Monday, April 16, 2012

Adam Hartzell on Two Architecture Films

The San Francisco International Film Festival begins Friday, and post-festival screenings at festival venues SF Film Society screen, SFMOMA, the Castro and the Pacific Film Archive have recently been announced. We also now know what will be playing at the Stanford and the Yerba Buena Center For The Arts through mid-June. Both of these latter venues have interesting programs happening during SFIFF, and I'm lucky enough to have articles from guest contributors relevant to each. Sterling Hedgpeth wrote here on Howard Hawks before his nearly-finished PFA retrospective began; it reprises with more titles at the Stanford starting Friday. And Adam Hartzell has previewed two films coming to YBCA this week and next. He compares them in the following article:

The Love Song of R. Buckmister Fuller (USA: Sam Green, 2012) photo courtesy of San Francisco Film Society
With the recent release of the Foster + Partners design of the future new Apple headquarters in Cupertino, it’s the perfect time to bring a documentary on architect Norman Foster to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Spain-based co-directors Carlos Carcas & Norberto López Amado's How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? plays twice on April 22nd, at 2 & 4 pm as part of a two-film series of new films on architecture at YBCA. (The other film screening is Chad Freidrichs’ The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, but more on that later in the post.) Doubly perfect planning, the film on Foster also provides a nice lead-in to those who were able to snag tickets to the world premiere of documentarian Sam Green’s The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller at SFMOMA, part of the San Francisco International Film Festival playing on May 1st at 7pm and 9pm, since the title, How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?, is a question Fuller asked of Foster. This friendly and eccentric interrogation by Fuller of Foster pushed the latter to realize that in the case of his Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK, a disproportionate amount of this building’s weight went unseen. It was an architectural Zen koan to excavate what was hidden beneath the facade.

Although the ethereal floating views of the voluptuous and domineering buildings throughout Foster’s career are wonderful eye candy, (Foster worked in San Francisco very early in his career, but the only buildings completed by his firm in the Bay Area, as far as I know, can be found on Stanford’s campus), what’s more compelling to me about the documentary is what, like Fuller’s question, is left hidden beneath the edits of the documentary. Such documentaries about ‘great’ artists can border on hagiography, partly due to the need to maintain the willing participation of the film’s human subject. The documentary does mention that Foster has his critics, but the criticism is limited to aesthetics rather than practice. Plus, those critics are not permitted to speak for themselves. We are left to hear solely from Foster’s firm, friends, and fans.

How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? (SPAIN: Norberto  Lopez Arndao & Carlos Carcas, 2011) photo courtesy First Run Features 
As a result, the practice of architecture portrayed in this documentary is limited to the ‘genius’ approach to history, the ‘starchitect’ as city savior, rather than a social history of a larger system. The discussion of the Fred Olson project, which the narrator hangs up on an aural pushpin as "a social utopian project", is the closest it comes to really looking at how buildings demarcate people of all classes. But this focus is flown over like so many of the scenes where Foster pilots around his buildings. This 'genius' approach is problematic when Foster + Partners’ CEO praises Hong Kong for their speed and efficiency at completing projects when compared to Europe. Knowing the concerns many human rights groups have about China’s labor practices, concerns highlighted by the recent auditing of Foxconn Technology Group that was contracted to manufacture Apple’s iPads, this ‘speed’ isn’t necessarily a good thing. When the film's narrator, this time discussing the Beijing airport project, tells us the Chinese laborers worked 'three non-stop shifts around the clock’, we should ask for more evidence that the workers of those shifts were treated and compensated fairly than just Foster's use of the neoliberal buzzwords 'thinking strategically' and 'bold initiatives'. In this case, I don’t see modern Europe’s slower pace when compared to China as something to criticize because it’s more likely that necessary regulations are in place to lessen the occurrence of injuries and deaths along with securing a more sustainable wage (and necessary health benefits) for the folks who actually make the buildings starchitects design.

This section of the documentary is soon followed by a discussion of the Masdar City zero-carbon footprint project in the UAE. (Ironically, a city designed in the exact opposite direction of sustainability as the proposed new Apple headquarters that looks like a UFO from the past isolated from major public transit and demanding further car-dependency.) Along with mentioning nothing about the labor conditions in the UAE that arouse as much concern by human rights groups as in China, this project's green intent contradicts the previously mentioned preference for speed, since our need for speed and convenience is fueled by cheap oil and leads to unsustainable cities and living arrangements. With all that’s missing from this documentary’s lessons in hagiography, How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? practically requires companion reading material for all the context the film doesn’t provide. Might I suggest the wonderful book Dubai: The City as Corporation by Ahmed Kanna, which I first saw at the University Press Bookstore on Bancroft in Berkeley and later picked up at The Green Arcade bookstore on Market Street. (This is the book from which I pulled evidence of the worker violations in the UAE noted above.) Providing examples from the wider UAE, and briefly mentioning Foster’s Masdar City project, the second chapter of the book, “’Going South’ with the Starchitects” is an insightful examination of how, in spite of all the progressive rhetoric spoken by starchitect firms, the firms end up buttressing repressive regimes. Kanna is not indicting specific architects, (nor do I intend to do that here), but his insightful analysis brings to light the hidden foundations of the rise of the starchitect phenomenon.

How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? (SPAIN: Norberto  Lopez Arndao & Carlos Carcas, 2011) photo courtesy First Run Features
In the end, all that is unspoken in this question-titled documentary How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? results in a structure that fails to stand up. As you step away from the floating frame and begin to ask the questions title-as-question doesn’t, the buildings seem less impressive. Perhaps if the film’s title tilted the question slightly to say ‘How Much Is Your Building’s Weight, Mr. Foster?’ the directors may have focused more on the cultural, economic, and environmental impact of the building process rather than simply leaving us to admire the superficial beauty of the buildings.

Thankfully, the second film in the series at YBCA, Chad Freidrichs’ The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, puts much more weight on these social aspects of architecture. (It will screen twice on Sunday, April 29th, at 2 and 4pm.) In fact, everything that is wrong in the structure of How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? is set right in The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.

For those who haven’t heard of Pruitt-Igoe, it was a large housing project in St. Louis, Missouri completed in 1954. Considered revolutionary for its time, it gave low-income residents infrastructure (plumbing, electricity, etc.) and amenities well beyond what they previously lived with. It quickly fell in to disrepair and became a scary place to live due to high-levels of crime. Twenty decades after it was raised, Pruitt-Igoe was razed.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (USA: Chad Friedrichs, 2011) photo courtesy First Run Features
What is so valuable about Freidrichs’s documentary is that it places the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects in the proper complicated historical, political, and social perspective. The stock answers explaining Pruitt-Igoe’s demise have always been a combination of three choices: the un-livability of modernist architecture, the failure of government welfare, and the behaviors of the residents themselves. (As the film demonstrates from archival footage, the racism of the latter ‘answer’ was often explicit in the words of many of the suburban whites towards the primarily black residents.) Through interviews with former residents of Pruitt-Igoe, a sociologists who worked with the residents, and urban historians who have studied Pruitt-Igoe within a broader context, we learn how limiting those stock answers are. Ironically, part of Pruitt-Igoe’s demise was foretold in the law that enabled its creation, the 1949 Housing Act. Although the act provided funding for the creation of Pruitt-Igoe, it relied on the rent paid by residents, all low-income, for upkeep. At the same time, the 1949 Housing Act subsidized the creation of suburbia through roads and other infrastructure. Add to this the redlining housing practices of developers and lenders keeping non-whites out of the suburbs and the suburbs became a publicly subsidized space only accessible for the white middle and upper-middle class. As a result of this white-flight-to-suburbia, (an American creation that represents what urbanist James Howard Kunstler calls “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world” since it solidified our car/oil dependency that will obstruct our growth in the near future), the jobs followed white middle-class folk to the suburbs. As a result, few jobs were left for the primarily black residents of Pruitt-Igoe, making the upkeep of Pruitt-Igoe nearly impossible to maintain.

That’s just the beginning of what is a dense, insightful documentary on a missed opportunity of good intentions not fully-funded or followed-through. Much of the documentary’s impact comes from the reminiscences of former residents of Pruitt-Igoe who talk of the joy of the early years and the fears of later years. How they speak of the violence of the later years in the projects is particular poignant when some of the young men express how surprised they were by the advice the environment encouraged from their mothers. I’ll leave that aspect in cryptic form since those particular recollections hit you in the solar plexus in that uniquely haptic way that the light and audio from the cinema screen does.

I first heard about this Pruitt-Igoe documentary through the local architecture and design podcast 99% Invisible. Produced by Roman Mars, 99% Invisible quickly made my must-listen list after the best podcast in the world, Radiolab, gave the show props. Along with recommending you peep a listen to Mars before the screening of The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, in spite of how my criticism of How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? might discourage a viewing, I still recommend watching it before The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. It is the juxtaposing of these two films, one full of pretty pictures and failed analysis, another a well-researched re-rendering of a failed historical moment, that shows you how much more worthwhile and fulfilling a film like The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is compared to the unsatisfying ‘genius’ hagiographic view of history that is How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?

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