Architectural Filmmaking at Catalyst 2015

YouTube users upload 300 hours of video footage every minute for more than a billion viewers. Ian Harris, co-founder and business director of Arbuckle Industries, wants more of them to feature architects and architecture. “The most powerful communication medium we have is video,” he said, “and the profession has hardly used it at all.”

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Originally trained as an architect, Harris shifted to filmmaking and teaching in 2008. Last week, he traveled to Minneapolis to lead an intensive week-long architecture filmmaking course at the School of Architecture’s Catalyst 2015: Facade. Assistant professor Andrea Johnson (Architecture), who facilitated and organized this year’s series, explained “as Catalyst is about bringing new ideas, vocabulary, and ways and methods of making within the school, filmmaking is a clear choice.”

The twelve students in Harris’s course introduced film as a medium to understand and communicate architecture. After a rundown of cinematography and editing basics, they were tasked with investigating the architecture of six historic buildings and creating narratives that shared their essence – using only their smartphones. The students split into teams to film the Guthrie, Minneapolis Central Library, Lakewood Garden Mausoleum, Mill City Museum, the American Swedish Institute, and Christ Lutheran Church. They documented their process and outtakes on a class Tumblr, then presented their films along with work from the rest of the Catalyst courses 

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The students walked away from the course with an example of an architecture film made relatively quickly with inexpensive equipment. According to Harris, these photography and video skills will help differentiate them from other job applicants. “Knowing how crunched the budgets are at many firms, someone who can design and draft and also go out and take shots of a project is very marketable.” Associate dean of research and professor Renée Cheng (Architecture) agreed. “Successful architects have always been great communicators, representing their ideas to clients, builders, and partners. Fluency in multiple media makes our students better equipped to tell their stories, develop their designs, and collaborate with others,” she said.

Harris believes that video also has potential to change public perceptions of architecture. “The profession needs to engage the public – in most industries, the user and maker are coming together. Connecting the designer to the user is obvious in residential architecture, but it needs to be happening at larger-scale projects.” Citing AIA’s I Look Up campaign, he emphasized that how architects showcase and tell the stories behind their work will be essential to building value around their profession. And he knows first-hand that video can expand the designer’s own perspective: “in the process of trying to film it, you develop a completely different relationship with the space.”

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