Design-build on Film

There’s something that really works about architecture on film (and vice versa). Even the dry stuff is compelling. I think this is partly because they are kindred in their obsession with choreographing space and defying dimensions. There’s also something attractive about follies. This week I visited Philip Johnson’s New Canaan retreat and seeing that the egotism that often pervades architecture’s most prolific makers can be directly paralleled to the way 18th Century monarchs behaved and orchestrated their land with pavilions for entertainment and pleasure gardens was a revelation to me. Continuing this tradition – a recent screening at the Noguchi Museum, NY, focused on two very different approaches to pavilion building.

The spectacular museum in Long Island City showed two short films – Public Farm 1 and Ghost – as part of its First Fridays summer screenings. Focusing on two design-build projects, they give the audience rare access into the workings of two North American practices, WorkAC of New York and Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects of Canada. The shorts, which will be screened at the New York Architecture and Design Film Festival (ADFF) 18-21 October, join a growing archive of films being used as a device for exploring architecture and unpicking the discipline. They are small gestures, but, like Johnson’s follies, provide entertainment and a glimpse into what architects can do when given a space to play with.

Unlike the rather drab 2010 film, How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster? and the triumphant 2008 Koolhaas HouseLifethese lower budget documentaries pin the personalities and vulnerabilities of the architects to the process of making. Here, the architects get their hands dirty. And then have a beer.

PF1 at MoMA PS1 by Work Architecture Company, 2011

Lilibet Foster’s Public Farm 1, is an energetic and personal narrative that follows the architects Amale Andraos and Dan Wood of WorkAC as they grapple with the structural challenges and fallibility of building their temporary city farm, Public Farm 1 (PF1), which won MoMA PS1’s Young Architects Program in 2011. This fallibility is never more evident than when the duo realize that their inspiration behind the cardboard-tube building, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, never used the material as the only structural component. The comedic drama is delightful and the approach of the two architects endearing. However, it is never revealed how they overcome this challenge.

The film starts somewhere in the middle, which makes it both compelling as well as disorientating. There is so much to be gained from understanding where design ideas and forms stem from and what pushes an architect to make the decisions that shape our environment, albeit in the short-term. It is clear, though, that these architects understand their role in this, and the premise of PF1 is to bridge the divide between context and user by building a structure that gives something to the locals as well as the fly-by-night hipsters who have chosen to visit the Long Island City gallery before heading home to the comfort of cool in Williamsburg or Greenpoint.

The value in portraying the human side of a Man-made craft and using a fly-on-the-wall approach that makes it accessible is undermined by the lack of ‘formal’ interviewing – leaving more questions than answers. One can’t help but feel a bit dissatisfied with what seem obvious questions: How is the structure put together? Why did they choose to do it this way? What did they learn? Did it work as a ‘connector’. The work itself is part of a bigger picture and the film denies the audience even a brief glimpse at this. The film does achieve a level of intimacy not experienced in other architecture flicks – the wonderful personalities behind WorkAC glow as do their anxieties – but whether this project is a microcosm of how the practice works is left unexplored. It is a bonus, however, that as a viewer I want to know more.

PF1’s cardboard-tube structure was planted with vegetables / Photo credit: Raymond Adams

Complementing this DIY theme, Ghost introduces architect Brian Mackay-Lyons’ design-build summer programme. Every year, a group of students apply the skills they are taught at architecture schools across the world. Called an “experimental architecture laboratory” by Mackay-Lyons, the expectation is that the work being created from scratch will push the boundaries of design or technique in some way, but it is hard to tell whether this is the focus or the purpose and success of the annual project is something much less grand.

Ghost Lab cabins started by students at the 2005 summer workshop, completed by Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple, they are rented out during the rest of the year

There is an appeal to the programme and a value to it: it is his own land in Nova Scotia and it is a permanent building. In its earlier years, Ghost buildings would be torn down and its materials used for the current year’s project but Mackay-Lyons says it began to get more serious and eventually people wanted longevity to drive the project as well as experimentation. By the looks of it, the result is more sober buildings. Perhaps less interesting and playful. But they are considered and the team must respond to changes and modify the design accordingly. Surely one of the advantages of a project without a client?

While in Ghost, we are told that changes must be made, in PF1 we actually see the struggle of the architects’s ambitions not quite matching the material’s integrity. Buildings are fallible and vulnerable and at the whim of the designer’s ability to cut, bolt and sand their follies into reality.

1 comment
  1. This is Dan Wood from WORKac; great review of Lilibet’s film! For those who really do want to find out all of the nitty-gritty of how we managed to support tens of thousands of pounds of dirt and plants using only paper for structure, may I suggest our book “Above the Pavement, the Farm” which is essentially an extended version of the film (in the format of an oral history slash suspense story) interviewing some of the more than 150 people who helped make the project possible, from farmers to soil scientists to engineers to prisoners on Rikers Island! Available from Amazon:

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