Architecture on Film: Colossal Youth

30 March 2009 7.00pm

Colossal Youth

The third instalment of celebrated experimental director Pedro Costa’s filmic collaboration with the inhabitants of Lisbon’s Fontainhas slum, Colossal Youth, frames its characters' lives within a unique hybrid of documentary observation and fictional re-enactment. As their neighbourhood is razed around them, and the community transferred to a new government-planned settlement, the film posits a conflict between grand social architectural gestures and informal developments. A challenging film, whose grace and existential grandeur offer a rewarding meditation on place and people; an immersive experience from one of cinema’s most singular voices.

France/Portugal/Switzerland 2006 Dir. Pedro Costa 155 minutes

The screening will be introduced by film critic and writer, Jonathan Romney. Jonathan's review of Colossal Youth from Sight and Sound, can be read here.

Screening programmed in responce to the Barbican exhibition, Le Corbusier - The Art of Architecture.

Programme Notes

The Breathing of Ruins: A Work of Architecture Called “Colossal Youth”

By Ryoji Suzuki

I’d like to venture that “Colossal Youth” is not only a movie, but also actual architecture.  From my perspective, this is neither empty rhetoric nor simple fancy for the architectural theme is unmistakable from the opening shot. A building stands erect, looming in the murk. Looking up at it from our position close to the surface of the road makes for an overpowering angle. The wall of the building reveals gradations of change in shadow within the darkness. Pitch-black openings here and there look like eyes or mouths. And as we watch, pieces of furniture that seem as if they might have come from the bowels of the building are tossed intermittently from one of the openings. The building seems as if it is shrieking something, or vomiting something out. Before now I had never seen a movie that filmed buildings so much as if they were living flesh-and-blood creatures. If we can say that architecture too is to have its own experiences, in other words experiences “as architecture”, we would be speaking of exactly these kinds of moments. 
What we are watching is evidently a film, but if we set aside for a moment things like the words exchanged and the apparent stories within it, we are doing nothing but being inside the buildings. Perhaps the first reason we feel this way is because a prerequisite of Pedro Costa’s space is pitch darkness. Yet conversely it is “darkness” that has almost completely been eradicated from contemporary architecture when, at the end of the 19th Century, darkness was eradicated from the world as a result of the arrival of artificial light. In contemporary times, the sole cohabitation of architecture and darkness takes place within the movie theater. It’s entirely as if buildings trans-located their accumulated recollections mediating darkness directly to film, unchanged; a dramatic substitution that was perhaps destined. This must hence mean that when, not the light, but the darkness, is projected onto the screen, that screen becomes connected seamlessly with the darkness of the space, and a circumstance is created where the building and the movie are blended into one. And it is just these moments where film exists also as architecture that comprises the blissful encounter between the two.

Yet Fontainhas is a contemporary ruin – and we can’t think only about the architecture and avoid the issue of ruins. Since it was filmed in close quarters with the destitute inhabitants of Fontainhas, “Colossal Youth” is also a movie about ruins. Pedro Costa has lucidly provided two contradistinctive types of contemporary architecture. One the one hand are the cheap, newly erected apartments provided to the people who have been chased out of their homes because of the redevelopment, on the other hand are the slums that are being destroyed. Both are made of reinforced concrete and are hence contemporary constructions. However the former are the very latest in commercial architecture, while the latter are ruins, the final form of the same thing, only deteriorated and fallen to pieces. And so the protagonist Ventura roams like Ulysses between these extremes. Ventura, who seems to harmonize with the jet black darkness of the slums, becomes in the white space of the brand-new apartments like a hideously marooned fossil bereft of anything he can rely on. Even though the weather is fine, beneath the disturbingly blackish sky the newly constructed apartments seem to be brutally white.

The viewer recognizes that the sight of the ruins becomes strangely more and more brilliant, even though they are immersed in desperate blockage and stagnation, and should seem hopelessly abandoned. What we are looking at are contemporary ruins which have risen to the same level as their “officially recognized” counterparts such as Roman or Romanesque, or perhaps they are elevated even above that standard. The idea of architecture only becoming architecture when it first falls to ruin was expressed by architect Louis Kahn. According to Kahn while buildings are being used by people and within society, their architectural nature is hidden and not manifested, and it is only when humans stop using them and abandon them, that for the first time intrinsic architecture is exposed to our sight. To say it in another way, the time when buildings first begin breathing energetically will be when humans become extinct and within Pedro Costa’s movies every shot is bound to this world of departed spirits.
Abridged from a translation by Jeremy Harley

Download programme notes here