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Filmmaking and the Cultural Dialogue of Architecture

As the Look Up Film Challenge nears its July 17 start date, we sat down with award winning architect and filmmaker, John Szot, who shares his perspective of the impact that architecture and visual storytelling have when intertwined. His extraordinary work focuses on the relationship between technology and meaning in the built environment.

One of his latest projects, Architecture and the Unspeakable, documents the story of three buildings, each with a
pathological problem connecting it to a larger cultural dialogue. “Through the mechanisms of vandalism, idiosyncrasy, and dilapidation, the buildings raise the possibility that architecture might transcend its practical obligations to become our most potent form of cultural expression,” explains Szot about his film.

In the interview, Szot speaks of metaphysics, reflects on the value of buildings as active participants in our daily lives, and eloquently posits that the distinction between visual storytelling and architecture is nearly indistinguishable. Watch the trailer for Architecture and the Unspeakable:


Q: What are some of the ways in which architecture impacts our culture and how does this understanding change the ways in which we can experience it?

Szot:
I’m not sure architecture’s relationship to culture should have an effect on how we experience it — self-conscious contemplation of a building perpetuates the popular (and inappropriate) characterization of architecture as an artistic enterprise. Buildings are most meaningful when they participate in the rituals and routines that make up our lives, and any cultural understanding should be led by the power of one’s experience. Otherwise, we’re talking about buildings as advertising, which, in all fairness, some architects are comfortable with. I’m just not one of them.

The Shibuya Tower proposal explores the influence of computeraided design to develop unique living units. Courtesy of John Szot Studio.

The Shibuya Tower proposal explores the influence of computer-aided
design to develop unique living units. Courtesy of John Szot Studio.

Q: As both an architect and a visual storyteller, what have you learned at the intersection of these disciplines — how do they inform each other?

Szot:
From my point of view, they have become almost indistinguishable — the richness of an architectural proposal comes from a holistic understanding of a building’s overall experiential portrait. This means recognizing atmosphere and sequence as major contributors alongside form and space. I’m not sure there’s an architect out there that would argue with that, but such priorities are not ingrained in the practice at large. Filmmaking, however, forces those
considerations, filling in the gaps where conventional documentation falls short. That sounds like filmmaking might introduce a new level of control and obligation in architecture, but it actually sheds light on how circumstance is important to making every experience an intimate affair. The films I’ve produced through my architecture studio are meant to speak to this kind of fluidity, which I see as one of the places where architecture diverges from its reputation as an immaculate act of careful coordination and enters into very interesting territory.

The Soho building, a temporarily abandoned structure left at the mercy of New York City’s street writers and guerrilla artists. Courtesy of John Szot Studio.

The Soho building, a temporarily abandoned structure left at the mercy of
New York City’s street writers and guerrilla artists. Courtesy of John Szot Studio.

Q: In Architecture and the Unspeakable, what do you want the audience to walk away with? In what ways do you hope to shift perception?

Szot:
I hope it will demolish preconceptions about what makes a building valuable. The old qualitative dichotomy of buildings vs. “architecture” is divisive and limits the experiential and cultural potential of what we do.

Snapshot from the first film in the Architecture and the Unspeakable series. Courtesy of John Szot Studio.

Snapshot from the first film in the Architecture and the Unspeakable series.
Courtesy of John Szot Studio.

Q: What’s the most important thing younger generations and those that will inherit the future, should know or understand about architecture?

Szot:
I’d suggest trying to see buildings from outside their technological definition. Being a form of technology, buildings are constantly under pressure to evolve, but the trajectory of technical evolution in general (specifically digital technology, which is pervasive) has already taken us well beyond the limits of our physical senses. From my point of view, this is an important fissure that presents an opportunity to finally separate the two and pursue each with a greater degree of abandon and conceptual freedom. Advocates who believe buildings can and should keep up with technology are thinking too conservatively about what digital technology can do for us metaphysically. The sooner we start seeing them separately, the sooner we can get on with unleashing the true potential of each.
Q: Anything else you’d love to share from your experience with our community of emerging filmmakers as they set out to craft their own stories on the impact of architecture?

Szot:
Get intimate with your subject. Shoot close, fear nothing.

The Detroit Project is the third installment in the Architecture and the Unspeakable series. Courtesy of John Szot Studio.

The Detroit Project is the third installment in the Architecture and the
Unspeakable series. Courtesy of John Szot Studio.

John Szot is an award winning architect and filmmaker working from Brooklyn, New York. His architectural practice is focused on exploring the relationship between technology and meaning in the built environment. Visit John Szot’s website to view more of his influential projects, such as the Detroit Project, Shibuya Tower, and Soho Building.

Interested in creating an architectural film of your own? The Look Up Film Challenge, which kicks off on July 17, is a 16 day filmmaking competition bringing together filmmakers and architects to create short films about architecture and t he impact of architects and their work on our community.