As an undergraduate at the University of Colorado Kyle Bergman was torn between his love of film and architecture, but, after launching his career as an architect in New York, he found a way of combining both passions. Over the past decade he has directed the Architecture and Design Film Festival, and this year’s selection will be presented in Los Angeles, March 13-17. “The driving force was communication,” says Kyle. “Architects are generally very bad at explaining what they do to non-professionals and I thought that films might bridge the gap, because there are many similarities between these two collaborative art forms. Raise public awareness and architects will be encouraged to do better work, which would be good for society.”
In 2004 My Architect, Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary on his father, was nominated for an Oscar and had wide theatrical exposure. Kyle saw that the film appealed to his peers for its exploration of Louis Kahn’s masterworks, and to much wider audience as the story of a man discovering his elusive parent’s secret life. He started searching for other documentaries that tell a good story, capturing the elements of design while having a strong human dimension. Personal favorites from past years include Unfinished Spaces, which chronicles the creation and decay of the Cuban Art Schools while tracking the rise and fall of idealism in Castro’s revolution. Another choice was Strange and Familiar, which explores the vision of Zita Cobb for her native Fogo Island, and the buildings she commissioned from Todd Saunders to restore its economy and sense of worth.
Plans to launch the festival in New York in 2008 were canceled when the economic crisis wiped out funding. Kyle looked around for a less costly venue and settled on a theater with two screens and a bar in Waitsfield, a small town in the Mad Valley of Vermont. It #boasts a vibrant arts community, and the neighboring town of Warren has (according to local lore) the highest concentration of architects per capita of any place in the U.S. The event drew a thousand locals plus aficionadoes from as far afield as New York and Montreal. Like an out-of- town try-out of a Broadway production this success ensured that the festival would become an annual event in Manhattan. Over the past ten years it has become a road show, traveling to accompany the AIA National Convention in Washington DC, New Orleans, and Chicago, to LA and Tippet Rise in Montana, as well as to Sofia and Athens, were the films were subtitled in Bulgarian and Greek to give them broader appeal. “Chicago audiences were the most enthusiastic,” says Kyle. “It’s a city that’s so proud of its architecture.”
Kyle and his associates spend much of the year viewing up to 350 digital submissions from around the world. “When we started I wasn’t sure there would be enough good films to sustain an annual festival, and it was a struggle for the first few years,” Kyle recalls. “Now there are so many that a good title may have to be held over for the next festival.”
It’s easier and cheaper to make a professional quality movie than ever before, thanks to lightweight video equipment. Back in the 1970s, when I was programming director for the American Film Institute at the Kennedy Center, feature-length documentaries were rarer and it was hard to draw an audience. Now they are abundant but there is more competition for content as film festivals and internet outlets proliferate. Kyle doesn’t demand exclusivity, insisting that “it’s a different experience seeing a film on a big screen with other people than viewing it at home”
Nothing beats the experience of exploring a building in person, responding to its mass and scale, the shifts of perspective and the movement of its occupants. But many important buildings, especially private houses, can be accessed only by their owners. Even the best photographs merely hint at the spatial drama of an interior. “Films can give a better representation than still images,” argues Kyle. “They can introduce the human element, and the way the light changes from one room to another, through the day and in different seasons. Computer fly-throughs are nauseating, and most drone shots are gratuitous. But film allows you to tell the story of a building as well as move through it.”
I’ve previewed the best of this year’s festival in Formmag.com, so go on-line for suggestions of what to see in the five-day run at the LA Theater Center on Spring Street downtown, plus screenings of shorts at the Helms Bakery in Culver City on March 9.
Kyle has lost none of his fervor over the years, and will be introducing programs and interviewing filmmakers on stage during the festival. There will also be panel discussions; I’ll be moderating one following the screening of Mies Barcelona on Saturday March 16th.
ADFF:LA takes place on March 13-19 2019. Films, schedule, venue, tickets, and more can be found at http://adfilmfest.com/site/la2019.
Author: Michael Webb
Michael Webb Hon. AIA/LA has authored more than twenty books on architecture and design, most recently Moving Around: A Lifetime of Wandering, Architects’ Houses, and Building Community: New Apartment Architecture, while contributing essays to many more. He is also a regular contributor to leading journals in the United States and Europe. Growing up in London, he was an editor at The Times and Country Life, before moving to the US, where he directed film programs for the AFI and curated a Smithsonian exhibition on Hollywood.