So often we are intimidated by the scope and scale of contemporary architecture, the expansive vaults, the soaring atria, the undulating walls. We might be unsure of our place in it; passive viewer or active participant? For a decade, Italian Ila Bêka and French Louise Lemoine, two young filmmakers, have taken us on an alternative journey, one which allows us to experience the built and natural environment from the perspective of those who interact with it on a daily basis. As well as speaking to the architects or designers (after the design process is complete), they also talk to everyone from construction workers to tenants, to passers by.
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has recognised this novel approach and announced acquisition of their entire 16 film oeuvre – at once innovative in the realms of architecture and cinema. This gesture represents the Department of Architecture and Design's first foray into the medium of film.
'Film is becoming a significant tool for in-depth exploration and transmission of architecture and design experiences, and not only aesthetics and process… In focusing on the subjective experience of architecture,' wrote MoMA collection specialist Paul Galloway. 'The [films of Beka and Lemoine] further MoMA's ability to examine and present the relevance of building design to everyday life.'
Lemoine, who grew up in the house that launched the series, Koolhaas Houselife (2008), followed Guadalupe, the wry housekeeper, as she made her daily rounds in the challenging dwelling, which Rem Koolhaas designed especially for Lemoine's father who had been severely injured in an automobile accident. This process was intensely personal to Lemoine, but also gave the rest of us a chance to intimately experience the solutions of a world famous architect faced with an unusual family program while still delivering signature work.
Beka and Lemoine, who somehow manage to insert themselves in their works without stealing the show, elicit candid responses both from the architects and these 'human maps of the buildings', to capture 'the spontaneity of life', as Lemoine puts it. Projects from Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry, Herzog and de Meuron, Richard Meier and Bjarke Ingels have been matched by commissioned films from the Fondazione Prada and the Barbican Center and more environmental subjects like Paris's Place de la République, the vineyards of Pomerol, the island of La Maddalena, and most recently Bordeaux's La Garonne river embankment.
To actually polish a window or interact with neighbours or cycle by a river's shores is to form an ongoing dialogue with architecture or place and unveils an organic symbiosis that these thoughtful, slow-paced films gently, but clearly, expose. Neither precious nor fawning, and often charming and amusing, the work of these filmmakers leaves a singular impression.