'What brings these films together is the idea that design can change lives.' - Alison Gillmor

The third annual Architecture + Design Film Festival offers five days of feature films, shorts, panel discussions and free events.

Sponsored by Storefront Manitoba, Urban Idea, the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation and Cinematheque, the fest’s subjects range from sunny Palm Springs modernism to London urbanism to the preservation of Soviet-era buildings in Moscow. What brings these films together is the idea that design can change lives.

Work Hard—Play Hard (Wednesday, April 30, 9:00 p.m.) is an odd, cold but weirdly compelling documentary about “the workplace of the future.” German director Carmen Losman starts by following a group of architects as they speak about building spaces for the new information economy, where collaboration and creativity will be encouraged with open, transparent, flexible design. 

So far, so good, but slowly a slightly dystopian mood creeps in, as we follow a gruelling corporate performance review. (“This might sometimes come across as invasive,” the smiling HR woman says.) Then there’s a truly sinister corporate team-building exercise out in the woods. 

Work Hard, Play Hard

Work Hard, Play Hard - This remarkable documentary will take you on a journey through the post-industrial knowledge and services workshops, our supposed future working place. Directed by Carmen Losmann , 2014, Germany (90 min., German w/English subtitles) (Courtesy Cinematheque)

Work Hard—PlayHard is not entirely about design, though design remains a silent subtext throughout the film, but it is an unsettling look at 21st-century office culture. The tone is ​completely deadpan—there is no voiceover narrative and there are no direct interviews—but as the subjects start using more and more corporate buzzwords and trendy acronyms, we seem to be moving toward indirect critique, possibly even satire. One almost expects Ricky Gervais from The Office to walk in. The film ends with questions about what this workplace revolution might mean for ordinary people. 

Eames: The Architect and the Painter (Thursday, May 1, 7:00 p.m.) is a peppy documentary look at Charles and Ray Eames, the mid-century husband-and-wife team who had such a profound impact on North American design. 

The Eameses are the absolute antidote to the idea that modernism has to be cold, stark and austere. Their whole approach to design was exuberant, personal, even messy, as they fused art and life into one creative whole. Their motto was “the best for the most for the least,” meaning they wanted to make good design available to a broad public at an affordable price. 

This doc examines the Eameses’ iconic furniture, as well as their photography, films and exhibition design. It gives a sense of the couple’s cheerfully prolific output, while also looking at some darker issues in their marriage and their work.

Their close collaborative relationship was usually not acknowledged by the wider world, for example, something that took a toll on Ray. One TV commentator at the time described her as “a delicious dumpling in a doll’s dress,” a phrase that gives you some idea of what female designers were up against in the 1950s and ‘60s

If You Build It

If You Build It takes a captivating look at a radically innovative approach to education. Directed by Patrick Creadon , 2012, UK, (77 min.) (Courtesy Cinematheque)

If You Build It (Saturday, May 3, 3:00 p.m.) is the inspiring story of two young designers, Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller, who head to an impoverished rural community in North Carolina to start up a design/build program at the local high school. It’s kind of like a shops class, except instead of making spice racks, these kids will construct an entire building.

Teenagers being teenagers, there’s a certain amount of “yeah, whatever” at first. But once these kids start making stuff with their own hands, there’s no stopping them. This doc is a ground-up look at the power of design to change communities and transform lives. Watching these kids discover design is cool, but watching them discovering themselves and their own potential is really moving.

The Architecture and Design Film Festival runs from April 30 to May 4 at Cinematheque.