Rare are the fields, from arts and culture, that have so many things in common with architecture, as film does. Acknowledging that this is far from new, this topic has been debated by theorists and authors from both fields ever since the beginning of the 20th century. Architecture has been trying to embody subtle and poetical features from film while cinema has historically served as a means to discuss, represent, and denounce topics tightly related to architecture and cities.
An interesting example of this overlapping can be found in the contemporary production of French-Italian film company Bêka & Lemoine, whose works show a sensible look towards the details and the simplicity of the architecture and urban spaces. Currently encompassing thirty feature films, Ila Bêka's and Louise Lemoine's portfolio casts light on the everyday life of different cities around the world, revealing an attentive gaze to the most trivial aspects of human existence in the urban realm.
We had the opportunity to talk to Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine about the importance of the cities and the ordinary aspects of life in their works. Read the full interview below.
Romullo Baratto (ArchDaily): What led you to dedicate your career to architectural and urban movies?
Ila Bêka: I am a trained architect and during the course of my studies I have always been surprised and even taken aback by the absence of people in all kinds of contemporary architectural representation: if you take the Italian urban and architectural photography from the ‘60s up to today, you will find only empty streets, empty buildings, empty rooms. You don’t get the scale between the body and the space and the interaction between people and the landscape. In An Architecture of Participation, where he traces a history of cultural shift produced by the introduction of perspective, Giancarlo de Carlo states that in the ‘60s the decision to remove people from this kind of representation was fully intentional: the choice to erase the presence of the body in spatial representations was made in order to create a fracture, a distance between the elite – which would be composed of architects, professors, and experts – and the rest of the population.
This kind of separation has always frightened me because all those photos and images had no link to reality, nothing to do with how we live in space – we as people who live and inhabit the world. Speculative reflections and considerations about space never take into account the way we really experience and use it. “Architecture is just a pretext, important is life”, said once Oscar Niemeyer. So, from the beginning, our act of revolt was to dedicate our first film to Guadalupe Acedo, the caretaker of Maison à Bordeaux, and with her to all the Invisibles, all the people who work in maintenance, who clean and endure those spaces, but are never celebrated or even represented. Now you could not ignore them anymore...
RB: You are not only the artists but also the producers and distributors of the films. You operate in the whole process. What made you opt for this model?
Louise Lemoine: Since we founded Beka & Partners, our production company, we decided to keep the entire film production process under our control and to be independent: having a small crew – which is basically Ila and me – allows us to choose carefully our projects and retain complete independence on what we do and how we do it. For example, our first five features, Living Architectures, were integrally self-funded: we had the opportunity to shoot inside the Maison à Bordeaux and the acclaim that Koolhaas Houselife gained thanks to the Biennale di Venezia, in which it was presented back in 2008, helped us to get access to more buildings, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. For Living Architectures, we produced and published books and DVDs that financially sustained the films. We eventually started accepting selected commissions and collaborations in time, but it hasn’t changed the core of our production model. Keeping it independent and keeping it small, we are free to continue our exploration of space, evolving our gaze, and eventually choose which commissions take and which not. It’s really linked to the way we see and we film: it’s mostly about freedom.
RB: And how do you choose the places, cities, buildings, and subjects you will shoot?
IB: It’s a matter of opportunity and intention, with a pinch of chance: for the Living Architectures series we wanted to film buildings designed by archistars, yet from a different point of view, to spark a conversation about the way we observe and talk about space. Since that, as we mentioned before, we made a few films in collaboration with cultural institutions as Biennale di Venezia (La Maddalena), OMA (25 Bis or Spiriti), Oslo Architecture Triennale (Selling Dreams) for exhibitions. In Auguste Perret’s case (25 Bis) we could choose between different building typologies, but once we saw the Rue Franklin building we knew it was the one, so we could move from filming buildings to filming the relationship between people in space.
That opened up to a series of films on communities, such as Barbicania, The infinite happiness on BIG’s 8 House or Voyage Autour de la Lune. So, as you see, it’s both moving to a wider scale – from a house to an estate to urban square to the entire urban realm such as in Homo Urbanus, freeing ourselves from the architectonic reference – and a matter of opportunity: for example I met Moriyama-San thanks to Ruye Nishizawa on a trip to Japan and I immediately understood I need to make a film on him. That was on the few occasions in which I worked solo. Then we were offered an artistic residence in Japan and that allowed us to make more films in the country, including our latest feature, Tokyo Ride with Ryue Nishizawa.
RB: As you mentioned earlier, the shootings are done in the absence of very large teams. Can you comment a little on the process of filming at the locations? Who is responsible for operating the equipment and other technical aspects?
LL: Yes, they are indeed. It’s usually just Ila and me, even though sometimes we ask collaborators to help us with filming. What would be seen as a constraint, having to focus constantly on technical aspects, attending both sounds and images ourselves, not outsourcing them to a cinematographer for instance, it is actually pivotal to us. Having a super light crew, we can merge in the environment we film, we can pass unnoticed, we need to focus on details instead of on the larger picture, so you can’t actually have an overall comprehensive idea of the space we film and thus this will lead you to observe the infraordinary aspects of it – this is not just a technical aspect or constraint, it’s about how we get to tell the space, how you will perceive it as a viewer.
Also, as nothing is staged in our films and we usually approach people while already filming, we use quite a small camera, and usually Ila carries it around his neck, so that people can forget about it. So, if you notice, the eye of the camera is lower than usual (faces are not centered) and, when talking to us, people do not look in-camera: every encounter lasts only a few minutes, so we need to make the best of it, have real conversations – if you start to think about getting the best shoot, you lose the momentum and people start to think about how they look, about proprioception, about how they carry themselves in the world – which, if you think about it, it’s actually what we wanted to unpack about star-architecture, the promotional aspect of it, which made 100% of the way they were communicated. Everything was glamour and smooth and filmed in the golden hour: we wanted to get the other side of it.
RB: Your works are often categorized as architectural films, but I see them much more as films about people. I am referring especially to the Homo Urbanus series, but this is visible in other titles as well. I would like you to talk about this interest in the daily life of cities and in the way people use and inhabit spaces.
IB: The question is what is space? If you think about it in abstract terms it is very hard to give an answer, while if you start to put one person or two inside of it you immediately start to understand the space, how a building works, how it doesn’t. So all the ways we occupy space and the way we adapt and subvert it are crucial to us, yet we are under the impression that we, as a society, think about it too little. Take pandemic, for example, it made us really stay inside our homes for a long time: it’s funny how we saw how uncomfortable places we bought or rented and decorated can be – and in the past, that awkwardness played a great deal in many of our films.
Leaving buildings to go filming in the streets was incredibly liberating for us, and this traces back to 24 heures sur place, our film on Place de la République. But of course, the same goes for the urban realm, i.e. Homo Urbanus, where the focus is on the “homo”. The street is a grand stage where we play according to unconscious rules, which are social and cultural, yet cities are designed more for cars than for people, so we need to constantly challenge them, try to accommodate our needs, compromise with other people in a public space. In the Homo Urbanus series, you see how, for example, in Naples people have turned the public space into a private one (the “bassi”), or how people in Shanghai live part of the private sphere in a public realm, cutting hair on the street, eating, etc. And how we also need to constantly take care of the cities, how fragile they can turn in an eyeblink, as you see with the rain in Bogota that threatened to disrupt the everyday life until some man uses bricks to create a bridge that would allow people to cross the street (while asking a toll!). None of this is staged or planned in advance: we, as a species, respond to ancient and unconscious rules and we create new ones to respond to the ever-changing needs of the spaces we live in – and that’s what we want to capture in our films.
We could say we make a psychoanalysis of the space, all our films are voyages through the conscious and unconscious rules and behaviors that inhabit us and the space.
RB: Tokyo Ride is an impressive film, a masterpiece that shows an absolutely unexpected side of Ryue Nishizawa. Could you tell us how you organized that tour throughout Tokyo? Did the idea of this urban journey come from the architect? Or was it your idea? What did you like the most about that day?
LL: The story behind the film is actually the one told in the film: we met Nishizawa ten years ago and we wanted to make a film with him, about him. We were living in Japan at the time and one day Nishizawa said he had time to meet with us: he didn’t know we would film him and you can see that at the very beginning, when we ask him if he was fine with it and he said yes. It was the only rainy day in an overall sunny season but also the only day he was available and we have tried to organize this meeting for a long time. So we needed to roll with it and accept the rain, which disrupted Nishizawa’s plan (but not his mood), but create the opportunity to see an unconventional Tokyo through a car ride. It’s almost unrecognizable. As it was raining we drove around, to find some of the architectures that inspired his work, from his office at SANAA, to Kazuyo Sejima’s house, to a soba restaurant and a temple he visited as a kid, to Moriyama’s house we filmed in Moriyama-San.
We started out wanting to hear from everybody but the architect and we ended up with a sentimental journey with one of the best architects in the world today: but Nishizawa is no archistar; he allowed intimacy and a real connection – he stated this in the film and in some further interview with him: the space of the Giulia, the vintage Alfa Romeo he chose for Tokyo Ride, has the perfect balance between being inside and outside, its walls thin, its interiors small. In the film, it almost becomes a human co-protagonist (she throws a tantrum, gets angry when it’s raining, and won’t start the engine). Nishizawa also shares our ideals and concerns about how to represent the space, making pivotal that no area, space or room is more important than another, no one holds more weight, which is a disruption in the use of perspective.
RB: To conclude, could you share with us some directors that inspire you and also fiction films that, in your opinion, offer an interesting view of architecture?
LL: Talking about Tokyo Ride, once we tried out the B&W, we understood that our main reference would be the classic Japanese cinema, such as Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujirô Ozu, and Akira Kurosawa, along with Japanese street photography from the ‘60s and the ‘70s. Another great inspiration, one of our most important ones for us, is the French filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch. For over 60 years he worked in Africa, influenced and himself influencing the idea of shared anthropology. His film Cocorico Monsieur Poulet, the journey of a man in a run-down car, played a great role in this film.