An Exclusive Interview with Ian Harris, Director of ‘Archiculture’

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Architects and students worldwide are highly anticipating the Monday premiere of Archiculture - a documentary that offers a unique glimpse into the world of studio-based, design education through the eyes of five architecture students finishing their final design projects at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. The film, directed and produced by two architect-turned-filmmakers Ian Harris and David Krantz of Arbuckle Industries, features exclusive interviews with leading professionals, historians and educators to help create a crucial dialog around the key issues faced by this unique teaching methodology.

Eager to learn more, we sat down with director Ian Harris for an exclusive interview. Read the interview and share your thoughts after the break.

Courtesy of Arbuckle Industries

What motivated you to create Archiculture?

Archiculture began as a seed idea in David’s mind, which grew out of many Friday night happy hours spent discussing the amazing, yet crazy world of studio that no one, but architects, really seemed to know about. Obsessed with documentary films, primarily character-driven documentary films, we naturally began to categorize the individual characters found in each of our studios. It dawned on us, this could be an amazing film, surely somebody has done it before. It turns out, no one had. It wasn’t until about a year later (2005) that we started to take the idea more seriously. Coincidentally, around that time, we ran into the production company Empty Kingdom Media at an art gallery opening one evening and ended up joining their crew to begin learning the art and technique of film making.

As you’ve stated, your mission is to examine the current and future state of studio-based, design education and highlight the various debates on the impact of architecture on our society. How did this mission statement evolve from inception and throughout the five and a half years of production?

The idea of Archiculture started off as a character-based, feature length documentary that followed individual students through their thesis semester and shared some discourse on current issues of contemporary architecture; sort of a petri dish of what these students were doing and how it applies to these larger issues and will eventually be embedded into our built environment for generations to come.

After filming the students, we realized the footage wasn’t strong enough to hold the interest of a broader (non-design) viewing audience. We then attempted to mold the film into an issue-based documentary that would connect the students’ experience to real world explorations about sustainability, environmental physiology and so on. After many rounds of editing, the film’s issued-based story threads began crushing the students’ storyline. It just wasn’t working.

We took a step back and refocused on the student’s story, without being overly conscious about the film’s length. This led us to Archiculture, which turned out to be a 25 minute, short film that is all about the studio environment and is enhanced by a series of prominent talking heads that either support, conflict, or combat each other with discourse about architectural education and studio environment as a platform for learning.

Courtesy of Arbuckle Industries

Who did you imagine would be your audience for the film, and why? 

We imagined the film’s audience as a bullseye, with dead center being anyone who has been through or is currently in design education. Beyond the bullseye, we imagined the film capturing the attention of anyone who is interested in going to design school. It would be phenomenal if Archiculture could reach out to younger, high school aged students to help them get a flavor for what it’s like and what it takes to get a design education. Also in this tier of the bullseye, we imagined the film would be a great opportunity for designers to show friends, love ones and colleagues what studio is actually like. I know from my experience, my family and non-design friends had no idea what I was actually doing all those hours in studio.

In the broadest tier of the bullseye, we imagine this discourse about the studio could address the larger topic of education; collaboration and teamwork, along with critiques and the structure of the studio could act as a mirror for other means of learning.

Why Pratt Institute and these five particular students?

When we starting looking for a host school, we looked at every Bachelors of Architecture (B.Arch) program in the country. We knew we wanted B.Arch, because master students were older, had more life experience, and were not as bright eyed and impressionable as the younger students. We were in search of the youthful quality found before the veil is pulled back and students are exposed to the professional world.

We ended up selecting Pratt because they responded the most positively about the project and they didn’t want to control it. They, meaning the Pratt Institute, the school of architecture and Dean Tom Hanrahan, really believed in the project and what it stood for.

Courtesy of Arbuckle Industries

As for the students, each of the five that made it into the film represented a different grouping of characteristics that most people can identify with from their own studio experience – Mollie is the thinker, Alanna is the artist, Dionysios is the joker, Mike is fun-loving indie guy, and Giancarlo is sort of the “cool guy” who tends to lead the pack. In addition, these five were the ones talking about the topics that applied most to the film and were doing the most physical work, so naturally we honed in on them because they were always present in the studio and gave us the opportunity to film the physical transformation/process of model making.

How do you think the experience of these selected students and the content of the film will translate to the international audience?

We have always been impressed with the amount of replies and interest that we’ve gotten over seas; I think that is because the studio experience transcends language – and to a larger degree culture – as the studio environment has very similar quality regardless of locale. Being surrounded by passionate believers in the built environment, who desire to improve what exists in the world for the greater good, is a loose premise for what we are doing in design school and therefore translates across all barriers. For the first time, people are going to actually get a chance to step into this world and get a glimmer for what studio actually is. That is why I think we’ve already had such a broad international interest and will spur many discussions globally.

Courtesy of Arbuckle Industries

During the trailer, Phil Bernstein stated: “The whole sort of pedagogical model [of architectural education] right now is around creating the next generation of starchitects; that’s actually a flawed model.” Would you agree? How do you view the current architectural education model and how would you propose it should evolve?

I do agree to an extent that most or a large part of what I’ve experienced in design school is feeding into the top down concept of the omnipotent starchitect. However, I think that model is changing and it is largely due to the economic shift and the pressures that have emerged from it. This shift has challenged designers, and especially young architects, to reevaluate their value and how one creates work. The idea of what a project is has moved away from bricks and mortar, where the client comes to you, and more towards an environment where designers fabricate a meaningful project in a place they understand and know best. I think this is an extremely empowering and useful way to go about translating the skills we learn in studio to the world around us. In saying that though, I don’t think we are being taught how to listen as much as we should be or how to run projects on the business side and engage the community.

The studio creates the starchitect in the sense that you are in a room, designing your own project, your own vision, and you are largely not engaging in teamwork. Anyone who is out there working, in any career, knows it’s all about teamwork and communication. So I think that is where it is potentially flawed.

Courtesy of Arbuckle Industries

What is the biggest challenge for architectural education to overcome?

At the end of the day, you’re investing an immense amount of time and money into your education, so raising the value of that degree coming out and ensuring students are fulfilled and able to survive is a big challenge. With the increase of architecture students, there just aren’t enough jobs for new graduates. So to go through all that education and accumulate that much debt into a career path that is notoriously underpaid sheds light on how we are illustrating our value as a profession.

What do you believe to be the greatest strength of studio-based, architectural education as it exists today?

What is unique about architectural education is that it is such a nimble, open platform for learning that is based upon being able to debate topics and quickly support those topics with visuals so you can effectively communicate your ideas. Learning this skill is worth an immense amount and is one of our biggest strengths.

Another strength is our ability to dissect a subject from the micro to macro scale simultaneously. This skill is extremely relevant today, especially with the larger socio-economic and sustainability issues, and I think most professions have a difficult time grappling with.

Courtesy of Arbuckle Industries

How did your architectural education at the University of Cincinnati influence your role as a filmmaker?

Studying and working in architecture is very similar to composing a film. First off, they all take way too much time. We spent nearly six years in total producing Archiculture. In addition, just as an architect, you are collaborating with many different disciplines and must lean on a team of professionals for their skills. Architects, and directors, are generalists. Just as you lean on your engineers, you lean on your colorists, composers, editors, etc. to infill the skills and knowledge you don’t know.

Will you return to “traditional” practice? If not, how do you foresee your role within the profession of architecture?

Ask me in a couple weeks and it will probably change. I do not see myself going back to traditional practice. I have not worked in a design firm since 2007, so I am an old, useless tool in that respect. I’ve never even used Revit!

I left working in architecture so I could explore using the camera as a way to have a conversation about architecture with a broader audience. A lot of film work that our production company, Arbuckle Industries does is for architects by architects, but I am interested in using film as a medium to start engaging more people outside the design community. We need more people talking about the built environment for anyone to start really caring how it actually affects them.

What’s next? Any future architecturally related films in the sketchbook for us to look forward to?

We are currently in post-production on a feature length documentary Girls Show - that chronicles a 71 year old competition that began as a message of girls equality in the field of athletics and has become an epic battle between two teams showcasing the challenges high school girls of today face, as well as chronicling the intense practices and dedication that go into making Girls Show such a major event for the New Jersey community.

We are also in the early stages of funding for a broader-audience appealing, issue-based documentary with the working title Built. Its structure is essentially a Food Inc. type film about the built environment. Unlike Urbanized, which was a beautifully produced film about the design of our cities by Gary Hustwit, we are interested in Built appealing to a broader audience through the human stories of those impacting and affected by our built environment.

Stay up-to-date with Archiculture and find out when the film will premiere in a town near you on the film’s official websitetwitter and facebook.

Get tickets to Monday’s 5:45PM Premiere of ‘Archiculture’ here!

Cite: Rosenfield, Karissa. "An Exclusive Interview with Ian Harris, Director of ‘Archiculture’" 28 Apr 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 25 Apr 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=365890>

1 comment

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    Looks very promising. I am an architect and teacher. How do we get a copy of the movie here in Cape Town, South Africa?

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