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At Architecture & Design Film Festival, a Look at Building Communities

This month marked the Los Angeles debut of the Architecture & Design Film Festival. We dispatched writer Brigette Brown to take in a few of the 30 flicks on offer along with the program of talks and panels. The five-day festival kicked off with If You Build It, a documentary that follows designer-activists Emily Pilloton and Matt Miller as they lead a group of high school students in rural North Carolina through a year-long design-build project, and wrapped up on a similar note, with a closing panel entitled “Hands-on, Ground-up: Community and Design/Build.”

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The Los Angeles Theater Center, an early-nineteenth century bank turned theater, was the setting for the inaugural L.A. edition of the Architecture & Design Film Festival. (All photos courtesy ADFF)

27_ADFF_LA_2014-(22)-Kyle-Bergman_Steve-Badanes“Hands-on, Ground-up,” the final program of the Architecture & Design Film Festival in Los Angeles, left the audience wondering how we, as community members, designers, architects, and structure aficionados, can collaborate and build more. How can we push ourselves back into building and problem solving away from the computer, getting our hands dirty?

Architecture critic Mimi Zeiger moderated a panel of seasoned minds in the architecture and design/build field: Steve Badanes (pictured at right with festival founder and co-director, Kyle Bergman) professor of architecture and director of the Neighborhood Design Build Studio at the University of Washington; Jenna Didier, founder of experimental design and exhibition space, Materials & Applications; and, Dave Sellers, founder of Sellers and Company Architects. Though each panelist approaches the topic of design/build differently in their practices—professor, architect, artist—they each showed how small steps within design culture can help guide American culture to a more hands-on way of living.

“Why is it important to talk about design/build right now?” Zeiger asked to kick off the discussion. This simple “why should we care?” question shaped the conversation that followed. “A day’s work usually involves staring at a screen, pushing around a bar of soap, and maybe answering a few emails and sending some texts,” said Badanes. “So, you don’t really get the satisfaction that you’ve accomplished anything. When you make things, it’s really visceral…you have the satisfaction that you’ve made something.” The panelists agreed that design/build is about getting back in touch with making things. Using a hammer, painting columns and, as Sellers said, “having the oldest lady you can find make [you] blueberry pies” to eat on site are what architecture and design should be about.

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As design programs lean more toward the digital realm of production, burgeoning designers leave schools without the ability to build for themselves. They are removed from the process in a way that keeps their hands clean and their ability to react to environmental constraints (or opportunities) at a minimum. So, instead of working as a sculptor might—from an existing drawing, but tweaking things along the way, allowing touch and feeling to guide the form—architects use computers as tools to work through every detail without seeing if the structure actually works in space.

In response to a question about how to deal with failure in design/build, Didier suggested allowing for failure in one’s process, if possible, and Badanes and Sellers agreed. “A mistake is a discovery,” she added. “It’s a human decision that’s made on the spot, at the time you’re looking at it, and the decision isn’t wrong. It’s just the decision you made, and if you’re able to maintain some flexibility to discover, you may never have thought about that [solution] before.” Sellers, a candid and amusing speaker on the topic, shared many stories about design/build projects and the community these projects were able to create.

And that’s just it: design/build is able to create a community of people, from designers and builders to engineers and clients, that can’t be had from sitting in an office chair or making phone calls. The conversation frequently returned to the topic of community. How do we create community around project sites? How can we get the community involved in the building process? How can we empower people to believe they can build for themselves? We show them.

Hot issues in the design field—sustainability, developing countries, and the role of architects and designers—took up much of the discussion. It can seem like the design world is fueled by fear these days, much in the same way that the publishing industry is: Fear that the designer gets lost in the production process. Fear that roles are collapsing and no one can be “just a designer.” Fear that everyone can design for themselves so design jobs are no longer needed.

The panel ended with a question from the audience about the anxieties of the collapse of the role of the architect. But, according to the panelists, there should be no apprehension: design/build expands the role of the architect/designer and opens up the possibilities for future collaboration and involvement in projects. With that, we ran off to get more insight on the topic with the final film of the festival, If You Build It.

Brigette Brown is a California-based writer, editor, and critic covering the junction of design, planning urbanism, and sociology. Follow her on Twitter at @BrigeBrown.

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