Architecture and Design Films at YBCA

If all architecture is shelter, what is it that we’re really trying to keep safe? The soul of civilization? That does seem vulnerable, and precious, in Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ second annual, monthlong Architecture & Design Films Showcase.

[jump] Take the Dutch documentary The New Rijksmuseum, showing tomorrow and Sunday, as a prime example. Oeke Hoogendijk’s highly absorbing film reveals how art institutions do and don’t work. Hoogendijk probes the decade-long renovation of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, an institution as renowned for its world-class collection of famous paintings as for the very Dutch-seeming bikeway that proudly yet pragmatically runs right through its belly. So of course any architectural adjustments would necessarily involve some intense negotiations with the cyclists union, not to mention the aesthetics commission, and just about any other agent of cultural bureaucracy you might imagine. Come to think of it, this sharply studied political morass of ego, entitlement, and maddening administrative politesse is not unlike the scene of your average masterful Rembrandt tableau. No shortage of drama, in other words. For instance: As the project drags on, the museum director quits, and moves to Vienna. “There’s more to life than museums,” he says. “Starting the biggest project of your life and walking out on it, that can’t feel very good,” someone else says. Though it actually observes people falling asleep in meetings, the film itself is not boring. Hoogendijk honors the art-historical legacy of the place without getting bogged down by it — indeed, her occasional gliding arial views of the handsome fog-shrouded building do a crack job of counterpointing gravity with buoyancy.

That balance is par for the course of YBCA’s series, which seems to draw inspiration from widely divergent aesthetic expressions of urbanity and community. Architecture and design being many things to many people doesn’t mean being impersonal. Dubbed “a film about creativity in the digital age,” Made You Look gathers UK-based practitioners of letterpress, paper-cutout, and other forms of hand-made illustration for a kind of collective advocacy on behalf of artful tactility. Allowing that cultural and personal nostalgia factors into their work, these graphic artists, like other artists in this series’ other films, tend to celebrate the freedom of expression enjoyed by children. Whether it’s a doodle or a couch-cushion fort, there seems to be a loose consensus on certain basics that are worth getting back to. Microtopia, meanwhile, looks at what’s described by one architect as an increasingly common impulse to “live more lightly” — be it in a repurposed shipping container, a tree-hanging tent, an inflatable sleeping bag dress, or an Internet-enabled cave. Political proactivity also is implied by other series titles such as Maker, Making Space, and Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art.

A muted, soulful musing on the upshot of class stratification, Andrea Zimmerman’s Estate, a Reverie sensitively introduces the diverse residents of a gradually depopulated London public housing project. When one of them expresses wariness of hipsters who come through to photograph the place and commodify its edgy appeal, it’s not hard to wonder if the DIY whippersnappers seen elsewhere in this series might themselves be guilty of that. For that matter, it’s not hard to wonder whether poverty, displacement, and community abrasion will only be made worse by a new world order of wifi in caves.

But of course the world is what we make of it, and that can be heartening, too. Marco Orsini’s Gray Matters, which opened the series last night and plays again this Sunday afternoon, keenly surveys the seven-decade career of modernist nonconformist furniture designer and architect Eileen Gray. In a film full of visually striking moments, perhaps the most definitive occurs within a comparison between old photos of Gray’s family homestead, from before and after a steroidal renovation that replaced self-evident cozy simplicity with Victorian overkill. It’s fascinating to consider how that grandiose architectural gesture, and a yearning to rectify it, might have inspired an entire creative life.

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