Architecture on Film: In Comparison / The Creators of Shopping Worlds

Thursday 30 September 2010 6.15pm

A pair of films examining architecture from the building block to mind control from esteemed filmmaker Harun Farocki, whose work - situated in a unique space between fine art and film in practice - produces visual essays equal parts poetry and politics. We are delighted to bring Farocki's work back to the UK, following his Tate Modern retrospective and Raven Row exhibition of 2009.

In Comparison

A closely observed survey of brick manufacture around the world, quietly documenting the creation of these most fundamental of building components - of structures and the societies that inhabit them - and, in the process, creating an incisive and resonant global cultural portrait. 

Austria/Germany 2009, Dir. Harun Farocki, 61 min.

The Creators of Shopping Worlds

A collage of interviews with the planners, architects, consultants, visual researchers and others who work behind the scenes to create tightly controlled retail experiences; illuminating the psychology and choreography of control and seduction latent in the architecture of consumption.

Germany 2001, Dir. Harun Farocki, 75 min.

Programme Notes by Andres Lepik

Curator, Architecture & Design Department, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Both of these films by Harun Farocki observe processes leading to the realisation of architecture; the architects themselves, however, feature merely in supporting roles or not at all. In the first instance, In Comparison shows different methods of brick production and manufacture, whilst in the second, The Creators of Shopping Worlds observes the professional discussions of shopping centre developers. As documentaries, these two films do not adopt an obvious position regarding the actions and outcomes of these processes but instead articulate critical questions on the role of architecture within them, by means of composing specific image sequences, selecting acute focal points and focussing on singular gestures.

In Comparison presents the brick as a global metaphor for human interaction in the process of building, and final built results. The film starts off in Gando, Burkina Faso – a village in one of the world’s poorest countries. The bricks for a small hospital building are being manufactured communally by the village community, simply through the use of hands and feet. Men, women and children talk and laugh together throughout the process, with every single brick passed through numerous hands within the community; modelled, dried and, in the course of time, combined together to form a wall. In this country, with its scarce resources of fossil fuels and an economy where agriculture still prevails, human labour remains the most economic and accessible source of energy. Through the medium of a basic material, earth, In Comparison introduces a transformative process arising entirely from social community and local environment, demonstrating the fundamental roots of a building process anchored in human society.

Leading us through different countries around the world, the film witnesses the increasingly rationalised and mechanised processes of brick production in the more economically advanced countries. Machinery starts to dominate the screen: first trucks and then cement mixers indicate how, step by step, the initially immediate relationship between person, place, building materials and construction becomes more and more disconnected throughout every stage of the civilisation process. Around half way through the film, this evolution reaches its climax in images of a brand new German brick manufacturing facility’s fully automised production processes. The only person still in the picture is a blue-collar worker sitting cross-armed at a computer surrounded by machinery. During the whole process, a human never touches the basic material, earth, nor the actual product, the brick.

The path presented here is irreversible, because the wealth of the highly developed countries depends precisely on these automated processes. But conversely, do these methods have to be adopted by countries based on completely different economic and social conditions? Even in the 1950s, the Egyptian Hassan Fahty attempted to improve local building methods to oppose the increasing internationalisation of architecture and its advancement of industrial production processes, whilst attempting to preserve the economic livelihoods of local craftsmen. But the triumph of steel, glass, concrete and modern building materials was impossible to stop – and thus ideas of the obsolesence of local traditions spread further.

But perhaps there remain opportunities today to re-examine local traditions and materials and to revive them with new perspectives, in countries where in the near future the general economic situation is unlikely to undergo considerable change. Significant examples of these efforts are given in the second half of the film. The experiments of Anupama Kundoo for example with buildings that double as a kiln, erected from unbaked clay bricks, serve a dual purpose: the building becomes a stable structure, whilst the bricks baked during the process can be sold to finance the project. Francis Kérés’ buildings of unbaked clay bricks are made stronger and more durable by means of a simple man-powered machine. In these examples there is a glimmer of hope that a new generation of architects might be able to develop new model solutions for those sections of society that have no access to highly industrialised construction.

The Creators of Shopping Worlds, on the other hand, paints a dark picture of the prospective role of architecture in society. In this case we ourselves, as members of the economically advanced world, are presented as lab rats volunteering to participate in an experimental situation established by developers, investors, interior designers and marketing professionals to maximise consumerism. The conversations in the film reduce architecture to the provision of a built structure for a huge amount of people, designed to deliver the highest possible sales figures per square metre. The overall architectural form is embedded with different thematically coded surfaces, its elements informed by a minutely predetermined interior design strategy to ensure that visitors experience both spaces of temporary relaxation and continuous tantalization by consumerist stimuli. Here, everything defined as ’public space’ outside the designated shopping areas is subject to overall design diktats which every shopkeeper must comply to.

Every customer enhances the further perfection of this precisely calculated experiment in shopping machinery, with their behaviour aggregated, analysed and evaluated. Fierce discussions about the perfect positioning of bread on the shelves of a supermarket show the the extent of this totalitarian control, as with tragi-comic effect we watch experts and theories grind to a halt in front of a model shelf. These developers do not regard architecture as a life-enhancing cultural activity for contemporary societies – or even as a contribution to future societies – a perspective that becomes particularly transparent in the film’s final scene, observing a jury session for a competition for a German shopping centre.

In this context, architecture and design are shown as sevices that can be acquired by the owners of capital, to ensure that capital multiplies further. The tragic message of the film lies precisely in the substantive interference of biased interests in urban planning, and the impact such shopping centres have on the social and economic minutiae of cities. It becomes clear that even politics are shaped by these decisions to concede a city’s cultural frabric and complexities to the power of investors.

Translated by Petra Funk

Download programme notes here