Belfast, Northern Ireland's New Lodge Flats.

Architecture is often used in pop videos to define characters, set up scenarios, and create fictional worlds out of known building types. Rihanna and Calvin Harris' 2011 #1 hit video, We Found Love uses architecture to create a hopeless place. In the video, Rihanna and her love interest are shown falling in and out of love, and she leaves him. Intense scenes depict domestic violence, hallucination, and heartbreak.

What does a hopeless place look like?

The opening scene shows the main character looking out of her window as a narrator solemnly reflects on love and loss in a depressing, mournful tone. Rihanna's dark silhouette is set against images of Modernist housing blocks, the New Lodge Flats in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The use of these multi-story brick and concrete towers conjures thoughts of "hopelessness" in two ways. First, the appropriation of an existing "hopeless place" immediately sets the tone. It recalls the failed utopia of post-war housing, more specifically London's Robin Hood Gardens or Chicago's Cabrini Green. Our story is taking place inside the commonly understood, zombified grimness of project housing. Secondly and more subliminally, the out-of-scale authoritarianism of the minimal buildings make us feel defeated and ultimately, hopeless. In Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, the same sort of failed, dystopian environments depict a future which is not bright, and not necessarily even possible. The last "future" never arrived, so why would any of today's dreams come true? Place-imagery associated with drug use is also implemented, such as skateparks, casinos, and late-night fast food restaurants. These places, as cultural signifiers, also serve as the backdrop for a lower-class narrative*, implying a financial hopelessness in addition to escalating substance abuse. Shots of pills and dilating pupils reminiscent of Aronofsky's Requiem For a Dream are mixed with fast-motion cuts of busy streetscapes. 

Despair also exists architecturally at the scale of the interior. The window apartment in which much of the story takes place is sparsely decorated, its bare white walls glowing with dull blue light. Here we witness a sex scene, drug use and subsequent domestic violence. This small space with no outside view turns architecture into a prison, shutting us away from the outside world, alone with our vices and demons. Confinement suggests entrapment spatially and emotionally, a form of hopelessness. If a hopeless place is confining, then a place full of promise, such as the setting for Timbuk 3's "The Future's So Bright", is often open and limitless. In the 1989 video, a pair of musicians sits outside of a camper in an inspiring, boundless desert landscape singing "The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades." The camper, along with the open road and big sky, is the perfect metaphor for hope. An endless amount of opportunity exists over the next horizon. The RV is only a small dot in the huge, open landscape. Early in the Rihanna video, the couple is outside when they are happily falling in love. They run through a field, and go to a rave in an open space. These open settings facilitate the good times of the blooming relationship. Most of the negative parts of the relationship take place inside. Good things happen outside, bad things inside. Spatial confinement is employed as both an atmospheric and symbolic element. 

These distinctions are often clear, but as the story unfolds, they become blurred, creating emotional disorientation. Love can be ambiguous, both positive and negative at the same time. The blurring of inside and outside via projected images creates the sensation of simultaneous love and hate, hope and despair, and the confusing entrapment of an abusive relationship. This ultimately distorts our sense of spatial reality. As the two fall in love, images of flowers blooming cover the walls of the apartment and Rihanna. This obvious visual reference to blooming love is also an expression of hope. When the strained relationship boils over and a video of a collapsing building is shown on a crying Rihanna. After a couple of cuts to shots of crying and drug use, burning buildings are projected onto her face. This blurring via exterior imagery in interior space is also hallucinatory, an important theme of the video.

Additionally, geographic disorientation is used analogously to emotional distortion. In order for the setting to be completely depressing, it must be devoid of geographical connotations that could suggest success. We do not make the connection that the actual buildings are in Northern Ireland, we simply make associations based on the image of this particular typology. The housing projects are cross-cultural in their evocations; there is no specific culture attached. This story could be taking place anywhere. If it were set in a specific city or place, then we could bring in our own biases. This "town" is more grim than any on earth. It is a place designed to convey hopelessness. All we see are generic buildings, such as fast food restaurants, casinos, and modernist housing blocks. While the video was filmed in Northern Ireland with an English boxer, Dudley O'Shaughnessy, as the supporting role, the aesthetic is a blurring of cultures. Rihanna's clothing is decidedly punk, colored in the hues of the American flag. This blurring of place and cultures eliminates cultural biases and therefore creates a blank canvas for the horrors of the drug-influenced love story. It allows us all to identify with it, because it could be anywhere. 

Architecture is this case is used as a metaphor for larger human expressions. Collapse, burning, entrapment, and longing are projected by using architecture as a narrative device. In the case of pop videos, architecture is often used this way.

*Similar to the supermarket in Pulp's Common People, a song about how a well-off woman cannot truly be "common", though she tries by sleeping with a common person, because she will always have a way out of poverty.  She will never actually feel the hopelessness being stuck in the lower class. The two videos explore different themes of class hopelessness, though Rihanna's creates a much more grim and drug fueled view of a hopeless situation.

**Another Pulp analogy: The architecture in We Found Love becomes people, as in Sheffield: Sex City.  In the song, Cocker tells a tale of his hometown as an object of sexual desire. "The city is a woman." While cocker fornicates with the city and a tower collapses in a building-scale orgasm via all of its residents simultaneous climax, Rihanna's imagery depicts a building collapsing under the stress of a failing relationship.  Her destruction is more emotional, but both Cocker and Rihanna make analogies to the character-role of architecture in pop.  For more on Pulp, see Owen Hatherley here or here.

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