ReviewArchitecture + Design Film Festival explores art you can't ignore
Posted by Alison Gillmor, SCENE arts reviewer | Wednesday May 8, 2013
"Regular or Super: Views on Mies van der Rohe" is one of the films screening at the Architecture + Design Film Festival.
With most art forms, you can opt in or opt out. But architecture is all around us. The Architecture + Design Film Festival explores the importance of architecture and design in everyday life--in our cities, our streets and our homes. The second annual fest runs from May 8th to 11th at Cinematheque. Here's a rundown on three of the eight films. Regular or Super: Views on Mies van der Rohe (Thursday, May 9, 9:00 pm): Fun fact: In 1967, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the towering figures of 20th-century architecture, designed an Esso station in Montreal.
A gas station designed by Mies van der Rohe
This good-looking, extremely engaging doc starts off with residents' reactions to their pedigreed gas station. ("It doesn't have a great candy selection," says one customer.)
Directors Patrick Demers and Joseph Hillel then move outward to interviews with academics and architects, examining some of Mies's iconic buildings, including the Lake Shore Drive apartments in Chicago, the Seagram building in New York, and the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin.
These are spectacular structures, exquisitely photographed, but the film is deliberately NOT about architecture as the celebration of pristine monuments. It's much more interested in architecture as the everyday interactions between people and their built environment. "Architecture is given life by the people who use it and live in it," declares one commentator.
Or, as one of the Esso station regulars says, "A gas station is a gas station. When you need gas, you need gas." Isn't that all the more reason to design a really good gas station?
Utopia London (Friday, May 10, 7:00 pm): In this powerful polemical documentary, filmmaker Tom Cordell explores that brief moment in the aftermath of World War II when British architecture and planning united around "the dream of constructing a society of equal citizens."
The results of that experiment are often written off as urine-soaked, graffiti-covered, crime-plagued urban blights, viewed as the visible symbol of the failure of the welfare state.
A still from Utopia London
But Cordell goes back to that initial impulse, in which modern design was fused with the idea of social progress. He interviews the men and women who were working at that time and who believed that egalitarian housing would transform their city.
Combining well-edited interviews with intriguing archival material, he puts together a compelling social history of England from the worn-out austerity years to the optimistic 1960s. He also takes a good look at postwar public building projects that really worked, and continue to work today.
This is a personal, passionate film. Cordell believes that these structures succeeded, as architecture and as social policy, but were betrayed by economic and political agendas, coming mostly from Thatcher's Tories but also from the left. Looking at a rapidly changing city, Utopia London offers a poetic and moving glimpse of a lost past, while posing provocative questions about the future.
Life Architecturally: The Changing Face of Architecture, Innovation + Design (Thursday, May 9, 7:00 pm): This amiable, intimate documentary introduces Robert McBride and Debbie Ryan, an award-winning Australian architecture and design team. The two have been collaborating professionally and personally--they're married with three kids--for 30 years.
Rob and Deb, as this friendly film calls them, are down-to-earth and immediately likeable. Their buildings, however, can be divisive, with their look-at-me forms and literal symbolism (a school in the shape of an infinity symbol to represent lifelong learning, for example).
And while filmmaker Britt Arthur mentions controversy, she tends to back away from it. There are several scenes that bring up the tricky intersection of design, money and media but then stop short.
The Dome House, one of McBride and Ryan's projects
At one point, for example, Deb is meeting with the developers of a luxury high-rise condo, presenting a sample board with interior finishes that includes a deep-pile purple carpet. Cut to the stricken face of the condo saleswoman, who can see her commissions circling the drain.
It's a fascinating moment, and one wishes that--just as McBride and Ryan like to stretch the design envelope--Arthur could have pushed these contested edges a little.
The Architecture + Design Film Festival runs May 8-11 at Cinematheque.