Architecture on Film: Torre David + Occupying Brazil + Mumbai + Gran Horizonte + Q&A

Thurs 10 July 2014, 7pm

  • Still from the Torre David © Daniel Schwartz / U-TT & ETH
  • Still from Torre David © Daniel Schwartz / U-TT & ETH
  • Still from Torre David © Daniel Schwartz / U-TT & ETH
  • Still from the documentary Occupying Brazil © Daniel A. Rubio
  • Still from the documentary Occupying Brazil © Daniel A. Rubio

Architecture on Film continues its investigation of post-production strategies in the contemporary built environment, through a look at informal strategies of design and action around the world, focusing upon the films of interdisciplinary design studio Urban-Think Tank and a report from Chilean filmmaker Daniel Rubio.

The screening will open with a pair of short documentary films exploring the context in South America, where critical social and economic circumstances have sparked the rise of self-initiated and semi-legal adaptations of abandoned buildings – led not by architects, but amateur builders from some of the poorest urban communities. Following these films, the lens will turn to Mumbai for a visual exploration of parallel urban pressures in India.

Closing the screening, a cinematic meditation upon informal living the world over, Gran Horizonte, will contextualise these local examples within a global framework.

We are delighted to be joined by Urban-Think Tank's Alfredo Brillembourg and Daniel Schwartz at the screening, who will participate in a conversation following the films chaired by Justin McGuirk, writer, critic, curator and author of Radical Cities (Verso, 2014).

This screening is kindly supported by the Embassy of Switzerland in the United Kingdom

Occupying Brazil

Brazil, 2014. Dir Daniel A. Rubio. 25 mins. In Portuguese with English subtitles. 

Chilean director Daniel A. Rubio explores the context of Sao Paulo, where the demand for affordable housing has far outstripped supply, while hundreds of abandoned buildings stand empty. Occupation in this context is both a socio-political act and a pragmatic means of accommodation and avoiding a life on the streets. Rubio's film offers an urban case study, told in the inhabitants' own words.

Torre David (UK Premiere)

Venezuela / Switzerland, 2013. Dirs Markus Kneer and Daniel Schwartz. 22 mins. In Spanish with English subtitles.

Urban-Think Tank's Torre David (2013) tells the story of the occupation of the eponymous building, a 45-story office tower in Caracas, Venezuela that was almost complete when it was abandoned following the death of its developer in 1993 and the collapse of the country's economy. Today, it is the improvised home of a community of more than 750 families, living in a self-built spaces within the building's shell, that some have called a vertical slum.

Urban-Think Tank and Justin McGuirk won the Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice Biennale for their provocative installation responding to the Torre David and telling its story – research that would also give form to a celebrated publication. We are delighted to be bringing the recently completed cinematic version of UTT's ongoing research on this widely debated tower to the screen in the UK for the first time.

Mumbai: Maximum City Under Pressure (UK Premiere)

India/Switzerland, 2013, Dir Markus Kneer, 15 mins. In various languages with English subtitles

Made in partnership with The Holcim Foundation and ETH Zürich, this short film from Urban-Think Tank provides visually captivating insights into a city that is struggling with rapid growth. Featuring interviews with experts about the role of architects and planners in humane urban development.

Gran Horizonte: Around the Day in 80 Worlds (UK Premiere)

Switzerland, 2014, Dirs Martin Andersson and Daniel Schwartz, 45 mins. In various languages with English subtitles

The latest cinematic project from the interdisciplinary design firm Urban-Think Tank offers an overview of innovative informal design strategies the world over. Structured in a dream-like dérive of a single day, and compiled from material collected by U-TT Films over the course of three years, the documentary focuses upon the construction of community, tensions and collaborations between individuals, private enterprise and government, and the activities of the seven billion informal architects continually active around the world. Asking questions rather than presenting answers, “Gran Horizonte” aims to broaden the debate about both the world in which we live and the world we could help create. With music by Juana Molina.


Trailers: Occupying Brazil + Torre David  + Gran Horizonte

Programme notes by Justin McGuirk

Writer, critic, curator and author of Radical Cities (Verso, 2014).

All architects create images. Even beyond design, they obsess over the representation of their own work. But few architects have displayed such a commitment to the moving image – if that is not too anachronistic a phrase – as Urban-Think Tank. Headed by the Venezuelan-American Alfredo Brillembourg and the Austrian Hubert Klumpner, U-TT has made filmmaking an extension of architectural practice. They have spent years documenting the phenomenon now routinely called “the informal city” – not just in Caracas, their former base, nor just in Latin America, but across the global south. The results are part documentary and part propaganda, with a dash of gonzo (when it escapes the cutting room floor).

It is clear that for U-TT film-making is an urge, an endless process that only rarely results in finished films. Gran Horizonte, their would-be magnum opus, is a sweeping work in progress about the informal city, currently more mood poem than anything else. But taken as a whole their films reflect a passionate sense of purpose about the architect’s role on a rapidly urbanising planet. And that mission begins with an awareness of the conditions in which a third of the world’s population lives. Slum dwellers build more housing every year than all the governments and developers put together. In that sense the architect’s role has shifted away from providing housing to almost anything else that constitutes a healthy urbanity, whether it’s transport, public space or sanitation. U-TT’s documentaries enjoin not just architects but politicians to wake up and smell the coffee. In their depiction of the urgency but also the vigour of the informal city, these films constitute a return of the real.

One does not have to delve deep into the annals of film history to see how the informal city has been exoticised. I think of Orson Welles invoking “those strange native settlements” – favelas – in which he sought out voodoo and the origins of samba for his unfinished film about Brazil, It’s All True. Or the ever-dancing favela-dwellers in Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus. Recent blockbusters such as Fernando Meirelles’ City of God and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire make nods to realism by taking the colour and the violence and, in the immortal words of Spinal Tap, turning them up to eleven.

If anything the films being screened tonight follow the opposite impulse, taking extraordinary phenomena and rendering them as normal, everyday life. There is nothing ordinary about Torre David, a 45-storey skyscraper in the financial district of Caracas that is now being squatted by 3,000 people. And yet the way the residents have brought this once derelict hulk to life suggests fundamental human impulses at work: home-making and community-building. It should not be possible to inhabit a skyscraper without an elevator, yet they have done it, bringing in shops and services. U-TT calls it an “urban laboratory”, and it is, but one is wary of romanticising it. Staircase after staircase – they are the silent character in this film – think of the daily grind.

Torre David is not new to the screen of course. It even featured in Homeland. But HBO’s blockbuster TV series took a predictable line on the tower, as a den of criminality and drug abuse, just another edgy location (though it was not actually shot on location.) Such perversions of reality do us no favours. Torre David may be an extreme case but, as Daniel A. Rubio’s film for Al Jazeera, Occupying Brazil demonstrates only too well, squatting is widespread and well-organised – in São Paolo it is a movement. As viewers, we are witness to the breaking and entering, which may give pause for thought, but after the cleaning up and the humble appointing and decorating, normality resumes. What is the alternative? It is life in a favela, hours away on the periphery. These are the choices faced by urban migrants in the global south, and these are the conditions that socially minded architects can choose to confront.

As one interviewee states in U-TT’s Mumbai, another 300 million people will move to cities in India over the next 30 years. There is no state housing scheme in the world that could even begin to meet that demand. Thus the informal city – the self-built city – needs to be accepted as not just inevitable but as necessary. It needs to be embraced and supported, not vilified or demolished to make way for more developers’ high rises. So-called slums such as Dharavi are dense and productive zones, countering a ruthless market logic that never fails to uproot the poor. And if films like this one can help drive that message home, then architecture has found a valuable new tool.