Many minds are involved in the bricks that surround us. Even though buildings are often ascribed to a single author, they always embody collective aspirations. Amie Siegel’s ‘The Architects’ (2014), now on view at Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York City’s SoHo, directs our gaze to the broader site of architectural production. The film, originally commissioned by Storefront in the framework of OfficeUS, the United States pavilion at the latest Venice Architecture Biennale, offers a lens of inquiry into architecture practice and induces us to rethink what constitutes the distribution of ideas in the field.
A cinematographic journey across architectural offices in New York City, from Fifth Avenue’s corporate bureaus to Downtown and Brooklyn’s lofts and warehouses, ‘The Architects’ investigates the cultural outcomes of economical models and labour in relation to the field of architecture. Long parallel tracking shots move through the open-plan offices, offering a cross-sectional understanding of contemporary architectural firms today. As the takes track through space with no voice-over and only small conversations to be overheard, the piece lets the spaces speak for themselves. The shots never move into space or direct the gaze of the viewer forward, but proceed laterally, maintaining the image as an act of representation and an act of surveillance. The distance in the frame enables a detached and analytical perspective—instead of empathising with the architects, we empathise with the larger site of production, the configuration of objects and the physiognomy of space.
In ‘The Architects’, the cinematic device gives the capability to see what would otherwise not become apparent; it becomes body and eyes as it distantly analyses the categories of similarity and difference. While the seamless editing enables a continuous movement, a taxonomy of offices becomes soon discernible. The layouts of the offices, the rows and rows of head to head desks, the drafting tables, and meeting rooms are configured in similar ways, but the models, renderings, furniture and computers clearly materialise different practices, specialisations, values, corporate identities and power dynamics. A space filled with Macs, design furniture and clean desk policy evokes a totally different atmosphere and organisation climate than an office replete with Dells, stacks of paper and boxes.
Architecture has become a glamorised industry, which produces the built environment, the same world that is perceptible through the large windows in the back of the frame. The delicate cuts give a remarkable ability to move through the walls from the large corporate spaces to the smaller design studios, as if the viewer is rolling on a chair through the different offices. The movement is reminiscent of the mobile worker drifting through the office and raises questions about current working conditions and the territories of labour and production. However, one could wonder if the office is the only site of architectural practice. Does the office really embody a collectivity of architects today? Why think of architecture only in terms of what happens in the office and not in terms of other types of work? How to define the relationship between architecture and construction workers, policy makers, or the myriad of external organisations architecture offices collaborate with? To challenge the conventional alliance between the architect and the built environment, we should perhaps look beyond the architectural community and the office as the only site of architecture production.
Nevertheless, ‘The Architects’, obliquely referencing historical film techniques and codes, invites a mobile, operative viewer to infiltrate and rigorously analyse the objects that inhabit the frame, rather than being seduced into a predictable, over-simplified narrative.