Crisis and Collective in Film: A Round Up of the AFFR

Former Volume-er Simon Pennec gives a round up of his highlights of the Architecture Film Festival Rotterdam (AFFR) that ran from October 29 to November 1 2009.

The 5th edition of the AFFR gathered an eclectic crowd of architects, artists, film-makers, curators and designers for three days of intense programming of shorts, documentaries, long features and arthouse videos. This year, the festival promised to frame the city and its architecture in the midst of the financial crisis; with the selection reflecting on potential urban and architectural futures.

The themes presented explored the highs and lows of architecture: West Coast modernism, Russian Avant-Garde and Architecture of Hope, the legacy of Jane Jacobs and a rich series of city documentaries exploring the ‘Great Planning Disasters’. The vast number of films turned the weekend into a challenge, and the need to strategize and tailor a programme quickly became everyone’s motto. I managed to watch 26 films including 18 shorts, most of them connected to the ‘crisis’ headline of the festival and the collective city.

Starting off with one of the first cinematographic reports on the effects of the mortgage crisis, Fresno is a documentary about how a group of Skateboarders have made new uses for the growing number of empty homes and swimming pools in this city just North of Los Angeles. Mixed with interviews of politicians, real estate brokers and property investors, the result is a rich account of the rapid changes that transformed American suburbia making it a new site for urban exploration. The problem does not stop at the individual home or the residential community; in Malls R Us, the film makers depict a much broader concern for American Suburbia, filming shopping malls closing down and leaving behind huge footprints of closed and gated spaces.

However, the intention here is not only to document the changes, as it is to suggest possible alternatives. In highlighting the growing gap between architecture and construction, the Festival has intended to make bridges between the presentation of the plan and the complexities of its realization. In a special screening, the London-based design practice Squint Opera presented their work turning documents and planning proposals into cinematic experiences. Large-scale projects such as London Olympics and Abu Dhabi 2030 are proposed in the form of hyper-real images so to communicate architecture and urban developments. For the architectural audience, the visual rendering comes as an innovative design, which ‘brings to life’ the complexities of the architectural drawings and models. The use of text placed over the images replaces a spoken narrative, presenting key features of the urban plan. In one or two occasions, the quotes highlight the “authentic and progressive character” of Abu Dhabi, but the simulated environments are imaginary places, representing the city as a series of slick, safe and ordered spaces. These contradictions turn both the urban plan and the film itself into an animated parody. Animation here becomes a crucial element not only in place-making but also in selling the image of a city to prospective clients and developers, though arguably a very generic city. This is cinema as a political tool at its best.

Squint Opera, Abu Dhabi 2030

In presenting Squint Opera’s video montages, the festival programmers question the nature and definition of the architecture film. Indeed, their selections span across all genres of architectural cinema. There are, however a few classics, including the architect tribute-documentary which reads just like a monograph; a page after page, project after project, survey of the architect’s work replacing the subjective photographic eye with pleasing slow camera tracking, as in Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner. Another classic has to be the sci-fi approach, framing the future of the city built either from sets and backdrops or fragments of the existing city such as the modernist residential houses in Woody Allen’s Sleepers.

Amongst the variety of screenings and topics explored, one of the highlights for me was the Shorts program, which showcased films not only connected to the themes of this year’s festival, but also resonated with the ’Collective City’ exhibition at the International Architecture Biennale at the NAi in Rotterdam. The programs ‘Modernist Architecture of Hope’, ‘Pre Architecture’ and the ‘Block’ all open another rear window, looking at some of the larger architectural manifestations of the 20th Century and their contemporary everyday use. Whilst the West Coast Modernist Architecture screenings idealized an image of architecture (as in Infinite Space, or Visual Acoustics, on the photography of Julius Shulman), European and Asian modernist architecture is embedded in ideas of failed utopias, disillusions and decaying urbanism framed in the XL housing blocks.

Chris Chong Chan Fui, still from Block B, 2008

In Block B, we are immediately immersed in a frontal view of a housing block which becomes a living photograph. The enormity of the building is examined closely through quotidian stories, trivial actions, dialogues, and sounds, animating the uniform and rigid structure. The stillness of the camera reflects on the stillness of the building, demanding that we contemplate its complexities and its residents, “being connected but distant”.

Jean-Louis Schuller’s contrasting lens in Chungking Dream walks into another mass housing development, where 10,000 people – immigrants from all over the world – squeeze into 5 blocks of 17 stories high. Chungking Mansions, a cheap accommodation in Hong Kong, houses a paradise of multiculturalism and low-end globalization, turning the residential building into a fully functional city with its labyrinth of informal guesthouses, curry restaurants, African bistros, clothing shops and foreign exchange offices.

Jean-Louis Schuller, Chungking Dream

In Quadro, Lotte Schreiber portrays the monumentality of a 1960’s apartment block built in the Italian coastal city of Trieste. Sitting atop a hill, the building appears to be floating in space, disconnected from the surrounding city. Her other film Borgate, recomposes a declining neighbourhood of Rome with tight and slow-tracking shots surveying the topography of the urban landscape composed of facades, wide streets and small architectural details. The black and white film provides a dramatic contrast between a nostalgic look back to neo-realism, highlighted by references from Fellini to Pasolini, and the violent intrusion of almost subliminal and abstract sequences.

Lotte Schreiber, still from Quadro

In both films, the dramatic intensity created between the cinematography and powerful music, serve as a reminder that housing projects and post-war blocks still bear the dystopic stigmas of our contemporary urban fabric. In reference to the spaces she documents, Schreiber states that “this is where the city ends and no-man’s-land begins.”

Unfortunately, it was quite difficult to see how the other two features fit into the “Block” program, simply because they did not use the housing block as a backdrop. However, in Tallagh, a 25 minute maybe-too-long feature, a group of kids take over the empty streets of one of Dublin residential suburbs and gather urban residue in preparation of a bonfire finale. Although the point of ‘collectivity’ in these uniform housing estates is made through the engagement of the youngest residents, the film’s seemingly endless narrative felt a little out of context. At that point, the audience seemed to resent the next film in the screening, which presented yet another abstract sequence of shots of windows and facades of apartment buildings merged into a backdrop of film clippings. Thankfully, the soothing music of Franz Schubert made the whole experience much more pleasurable.

As filmic experience, the short features have an evocative way of representing the city and its many fragments as the central protagonist of the narrative. Thom Andersen claims that “movies aren’t about places, they’re about stories”. However, the films selected for the weekend – particularly in the Shorts program – essentially trace stories of buildings and neighborhoods, from the context in which they emerged and how they change overtime. They are framed not only as a backdrop on which to project a narrative, but also as a means to position architecture and the urban condition as a protagonist of the filmic experience. And so, architecture film festivals, however loose in their selections, come as much needed reminders of this.

Simon Pennec is a photographer and urban researcher. He contributed to the ‘Collective’ section of the IABR and his survey of collective housing as depicted in film is included in Volume #21: The Block. Simon is currently at OMA/AMO in Rotterdam.

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