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Stills from 'Apodemy' by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Stills from ‘Apodemy’ by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Katerina Athanasopoulou’s animation film Apodemy was created in 2012 and it has a very impressive record so far. It won the international Lumen Prize for animation, it has been screened in many festivals and a lot of articles have been written about it. Its creator is Greek and I accidentally met her in the street, in London where we both live. We ended up chatting that whole evening but she told me nothing of her admirable achievements something which retrospectively I hugely appreciated. When she gave me her card to keep in touch I stumbled upon Apodemy and I was left truly speechless.

The reason for writing about this film now after all the press it has received already is partly that it will be screened in a few days at the University of Sussex for the ‘Chronicles of Crisis’ conference. The true reason is that it touched me deeply and I wanted to say something about it. After all it is very architectural.

Stills from 'Apodemy' by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Stills from ‘Apodemy’ by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Leaving aside for a minute the film’s artistic implications I wanted to discuss the architectural representation which is one of its main features. Currently most architectural practices in the world produce 3d drawings and animations. Usually the clients require them in order to understand better the buildings since physical scale-models are very expensive. Even though many young architects are very familiar with producing this sort of drawings and animations, what they come up with is not necessarily any good. In fact most 3d representations look wrong but they still seem to be a necessary evil. Apodemy is a shining example of quality and a glimpse of what good aesthetics in 3D CAD can actually look like. I cannot really put my finger on the particular details that make Apodemy beautiful compared to most architectural 3d renderings which (to say the least) are not very beautiful. Maybe it is the colour and texture palette or maybe it is the fact that this film was not produced by an architect and especially it was not meant to sell a building to a client.

Stills from 'Apodemy' by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Stills from ‘Apodemy’ by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Its atmosphere is dystopian and retro-futuristic. It could be placed in the past, the future; in a dream or a nightmare. This city is abandoned by anyone who has a head because even the birds which fly around the cage-vehicle in order to set it in motion, are just pairs of loosely feathered wings. Still, regardless of the absence of life, there is motion. Darkness and decadence are infused with a strange feeling of hope which is not at all obvious. The buildings rotate around themselves similarly to the way we (as architecture students) were warned that our buildings would after an earthquake if they had only one central column. Bare concrete slabs and columns emerge like plants from something which is not exactly earth, water or clouds but a combination of the three. The flyovers are broken at places and reminded me of cities that have endured natural catastrophes, or films that predict the end of the world.

Stills from 'Apodemy' by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Stills from ‘Apodemy’ by Katerina Athanasopoulou

I grew up with comic books and these images brought to my mind illustrated cities by Enki Bilal and Moebius that my imagination inhabited when I was younger. Watching Apodemy though, when the cage-car appeared there was no doubt in my mind that this was Athens, the city where I was born and grew up.

Left image: Bilal / Middle and right image Moebius (Jean Gireaud)

Left image: Bilal / Middle and right image Moebius (Jean Gireaud)

A concrete city, a modernist-architect’s dream, tragically claustrophobic but still promising. A city that wants to ´grow up´ and become Le Corbusier’s City of 10 thousand people. The cage is a yellow trolley bus, a weird means of public transport so intrinsic to my city of origin that it really could not be from anywhere else.

Le Corbusier's Contemporary City designed in 1922

Le Corbusier’s Contemporary City designed in 1922

This film touched me deeply because I am also an Athenian who chose to migrate years ago, not yet pressured by destroyed economies and global crises. I wanted to leave because I felt suffocated by something I cannot put words into but somehow is narrated in Apodemy. This film encompasses the wanderlust that brings people to new lands and it spoke to me in particular in my language, that of concrete and rust. However this is a work of art that speaks fluently about the dissociation of modern cities that both pregnant and empty urge us to travel to places that seem far away, but in reality exist inside our own selves.

Apodemy was created by Katerina Athanasopoulou with original music by Jon Opstad .

It was commissioned by Onassis Foundation for Visual Dialogues in 2012 and it was awarded the Lumen Prize for best fine art created digitally in 2013.

It will be screened at the University of Sussex on the 30th of May 2014. Find more information here

Stills from 'Apodemy' by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Stills from ‘Apodemy’ by Katerina Athanasopoulou

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Charles and Ray Eames and some of their famous chairs

Architects and other designers know Charles and Ray Eames by their famous chairs. Non-designers might recognise the chairs having sat on them but most people will not associate them with the creators’ names. Another common occurrence is that some might know the Eames by name but think that Ray was Charles’ brother. Of course Charles and Ray Eames were not brothers they were husband and wife and business partners. This documentary focuses on their professional lives and achievements but also reveals plenty of information about their personalities and relationship as most probably they would not have accomplished what they did if they had not met each other.

Charles was an architecture school drop-out but an undoubtedly charismatic and confident man who needed no formal accreditation in order to start his own architectural practice. He already had a family and an office when he was invited to teach industrial design and further his studies at Cranbrook University where Ray was an art student. Soon after they met they got married and opened their office. In the film many former employees of the Eames practice speak of how it was to work for them. The office as they describe it was intensely stimulating because everyone was urged to be experimental and truly creative.

Charles and Ray / bottom left still from ‘Glimpses of the USA panorama’

Naturally in return all employees offered their time generously along with their most inspired ideas which unfortunately were neither appreciated or acknowledged. One of them even attests they were exploited but somehow they were happy to be exploited by those particular people. The Eames apart from being uniquely talented were also exciting to be around and quite impulsive. They ‘spoiled’ the people that worked for them by taking them to the circus, giving them experimental assignments, even playing games during work hours. Life was far from repetitive and boring.

The Eames were also quite eccentric. One of their friends shared a story of a night he was invited to their house for dinner and was ‘served’ flower arrangements to look at, for dessert.

The documentary in general is beautifully made and keeps the viewer’s interest from start to finish with anecdotes about how the creative duo developed the famous designs. The Eames were clearly very ambitious. They worked for IBM which apparently was the ‘Google’ of their time and thus increased both their fame and income.

The practice was also very prolific in film-making. The short film ‘Power of ten’ was shown for decades in schools within maths and science classes and precedes its time both contextually and in aesthetics by offering information to the viewer in an accelerated pace similar to today’s internet experience.  They also made a number of promotional videos for IBM and a 7-screen panorama called ‘Glimpses of the USA that was shown in Moscow in the midst of Cold war. It was a cultural exchange attempt that aimed to ameliorate the diplomatic relations of the two countries.

Regardless of their professional success the Eames faced plenty of personal problems. For example Ray was deeply disappointed and hurt because her contribution to the practice was not truly appreciated. Charles was more in the spotlight and during the early years she was mainly considered the ‘woman behind the man’. Gender inequality issues and Charles’ charismatic personality that naturally made him shine, tore the duo apart both professionally and as a couple.

Charles and Ray Eames/bottom right their house they designed themselves

However what is made clear in the documentary is that Charles and Ray Eames were contemporary Renaissance people. They were artists, researchers, architects, scientists, problem-solvers, film-makers, pioneers. Each one inspired and complemented the other and for many years they were hugely creative and had loads of fun together. They became the epitome of what is to be a designer. One might say that their whole lives inspired the ‘lifestyle’ concept that suggests how to dwell, decorate, dress play and be creative all wrapped up into one. As one of the interviewees states at the beginning of the film, it was unclear if Charles was ‘an architect, a designer or a film-maker but what he was obviously, was something we all wanted to be’.

Eames chairs

Dwelling is humanity’s most basic architectural need. Every venture starts well after the establishment of a base hence the paramount importance that housing has throughout history. There is much to understand about societies, cultures and political systems by analysing individual and collective housing projects as all of the above affect the way our homes are built. Of course there are many other important factors to consider like the evolution of technology, aesthetic trends and artistic movements. An intricate system that implicates all those parameters is at play in the development of housing projects and none should be neglected in attempting to evaluate a project’s success. Especially when its scale is considerably large.

The Pruitt-Igoe estate in St.Louis, USA was tore down on March 16, 1972 and Charles Jencks pronounced at the time that its demolition signalled the death of modernism. Regardless of the 40 years that have passed since then, the discussion of the reasons that brought the immense housing project to its demise is back in the spotlight, mostly due to the recent release of the documentary ‘The Pruitt-Igoe myth’ by Chad Freidrichs. Modernism was undoubtedly the movement that affected architecture more than any other in recent history hence the failure of a project that is regarded as one of its important representatives cannot but continue to be revisited.

Speaking of failure,  reading a rather interesting article in Blueprint’s March issue titled ‘Failing to succeed’ by Natre Wannathepesakul where the St. Louis estate is also mentioned, I was rather surprised not to say shocked. Apparently factors other than architectonic and aesthetic should be considered in order to evaluate the scheme’s failure. Especially for Pruitt-Igoe that endorsed and housed racial segregation (the Pruitt part of the estate only housed African Americans and Igoe white caucasians) and obviously ended up symbolising social fragmentation, many reasons were more important than aesthetics and architectural formalism in leading it to its bitter end. Evidently the position of the architect, (non other than tragic-twin-towers’ architect, Minoru Yamasaki) was less god-like than ever. An architect of such projects is little more than a pawn in a game played by governments, local authorities developers and other possible agents of power. The false impression that one designer has more power in making architectural decisions is rather dangerous in its ignorance.

Visiting the ‘place to call home’ exhibition at the RIBA  I was again very much surprised but this time positively. In the introductory panel of the exhibit, is mentioned that houses are extensions of ourselves. Well, no one ever doubted that but they are also a product of a specific era, a political system, a culture and possibly a religious system as well. This exhibition manages to attribute to each of the above ‘forces’ their proper responsibility in shaping London and most other UK cities. The size of the exhibit is rather small but the information it presents is quite concise and candid.

For example the fact that the ever-present class system is reflected on homes that were designed and named ‘first to fifth class house’ for centuries is mentioned and is also portrayed eloquently in the photo of John Cleese’s 60’s sketch “Three ages of man” . Industrialisation, economy boom, genteel housing, working classes, world wars, post war II escapism and garden cities, modernism, Thatcher’s ‘right to own’, individualism etc are all mentioned and documented. The exhibition’s layout and general aesthetics are impeccable which makes it even easier for its rich context to be absorbed. Of course the mechanisms that are at work in shaping our homes and cities are very complicated and require awareness and extended research in order to decipher. The information given by ‘a place to call home’ exhibition though, is food for thought in that direction.

A place to call home will be on until the 28th of April

Pruitt-Igoe myth documentary information here

A place to call home exhibition information here

These two exhibitions have much in common. Their most important similarity is that both artists use architecture as a protagonist in their films while  the absence of human presence is also rather obvious in both. However the way in which they reach the viewer is fundamentally different.

Tacita Dean’s ‘Film’ combines shots of Tate Modern’s interior spaces  with images of symbolic nature. The only actual human appearance, is the artist’s eye that looks at the viewer through a circular hole towards the end of the film. Her use of traditional means of film-manipulation like masking and hand-colouring of the frames, create a rather spectacular visual effect in playback. In some shots there is also a reference to Mondrian’s paintings of primary coloured rectangles. In the short documentary screened on the 5th floor the artist speaks among other things, about the meaning of some of the symbolic images she chose to include in her work. For example, the shot of the mountain in clouds inside the turbine hall, refers to Mount Analogue from the novel of para-surrealist writer René Daumal.

3 stills from Tacita Dean’s ‘Film’ at Tate Modern

Additionally, the choice of a portrait format instead of landscape also refers to the human figure. Architecture is one of the main starting points for this piece however Dean’s agenda to promote analogue film instead of digital technology seems equally important to the visual context. (see more here)

Zarina Bhimji’s ‘Yellow Patch’ on the other hand uses architecture and the absence of human presence so that everything that is humane about buildings comes forth powerfully. The movement of the camera represents the artist behind it. We are undoubtedly following her footsteps and we are looking through her eyes. This is not a generic way of observing, it is a very personal one which reveals much about the creator. Abandonment and decay of buildings, interior spaces and furniture speak of mortality in a poetic way.

2 stills from Zarina Bhimji’s ‘Yellow Patch’ at the Whitechapel Gallery

The film itself becomes a memento mori, a piece of art that serves as a reminder of human mortality which despite its morbidity, people are drawn to it because they cannot help but to identify with it. Her use of soundtrack is quite dramatic as well and combined with the images evokes strong emotions to the viewer.

Coming to a conclusion on what is fundamentally different about the two works of art, one could say that Tacita Dean’s piece involves architecture in a metaphorical  way.  Her film is a puzzle to unravel and one can appreciate it for its visually poetic qualities but it is helpful to be given some clues in order to decipher its meaning.

3 stills from Tacita Dean’s ‘Film’ at Tate Modern

On the other hand Bhimji’s film has an immediacy to it. It seems that it reaches the visitor in a visceral way before  engaging  the intellect. All spaces shown, have been inhabited and it is very obvious that life has rubbed off on them. The creator’s lens traces the details almost with compassion.

Not to belittle Dean’s ability to appeal to the visceral or Bhimji’s urge to engage the cerebral, both works of art achieve to address the above with different intensity. Ultimately, it is up to the visitor to appreciate and relate to them. Depending on one’s preferences anyone could identify with one, rather than the other. Definitely they are both worth visiting and are highly recommended.

4 stills from Zarina Bhimji’s ‘Yellow Patch’ at Whitechapel Gallery


You might also want to check:

http://tacitadean.tate.org.uk/

http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/zarina-bhimji

http://www.zarinabhimji.com/

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