Susan Morris Picks the Winners at the 2013 Architecture & Design Film Festival

East, Features, On View
Friday, October 18, 2013
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Still from the film Away from All Suns!

Still from the film Away from All Suns!

2013 Architecture & Design Film Festival
Tribeca Cinemas
54 Varick Street
New York
212 941-2001

“Erecting a building is like making a movie….both processes involve blending light and movement into space and time. A model is like a script: at best it’s a promise and at worst it’s a safeguard. And, as with a script, a moment comes when you have to test your model against reality. You must start shooting the film, start erecting the building.”
The Interior Passage

We can see these starts when the two art forms come together in the 4th annual Architecture & Design Film Festival at the Tribeca Cinemas where 25 films will be screened through October 20. This year, the trend is toward process films that chronicle movements and initiatives (planning, education, preservation), portraits of buildings more than individuals, and Modernism referenced even when it’s not the direct subject.

The festival kicks off with The Human Scale (which also opens at the IFC Center on October 18). The film asks, “What is the scale for measuring happiness in a city?” and uses Danish architect and urban design theorist Jahn Gehl’s work concentrating on the pedestrian and cyclist to pose answers. Referencing Corbusier, Gehl said, “If anybody at any time wanted to pay professionals to make a city planning idea which would kill city life It could not have been done better than what the Modernists did.” The film focuses on Copenhagen, New York, Dhaka (the fastest-growing city in the world with 1,000 new residents per day), Christchurch, NZ, Melbourne, and Chonqing, China. “You Measure What You Care About” shows how data sets of people’s behavior led to pedestrianizing central Copenhagen. Similarly, Jeanette Sadik-Khan, NYC Commissioner of Transportation, looked at how 90 percent of Times Square real estate was allotted to cars, which only accounted for ten percent of use. This statistic was flipped to give over 90 percent to people in plazas, bike lanes, and Bikeshare stations.

Another side of the Bloomberg administration’s legacy can be seen in My Brooklyn, which could almost be an ad for Bill deBlasio’s “Tale of Two Cities” New York. Examining gentrification vs. diversification, the film zones in on downtown Brooklyn and the redevelopment of the Fulton Street Mall which was the third-most-profitable shopping area in the five boroughs (behind Fifth and Madison avenues). With rezoning, this vibrant retail area that catered to African-American and Caribbean populations, has been transformed into a luxury, high-rise residential area despite the promises of local developers. The real estate feeding frenzy and deal making is examined in the vein of another recent film, Gut Renovation, also from the personal point of view of a displaced white female Brooklyn resident.

Frustration with the corporate world and abundant idealism led two architects, Emily Pilloton and Matt Miller, to start Studio H: a design/build high school curriculum with the mantra “Design, Build, Transform” heard in If You Build It. Their approach is a practicum in design thinking, and they were invited to teach a class in rural North Carolina by a forward-thinking superintendent who was soon dismissed. (They agreed to stay on without salary.) The students learn basic tools to visualize their ideas—drawing, model-making—which were turned into inventive, practical projects like chicken coops and a farmer’s market structure for their economically depressed town. A formative influence was Miller’s Cranbrook thesis project, a house he constructed in Detroit that would be deeded to a family contingent on their payment of utilities for two years but went unmet and was abandoned. He concluded that the end user has to have a stake in the process.

Optimism was also a motivator of the “pilgrims and émigrés” of Cape Cod in Built On Narrow Land. This spit of land at the tip of the peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Cod Bay became a haven for freethinkers, artists, and the modernist architects who gave a physical form to their lifestyle. The Bohemian Brahmans who owned large swaths of land that enabled this development was embodied by Jack Phillips (of the Phillips Exeter Academy family), an amateur architect who briefly studied with Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer at Harvard, and became the Pied Piper for mid-century modernism here. His instructors followed him, as did Serge Chermayeff (father of Ivan and Peter), Georgy Kepes, Paul Weidlinger, Charlie Zehnder, and other modernists and Bauhaus alumni that taught in Boston at MIT and Harvard. Gropius’s daughter Ati, and Ruth Hatch who commissioned the stunning Jack Hall–designed Hatch House are among the witnesses who lead us through this summertime oasis amidst the more conventional New England Cape Cod gabled cottages.

Modernist architecture in Moscow, which was borne from a similar forward-thinking spirit that embodied the Russian Revolution, has a more problematic fate today. The title of the film, Away from All Suns!, is taken from Nietzsche who wrote: “The advent of modernity had swept away all foundations. Modernity is liberation and total destruction…What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving?… Away from all suns?” This unmooring is threatened by commercialism, illegal destruction, and new building as we are shown life behind the walls of three buildings: Ogoniok Printing Plant and Zhurgaz Apartment House (1930-35), the only surviving El Lissitzky building currently under threat; Communal Student House of the Textile Institute (1929) by I.S. Nikolaev, built to house 2,000 students and now under “restoration”; and Narkomfin Communal Apartment House (1928-30) by Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinus, considered the model for Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation and currently on UNESCO and World Monuments Fund watch lists, is now a ruin occupied by guerrilla artists before it is turned into a hotel. We also get a brief glimpse of Tatlin’s Tower being paraded through the streets.

Modernism is more cherished in a few building portraits: The Oyler House: Richard Neutra’s Desert Retreat, is a much-loved house in Lone Pine, California between Death Valley and Sequoia National Park. Commissioned by the unassuming Richard Oyler, who boldly wrote to the famous architect, charming Neutra and causing him to fall in love with the site. Neutra created an un-ornamented, post-and-beam structure with expansive glass that fit organically into the site (they even dug a swimming pool out of giant rocks in a mini-quarry). The realtor, Crosby Doe, who specializes in mid-century modern houses, said the experience of seeing the Oyler House for the first time was on par with Macchu Picchu. The house is now owned by actress Kelly Lynch and screenwriter Mitch Glazer (she is interviewed), who also own John Lautner’s Harvey House in Los Angeles.

Another adored building is Fagus—Walter Gropius and the Factory for Modernity. Built in 1911 in a small town near Hannover, it was the architect’s first major building that he chronicled extensively in photographs. Light, elegant, and beautifully proportioned, it is still used as a factory for making shoe laces, run by the original commissioning family. A palace for work, Bauhaus archivist Annemarie Jaeggi said it “defies gravity.”

The Interior Passage portrays a more contemporary building, Sanaa’s Rolex Learning Center at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, the prestigious institute of technology. It follows the selection process from 12 invited firms including OMA, Zaha Hadid, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro through the difficult engineering tasks solved by bridge builders to make this low-slung, flowing building stand up (the large central shell was cast in one pour over two days and nights, a mammoth logistical feat involving 20 simultaneous mixing trucks). A fascinating mingling of Swiss precision and Japanese minimalism, this film doggedly stays with the process until students fill the single expansive, unbroken fluid space of undulating floors and ceilings punctuated by glass-walled and domed bubbles. It takes the library as a building type one step beyond OMA’s Seattle Public Library.

Perhaps the person who is able to best put architecture into a wider context is the Pritzker Prize winner in Tadao Ando—From Emptiness to Infinity. He thinks “we have to intensively deal with the present,” and encourages a young employee to communicate more with people, rather than just his computer because “this impacts on architecture and our society. Because communication, life, and architecture belong together.”

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