S K Y L I N E | Tending the Garden
With Lesley Lokko, Khaleel Seivwright, Jean-Louis Cohen, Cynthia Tobar, and more
Issue 114. If you like what you see, subscribe to read us in print, too.
Earlier this month, Toronto’s Hot Docs Festival (“the largest documentary festival in North America,” according to Google) celebrated its thirtieth year running. The 2023 edition showcased a mind-boggling 308 live screenings and 235 live filmmaker panels over eleven days. Although I have lived in Toronto for about half of the festival’s lifespan, this was my first time attending. Perhaps equally reprehensible is the fact that this was one of my first experiences seeing a documentary on a screen as big as the one at Ted Rogers Cinema. (Built in 1940 to house the Midtown Theatre, the movie hall is the primary home of the festival and seats 650.)
To my mind, the most affecting documentary was Someone Lives Here, about Toronto’s intensifying homelessness crisis. The film centers on carpenter KHALEEL SEIVWRIGHT and his efforts to build “tiny shelters” for the local at-risk population. During a Q&A director ZACK RUSSELL, Seivwright, and a former Trinity Bellwoods encampment resident who features in the doc and goes by the name BABIE spoke insightfully and at times emotionally about the direness of the situation. In a more positive vein, Seivwright recalled the Tiny Shelter project’s ability to catalyze community. “It was like a whole ecosystem. It was like this garden and all these plants were working together. And it was just thriving, and that was amazing…. And then the city comes in being the ‘good farmer’ and goes ‘Oh, those look like weeds. We need to take those out.’” The city sued him, claiming that the self-built structures posed a danger to their occupants.
In a subsequent conversation with NYRA, Russell expressed his joy at seeing familiar faces at the premiere and engaging with them from on-stage. “The people in this film are collaborators. And I made this film with the support of a community. And so, the idea they wouldn’t be at a screening doesn’t make sense to me.”
Hot Docs happened to coincide with a slew of film premieres, also covered in this edition of SKYLINE. None are explicitly about architecture; instead, they are all about people, or more specifically, people’s stories as they inhabit landscapes, tend to landscapes (as in the short film Dear Granddaughter), are oppressed by landscapes (as in Bowery and Mujeres Atrevidas).
We couldn’t leave talk of architecture completely out of this week’s newsletter. Buildings make an appearance in a notice about the attempts to save a notable Wallace K. Harrison design in Princeton, New Jersey. And because we aren’t living under a rock, we have solicited a dispatch from day one of the Venice Architecture Biennale. You’ll find it just above the event listings.
— Sebastián López Cardozo
5/11: Climate Is a Mother
CAMBRIDGE — “If my eyes shut, you can assume these trees will dry up one by one,” says an elderly farmer in the short film, Dear Granddaughter: Tales of Drought from Syria, which premiered last week at MIT. The words are spoken by student-director HAJAR ALRIFAI’s own grandmother, who lives in the Syrian village of Nasib. At other points in the film, she describes the changes in the land resulting from intensifying drought and laments that younger generations don’t have the knowledge to care for an increasingly vulnerable land. She also playfully deflects the camera’s gaze, asking her kin, “Are you filming the horse? Are you done filming me, then?”
Alrifai wasn’t the only filmmaker on hand; Dear Granddaughter was one of six shorts to be screened at a graduate seminar organized by HUMA GUPTA. At the panel discussion that followed the screening, Alrifai spoke about the significance of intergenerational knowledge in building resilience to climate change. But she also reflected wistfully on her grandmother that seemed to touch everyone in the room. “I almost feel like she’s part of the landscape,” she said.
— Randa Omar
5/11: Filmmaking from Below
LONDON — With Bowery, directors MIKE MINTZ and IRAD STRAUS practice filmmaking as an act of following. They trail their subjects—the homeless on the streets of New York City—through struggles with drug addiction, mental illness, secure employment, inclement weather, and eventually the events of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter uprisings.
“We kind of melted into the background,” said Mintz at Bowery’s London premiere, referring to the directors’ non-interventionist approach and the film’s organic process. “We never went with a plan because you couldn’t plan a film like this, at all, you couldn’t even plan the shots.” None of the on-screen monologues are provoked and about half of the film takes place underground. What results is a powerful depiction of life in New York’s underbelly. In this focused and intimate feature, Mintz and Straus position their camera at low angles or eye-level to make a point about spectatorship; the audience is compelled to meet the gaze of the film’s subjects, thereby dignifying them. Bowery—cinematically, politically, materially—captures the city from below.
— Melis Uğurlu
5/12: Fortune Favors the Bold
BROOKLYN NAVY YARD — “As women, we’re not just concerned with the work, but what the work is tied to,” said CYNTHIA TOBAR at the premiere of her new documentary short, Mujeres Atrevidas (Bold Women). The film is the culmination of a wider collaboration with the Worker’s Justice Project dedicated to telling the stories of migrant women organizers in New York City. Many work as domestic help or as delivery drivers; they are also parents who often care for their children on the job, owing to the prohibitive cost of child care. Many are supporting family members in their home countries. They congregate to find informal employment at La Parada (or The Stop) at the corner of Division Street and Marcy Avenue in Williamsburg. Every aspect of their life in America is dependent on community. Through organizing with the Worker’s Justice Project, a membership-based worker center with a base of more than 12,000 low-wage workers in various industries, these bold women are preparing the tools to fight for fair pay and safe working conditions, and support each other when little formal protections exist. As member YASMINE BATIZ put it in the post-screening panel discussion, “Without the workers, we are nothing.”
— Tisya Mavuram
NYRA IN THE FIELD
PRINCETON — Like many college campuses, Princeton University is seeing a building boom. In describing the frenzy, university president Christopher Eisgruber recently called it “one of the most intense periods of growth and building in Princeton’s history.”
Caught in the melee of this rapacious construction is one of the historic campus’s modern masterpieces: the Historical Studies and Social Sciences Library at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) by Wallace K. Harrison. Completed in 1965, roof leaks currently threaten the library’s usability. Now the IAS has proposed building an expensive addition on top of the library that would “destroy its architectural identity,” according to a petition authored by historian JEAN-LOUIS COHEN that went out on May 8, calling upon the administration to cease its plans.
“It’s a modest building,” Cohen told NYRA. “It’s hidden on the margins of the Princeton campus. It’s by no means a monument but it has wonderful daylight in the reading room, and other qualities worth preserving. It’s not just a building. It’s a work of architecture.” Despite its relative obscurity in relation to Harrison’s overall corpus, the library has an impressive history, Cohen added. “The building was the product of a careful decision-making process with renowned physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.”
The petition characterizes the proposed design by local New Jersey architect Kimmel Bogrette as an assemblage of “all the clichés of commercial architecture as if it were generated by a computer. It is as bulky and obtrusive as Harrison’s gem is delicate and discreet.” Cohen noted that the administration “considered that repairing the roof was too expensive and not a seductive object for fundraising,” yet in doing so, “they put together a much more expensive project, which can be sponsored.” He continued: “There is a [construction] drive fueled by big research universities today. They could use that money more systematically for students who need financial support but instead, they do things like this.”
— Dan Jonas-Roche
NYRA ON THE TOWN
CHELSEA — “Yes, starfucking was always part of the agenda at PIN-UP. We were nobody trying to fuck with the perception of celebrity in architecture,” shared PIERRE ALEXANDRE DE LOOZ backstage before moderating a panel with TIFFANY JOW of Untapped and myself last Tuesday at the School of Visual Arts. We were there as part of the year-end presentations by the 2023 graduates of the Design Research (D-Crit) Program. Tiffany and I talked about our respective publications (I am NYRA’s publisher) but before that we had asked Looz about the beginnings of PIN-UP, which he co-founded in 2006 with FELIX BURRICHTER. For their first launch party, their venue was the wing of the Villard Houses not part of the Helmsley Palace Hotel, and they hired male models (“with a little bit of stubble, bare chested, and wearing construction helmets”) to serve drinks. Launch parties remain part of the equation for small publications. The Untapped launch party back in November featured live dancing. NYRA parties are typically more laid back affairs, with some readings and rounds of German beer. But on Saturday, we tried something a little different. Our hosts at Arcana Metals in Williamsburg used their CNC machine to create a giant NYRAT and cut it into puzzle pieces. We then invited guests (spotted: New York state senator JULIA SALAZAR) to decorate the segments with paint, mod podge, and pages from other peoples’ publications. At the end of the night, we completed the three-dimensional collage, as can be seen in the photo above.
— Nicolas Kemper
NYRA ON THE OTHER TOWN
VENICE — After a long flight and a series of late trains, I arrived in Venice a little worse for the wear. This wasn’t the case for JEAN-LOUIS COHEN, who looked right at home. I spotted the historian on the Vaporetto from the Santa Lucia train station to the Arsenale, the hangarlike Kunsthall that doubles as the entrance to the eighteenth edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale. Its sprawling gallery space is complemented by programming in the Giardini, where the main exhibition is staged; the leafy surrounds also support two-dozen national pavilions (give or take), each with their own gloss on the event theme. This year, it’s Laboratory of the Future, with a spotlight on Africa and the African diaspora.
To attempt to cover the entirety of the biennale in a single day would require superhuman strength, or at least a pair of comfortable shoes. To attempt this feat during the vernissage, when curators, architects, designers, press officers, journalists, critics, and academics and students are thick on the ground, is surely misguided. Wanting to avoid this critical mass, I opted to roam the Giardini, stopping wherever I saw something interesting or people I know. As architect EMANUEL ADMASSU put it outside the US Pavilion shortly after its opening, “sometimes you just have to follow people to get a sense of where the conversation is going.”
Throughout the day, I recalled director LESLEY LOKKO’s remarks from the morning’s press conference. “All events are beginnings in some way,” she said, “but I really do think that this is the beginning of something special, but also something that has been going for a long time.” Lokko was referring to the innumerable projects on display, which, while exciting, shouldn’t be taken as representing an end point.
The first parties began breaking out in the early evening. Much later, I ran into curator CARSON CHAN, who laid out the stakes for someone new to the architecture biennale. “The challenge,” he said, “is not just curating a massive exhibition in Venice, but to curate it in what is perhaps the best architecture exhibition in itself—the city of Venice.”
— Nicolay Duque-Robayo
With the Institute for Public Architecture we are cosponsoring a symposium about the BQE, tomorrow, on Governor’s Island. It is sold out, but you can join the waitlist here.
IN THE NEWS
Enough Is Enough
On June 3rd, a province-wide protest on the unaffordability of living will be held in various locations including Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square. (blogTO)
A Race for Rent
Mismatched housing supply and demand are not the sole reason for homelessness. Private landlords also contribute to the increasing numbers of people on the streets. (Jacobin)
The McMansion Disruption
Instead of financial reform, all we get are McMansions, says Kate Wagner. (The Baffler)
Up, Up, and Aslope
At the infamous leaning tower of Lower Manhattan, a broken standpipe causes further construction setbacks. (The City)
Ukraine’s National Pavilion
After a decade of skipping the biennale, Ukraine returns to this year’s event. (Archilovers)
Congratulations Are in Order
The Royal Institute of British Architects announces the winners of its London Award—all fifty-two of them! (Archdaily)
— Cindy He
The week ahead…
The Mycelium House: From Sculpture to Tiny Home with Bill Browning, Rebecca Buntrock, Jonathan Dessi-Olive, Nico Kienzl, Omid Oliyan, & Nat Oppenheimer
6:00 PM EDT | AIA New York | Center for Architecture
Design Talk with Iwan Baan
6:30 PM EDT | 1014 | Space for Ideas
Sketches on Everlasting Plastics Book Launch with Isabelle Kirkham-Lewitt, Joanna Joseph, Meriam Soltan, Tizziana Baldenebro, Lauren Leving, Paula Volpato, Lucas Reif, Renata Graw, Stephanie Ginese, Theodossis Issaias, Ala Tannir, & Rania Ghosn
9:30 AM EDT | Columbia Books on Architecture and the City
Looking Beyond Landmarks: Celebrating That Which is Difficult to Preserve
9:00 AM EDT | Historic Districts Council
BQE 2053 Towards a Decarbonized Sustainable Multi-Modal Transportation Network with Marc Norman, Adam Paul Susaneck, Alexander Levine, Nilka Martell, Claudia Herasme, & Yonah Freemark
9:30 AM EDT | Institute for Public Architecture
Desai Chia Architecture with Katherine Chia & Arjun Desai
6:00 PM EDT | AIA New York | Center for Architecture
Designing Gender Inclusive Spaces with Lori Brown, Seb Choe, Chelina Odbert & Cynthia E. Smith
6:15 PM EDT | Cooper Hewitt
NYC’s Strategic Climate Plan with Kizzy Charles-Guzmán
9:00 AM EDT | Urban Design Forum
President’s Medal Block Party with Rosalie Genevro
5:30 PM EDT | The Architectural League of New York
Lecture with Andrés Jaque
6:30 PM PDT | University of California Los Angeles Architecture and Urban Design
Our listings are constantly being updated. Check the events page regularly for up-to-date listings and submit events through this link.
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
Write us a letter! We’d love to hear your thoughts.
New York Review of Architecture is a team effort. Our editor is Samuel Medina. Our deputy editor is Marianela D’Aprile. Our editors-at-large are Carolyn Bailey, Phillip Denny, and Alex Klimoski, and our publisher is Nicolas Kemper.
To pitch us an article or ask us a question, write to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For their support, we would like to thank the Graham Foundation and our issue sponsors, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and Thomas Phifer.
To support our contributors and receive NYRA by post, subscribe here.