The Character of Architecture

The Character of Architecture

Sundance 2013
Fallen City directed by Zhao Qi
Palimpsest directed by Michael Tyburski
What’s He Building In There? directed by Richardo Rivera and Klip Collective
Cityscape 2095 directed by Yannick Jacquet, Mandril, and Thomas Vaquiee

Laced throughout the roster of the 200-plus films at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival are films that use architecture, design, space, and the arts in intriguing ways, even serving as characters of a sort to propel the plot.

A documentary that stood out in this regard is Fallen City, by Zhao Qi, about Beichuan, a mountainous city in Sichuan utterly destroyed in the 2008 earthquake in which 20,000 died in that city alone. The ruined metropolis has been left untouched and is now an earthquake museum, with fenced walkways and busloads of tourists. A new Beichuan, renamed Yongchang (eternal prosperity) by President Hu Jintao, and declared a model for all reconstruction in the area by Premier Wen Jiabao, was built on a flat plane nearby. It consists of housing, schools, hospitals, an industrial park, agricultural park, and business precinct covering 24 square miles and costing 2.17 billion yuan (U.S.$348.7 million).

The film is an allegory of the old and new China. The economic boom runs head-long into environmental disasters. The local government takes over the construction from 34 private companies for unstated reasons. Displaced residents are asked to put down 200,000 yuan ($32,000) for a new flat, an exorbitant amount for most. The one-child policy still is applied to parents who have lost children in the disaster and who are discouraged from trying again until they have a permanent home in Yongchang. Most are living in temporary pre-fab housing in a camp 37 miles from Beichuan until the new city is completed.


Upbeat news broadcasts herald the new city as a Shangri-La and site of a happy future for all residents. In fact, the new city is comprised of sprawling, uniform housing blocks laid out in a seemingly endless grid. When the survivors are taken to the still-unfinished city, one says, “We used to live really close to each other, but we can’t anymore. We’re separated by walls and blocks…It looks good on the outside, but the inside…there’s no feeling here.” Another laments, “Our Beichuan didn’t have mosquitoes. And we saw snow every morning. We’ll never see it again.”

The film follows surviving families who have sustained great loss, as they struggle to adapt in their own ways. One, Mrs. Li Guihua, who serves as community director, an informal post that collects donations from the outside world, organizes dancers for the opening ceremonies of the new city, and administers the allocation of new apartments. She lost her daughter and granddaughter in the earthquake, and dotes on her surviving elderly mother, who suffers from dementia and inertia. At the end of the film, however, Mrs. Li is in prison for corruption; she allocated three extra apartments for herself. Another survivor, Mrs. Peng, starts work in the kitchen of a kindergarten in the new city (where the strains of the Titanic theme song, “My Heart Will Go On” are heard in the schoolyard), a cruel reminder of the daughter she too lost in the earthquake.

After three years, the new city is completed. As Fallen City depicts, CCTV sent in journalists and a helicopter team. Spanking-clean streets, celebratory parades with bright ethnic costumes, big viewing stands, red paper lanterns, fireworks, a multi-gun salute, and a “Ceremony for Allocation of New Flats” heralded the opening of the new city and the new China.

Michael Tyburski’s Palimpsest (not to be confused with the Gore Vidal memoir) is about a man who literally “tunes” dwellings by carefully examining living spaces and listening. Each object—toaster, faucet, bed, even wall colors—has a pitch. Through his astute aural skills, he makes recommendations that will change the client’s interaction with his or her space, whether that means greater energy or the mending of a frayed relationship. The tuner, Peter Lucien, is a kind of shrink for buildings, giving a psychological spin to feng shui. When he visits a client, Ellen (whose toaster is out of tune with the rest of the apartment), he encounters a rocking bird toy that fascinates him to the point that he hunts one down for himself. The toy unlocks a connection between them, as well as a past relationship that is as much at the core of her insomnia as her toaster.

New Frontier is an exhibition space that showcases media installations, multimedia performances, and transmedia experiences. The facade of a former lumberyard called the Yard was transformed by Ricardo Rivera and his Brooklyn-based team Klip Collective into a nighttime 3D projection incorporating actual building elements—doors, vents, windows, and roof. Entitled What’s He Building In There? the projection plays with notions of inside and outside, using digital “keyholes” that reveal the moving machinery. At one point, the entire “facade” vaporizes and reveals the inner workings (the video outer layer dissolves to reveal a video underbelly, that is). Even the projected credits play with the shape and pitch of the roofline.

Anyone who enters the Yard is greeted by Cityscape 2095 by artists Yannick Jacquet, Mandril, and Thomas Vaquiée. An imagined metropolis features buildings rendered in black outline, enhanced with colored digital projections that change over a 6.5-minute cycle, simulating time passing.