black mill

  • role:
    film maker
  • client:
    dundee school of architecture
  • location:

black mill is a short film noir, a detective story set in a derelict building on the outskirts of dundee, scotland. this project was a joint, pseudo-curricular project, with stephen mackie.

while exploring survey and narrative, this film also investigated capturing natural, incidental light. this led to some experimental methods of representation with the video medium. 


in our first showing of black mill, to lorens holm and graeme hutton, we described the film as “somewhere between a building survey and an architectural proposition”. the existing ruinous qualities of the old mill are catalogued, inseparable from an entirely subjective, [although at points hyper-real] experience of space. this is sometimes highlighted or exaggerated with techniques of cinematography, such as video collage, time-delayed overlays and ‘panning through walls’


narration and the lens



On a necessary level, representation and story telling are both concerned with communicating ideas. Architects engage the idea of representation as a fundamental means of communicating concept and design. Therefore I’m inclined to argue that architecture and storytelling are inseparable things. 


Unfortunately, this connection seems to have been misconceived, and hence undervalued, in my particular architectural education. I therefore wish to clarify narration’s position in architecture.




1. to give an account or tell the story of;

2. to relate or recount events, experiences, etc.,


Narration in architectural representation is how our ideas relate to the viewer. The narration and the means of representation should be co-considered in some sensitive manner. This can be seen in the works of Giovanni Piranesi, Lebbeus Woods and Steven Holl. The success of this methodology is displayed, with great effect, in Piranesi’s Prison etchings. These massive underground prison scenes engage my imagination, as they haunt and intrigue me in equal measures. The harsh marks left by Piranesi, during the intaglio process is a deliberate device, to be interpreted as a symbol of violence and desperation in the world of the drawing.


In the Solaris Plates [refers to related project 003# nothing disappears completely], the viewer initially assumes the position of ‘camera,’ as if viewed through some sort of lens. In a manner of speaking, the drawing was drawn through that same, or similar lens, as the viewer perceives. This organic-esque perspective would not likely sit well with those Renaissance masters, given the strictures of perspective drawings at the time: 


“Perspective would be nothing without architecture and the architect nothing without perspective” [Serio, 1537]


Narrative in drawing can engage the viewer in a dialogue. If drawings ask questions, then narration is the ability to ask the viewer a question that is relative to that viewer. 


The Solaris Plates attempt this by employing an intuitive, albeit irrational, perspective, being spatially and atmospherically descriptive, by providing a human scale and allowing the viewer to assume a depicted figure’s position in that fictional space.



a note on the filming of black mill



“Absolute space is located nowhere… and that of mental space, magically [imaginarily] cut off from the spatial realm, where the consciousness of the ‘subject’ – or ‘self-consciousness’ – takes form.” [Lefebvre, 1991]


Film and architecture both deal with “mental space” and its relationship to the “spatial realm.” With this in mind, and through a deep interest in cinematography, myself, together with Stephen Mackie, a fellow student, embarked on an inter-unit collaborative film project. In relation to my thesis, the purpose of the short-film was to experiment and document the illusionary effects of visual perception, in an actual location.


Two self-imposed restrictions on the film-making were set out from the beginning. The first dictated that only natural and incidental light was allowed to be used during filming. The second rule included that visual effect should mostly be created using in-situ ‘optical instruments’ to alter the light. 


The aesthetic ‘look’ of the film was largely affected by these two conditions, producing atmospheric imagery and perhaps a ‘truer’ sense of light of a place. Other representational techniques played an important role in this film also; with the ideas of photo-collage being translated into video-collage; stop-motion animation mixed with live-action video; and a series of shots which dissolved the mill’s walls and floors – allowing the camera to seemingly section freely through the building.


Natural and incidental light.

This building is an optical instrument. The Black Mill plays with light in much in the same way the Solaris Project does; the windows are apertures; the confined dust acts like a lens; the shiny walls are like mirrors. What is immediately apparent after viewing this film, is that ‘atmosphere,’ or a ‘mood’ of place, can be successfully represented through the medium of film. Through strictly using only natural and incidental light, the atmosphere presented is something quite true to a sense of place. This then becomes an important aspect to my own research due to the fact that I deal with a fictional site with equally fictional site conditions. Although it seems obvious, this restriction proved that light can be mysterious without the necessity of  imagined conditions.


Optical instruments. 

In the making of this film several objects that manipulate light were used; a lens, a pin-hole camera, a mirror, the reflection off shiny walls and dust in the air. Strictly speaking, some of these listed objects are not optical instruments in themselves. However through the discovery of this building I became aware of the more subtle nuances with which objects could influence light’s path. The optical instruments used in this film essentially represented an experimental endeavour; the exploration of optical manipulation.


Godard once said, “All good fiction is documentary and all good documentary is fiction” The visual experience of the ‘Black Mill’ film is designed to give a sense of a past vision of the future, similar in genre to the Solaris Project. Inspired by twentieth century film noir, the film follows the exploration of a dilapidated, abandoned mill building on the edge of Dundee City centre. This is a detective story.


“The imagination and daydreaming are stimulated by dim light and shadow. In order to think clearly, the sharpness of vision has to be suppressed, for thoughts travel with an absent-minded and unfocused gaze. ‘”

[Pallasmaa, 2005]


This is a detective story. A detective is asked to investigate a disturbance in an abandoned building. The detective is sure he will find some ‘junkies’ squatting in the building, although, the longer he remains in the building, the less sure of anything he becomes. The stories climax occurs in a flurry to the top floor of the building, where a confrontation between the detective and an antagonist ensues.


“As the dark space obscures the distinction between inside and outside, and provokes an impulsion toward a loss of subject, one may confront the pure and direct experience through architecture” [Han, 2009]


In this film project, each scene was considered in order to take advantage of those angles which produced high contrast, or depth of focus, dictated by that particular space in the mill. Often, the architecture of the old mill building, with all its beautiful, deep-set windows and deep floor plans, compounded the sense of experience which the building provides.



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