Deconstructing Architecture With Filmmaker Louise Lemoine

Still from Barbicania
Still from 'Barbicania' | Photo: Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine

Art & Design Editor

For the past 10 years, Louise Lemoine and Ila Bêka have been creating phenomenal films about architecture for their Living Architectures series. Culture Trip caught up with Lemoine to talk about developing a critical perspective around architecture and the social aspects of navigating urban environments.

What does it mean to live or work in a building? Let alone an architectural masterpiece? Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine’s Living Architecture tackles this conundrum. Their first collaboration was Koolhaas Houselife, a film that looks at Rem Koolhaas’s Maison Bordeaux from the perspective of the housekeeper, Guadalupe Acedo. It’s a refreshing take on how architecture actually functions – how a building lives (in this case, as a home) after the blueprints have been realised and the construction workers have left.

Promotional cover of ‘Kollhaas Houselife’

The film follows Acedo – who has since enjoyed fame in her Spanish hometown – going about her daily chores of cleaning and maintaining the property. Not necessarily an easy task when you not only have to navigate an intricately designed building as well as a camera crew. The result is an illuminating venture into aesthetically driven design and the reality of existing within such a place.

This unusual method of critiquing architecture has guided Bêka and Lemoine’s careers. Bêka had a background in architecture while Lemoine trained as an art historian before specialising in cinema. Wanting to take a different stance on architecture than the polished, commercial approach developed during the rise of ‘starchitects’, the duo decided to focus on the impact buildings and built environments have on their inhabitants. Bêka and Lemoine wanted to discover how these structures guide and shape our lives and what the activation of an architectural space really means.

Lemoine discusses Living Architectures and how it’s evolved over the years to become an anthropological study.

Portrait of Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine

Culture Trip: How did the Living Architectures series come about?

Louise Lemoine: It’s a project we developed 10 years ago. When Ila and I met we had architecture and film as a common interest, so we decided to make something quite challenging in the two disciplines. At the time, there were mostly pedological films about architecture on television or promotional films made by architecture firms. We thought it could be a really interesting to introduce a critical dimension pretty free from any kind of production system.

In 10 years we’ve made a lot of films, more than 20. Each time [we make a film], we try to develop a very personal approach to define the relationship between well-known challenging and innovative architecture and the users in their daily life. We want to understand how architecture and design can influence the way we live and can change our perception of space, and make us evolve into something more innovative.

Still from ‘Koolhaas Houselife’

CT: How did you decide which buildings to concentrate on?

LL: We started the series at the peak period of the ‘starchitects’. Everyone and every city was looking for a starchitect to build a major building. The most iconic buildings were being looked at in terms of design features rather than in terms of functionality and how architecture can have a dialogue with its users. We wanted to deconstruct this trend and understood there was a real need for the profession to open up their way of representing architecture. We tried to go through many typologies of buildings, starting with a private house and growing, in terms of architectural scale, up to the city. We initially started with very famous architects of that moment: Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Rem Koolhaas, and Renzo Piano. Then we moved to lesser-known buildings and started looking at urban aspects, which evolved into using an anthropological approach.

From the start, we were interested in how people live in architecture rather than showing architecture as a beautiful object, but more and more we are very interested in making films in terms of form. We are more video artists than classical documentary filmmakers, with a great interest in urban anthropology.

Still from ‘Koolhaas Houselife’

CT: Was using the housekeeper’s perspective in Koolhaas Houselife the most obvious approach to look at how a space is interacted with?

LL: We were interested in approaching architectural representation from completely unusual methodologies and topics. For instance, the question of maintenance – the quotidian, the daily life, the intimacy, the idea of washing – all that is normally hidden. We were interested in Guadalupe because she represents very much what is kept hidden. You always see the spaces prepared like a top model with makeup on, so it’s very far from reality. We wanted to provoke the audience a little bit, to let them consider how the rest of the time they are being fooled in a way because reality is far from the pictures in magazines. So we took the angle of extreme little details of daily life because it reversed the beautiful images we are used to seeing.

Architects would know this building, as it’s pretty famous, but they might never have had the chance to visit, or see it living like this. We really wanted to understand architecture as a living body that requires maintenance, that evolves in time, that has problems, leaks. Almost like all the problems the human body has, [which needs] a little bit of maintenance to live well.

Still from ‘Gehry Vertigo’

CT: How did it feel when New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) acquired an entire catalogue of your work in 2016?

LL: You know we’ve been working in a very independent way for 10 years. You have to follow a path, a conviction. And it’s not easy all day because we have been working between documentary and the visual arts and not in one specific field. It’s usually much simpler when you define yourself in a simple way. Being complex makes your path more complex. So MoMA’s acquisition was very reassuring, it gave us a lot of confidence.

Still from ‘Gehry Vertigo’

CT: Your practice has evolved of late, can you tell us about the new direction?

LL: Now we work more on the scale of cities and are less linked to architecture specifically. We’re much more into anthropological questions, such as what is the homo urbanus (which means the ‘urban human’)? We try to understand how much human beings are modelled and completely transformed by the place they live in and how the culture, the economic and sociological elements of a city has an impact on the way we live in cities. And so we’ve moved a little bit from one interest to another, but it’s still linked to the built and human environment.

Still from ‘Homo Urbanus’

CT: Do you have one city you would love to work in?

LL: As we are working more on the concept of the urban human, every place could be interesting. We are not looking for a spectacular city but a comparative analysis of how you live in cities worldwide. We have worked in Seoul, Naples, Bogota, Rabat, St Petersberg and now in Japan. Each time the natural and geographical conditions are very, very different. They are very influential, as is the economy and cultural past. I think we would like to work in an African city, also India and maybe in China. We’ll see. We are more interested in cultural contrast in order to bring a certain comparative dynamic between the films.

Still from ‘Homo Urbanus’

CT: Have you noticed any defining similarities or distinct differences in the locations and cultures you’ve encountered?

LL: In cities, even more so in big cities, I think there is a lot of metaphysical questions or quests. You see a lot of solitude. You see human beings wanting to fill a sort of central void, and in different cultures, it takes different forms. So you have more cultures orientated by spirituality, you have more cultures orientated by consumerism, you have other cultures more centred on partying and a joyful way of understanding life. But in the end, it fulfils the same need of understanding how to fill that void of existing.

Still from ‘Moriyama San’

Bêka and Lemoine’s latest film Moriyama-San is being screened daily between 11am and 5pm at The National Museum – Architecture in Oslo, until 15 August 2018.

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