Beyond the Red Room: “The Architecture of David Lynch” by Richard Martin

Have you heard of “the alley behind the marketplace?” It is one of those neglected places tucked behind the mercantile mainstream, plagued with the odor of failure, struggles, nighttime dreads, with a pathway leading to the “palace”. It is the field “behind Vista” in Blue Velvet, a small lane in Inland Empire and the garbage area behind Winkie’s diner in Mulholland Drive.

Lidija Grozdanic Lidija Grozdanic

Have you heard of “the alley behind the marketplace?” It is one of those neglected places tucked behind the mercantile mainstream, plagued with the odor of failure, struggles, nighttime dreads, with a pathway leading to the “palace.” It is the field “behind Vista” in Blue Velvet (1986), a small lane in Inland Empire (2006) and the garbage area behind Winkie’s diner in Mulholland Drive (2001). These are spaces that reveal hidden truths, architectural ones included, to those who, like filmmaker David Lynch, look at the world from an askew angle. In his new book The Architecture of David Lynch (Bloomsbury Academic 2014), author Richard Martin enters this weird coordinate system and takes on the difficult task of bringing structure to the spatial readings of Lynch’s work.

© Ursula Alwash

© Ursula Alwash

Eraserhead (1977)

The book is divided into five chapters — Town and City, Home, Road, Stage, and Room — each focusing of major architecturally relevant aspects of Lynch’s filmography. Avoiding the myopic misreading of architectural interpretation, Martin draws compelling connections between Victorian London in The Elephant Man (1980) and Walter Benjamin’s flâneur; staged domesticity of Adolf Loos’ interiors and the role of curtains of the Red Room; and roadside eclecticism and automotive dromoscopy in Wild at Heart (1990) and Venturi’s love of American highways.

Various city scales, with their multifaceted urbanistic and psychogeographical connotations are the subject of the first chapter of Martin’s book. Here he traces Lynch’s first filmmaking steps from the industrial landscapes of Philadelphia (part of the Rust Belt) as shown in Eraserhead to the suburban, car-dominated West Coast (the Sun Belt). The concept of pedestrian urban movement in The Elephant Man is juxtaposed with the isolation of the sprawling American suburbs, while the idea of collective anxiety permeates Lynch’s entire oeuvre.

Particularly interesting is the way that Lynch treats the concept of neighborhoods and spatial borders. Martin calls attention to the similarities between the opening slow-motion sequence of Blue Velvet and an advertisement for Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign. Gentle music, white picket fences, red roses and an overwhelming presence of “neighborly good will and harmonious relations” dominate both scenes. However, in Lynch’s almost parodic version, the same idea takes a sinister turn as a man, Jeffrey’s father, suffers a heart attack in the idyllic setting — Conservative America’s myth of small-town America is shattered.

On a broader level, traversing thresholds and spatial transgression are among Lynch’s strongest motifs. When Jeffrey leaves the sheltered community of Lumberton and heads out into the dodgy part of the town, he gets introduced to surprising new meanings of neighborly relations. The concept of dissolving borders between the public and private spaces seeps into his interiors where the tension between different levels, on staircases, in corridors and bedrooms transforms familiar spaces into particularly vulnerable locations-“uncanny frontiers.”

Twin Peaks (1990)

There is an auditory undercurrent that runs through many of Lynch’s films-the buzzing sound that has no visible cause is, what Lynch calls, room tone, or “the sound that you hear when there’s silence.” Martin brings to our attention Freud’s concept of unheimlich (the uncanny), an uneasy awareness of the latent dangers lurking from the corners of familiar spaces. The delineated optical and physical connections of Adolf Loos’ Raumplan create an effect similar to that of the spaces inhabited by Lynch characters Laura Palmer, Fred Madison, and Dorothy Vallens — a state of “domestic trauma” brought on by projected mechanisms of surveillance. The loss of safety established in a highly porous domestic space echoes Richard Neutra’s famous response to a question on how our houses affect our mental health, “How can they not? I mean, where do we go crazy?”

Inland Empire (2006)

Counterintuitive as it may seem, the pairing of Los Angeles and the city of Łódź in Inland Empire provides a fitting conclusion to the Lynch’s filmmaking career (David Lynch has announced his retirement after making the film in 2006). It combines the decaying industrial landscapes of the so-called Manchester of Poland and the plenitude of Los Angeles, repudiating the director’s life-long preoccupation with in-between spaces. Situated somewhere between the conformity of the First World and the horrors of the Third World, with its rich cinematic history and similarity to the areas of the American Rust Belt, Łódź is the ultimate Lynchian city. Daniel Liebeskind, who was born in Łódź, returned to his hometown to find a distinctly Lynchian atmosphere:

“So familiar and yet so strange. […] Uncanny and magnificent, yet full of sadness. That’s how Łódź felt to me. The city appeared to be made of cardboard, a decaying set for a movie that wrapped long ago.”

Just as his characters find alternative ways of entering spaces, through side entrances and windows, Lynch himself enters Europe through an “alley behind the marketplace.” This syntagma can also be understood as a parable for the director’s career that has, as Martin proposes, consistently “run adjacent to the major sites of filmic production.” This readiness to inhabit often uncomfortable and dangerous places in order to gain new insights is Lynch’s ultimate legacy to both filmmakers and architects.

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