Using film as a means of architecture criticism, acclaimed French collective Bêka & Lemoine explores how the urban environment shapes and conditions the human.
Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine are video artists, filmmakers, and producers who have been researching contemporary architecture through experimentation with cinematographic forms for a decade and a half. Throughout the years, their work has been widely exhibited, from three separate Venice Architecture Biennales to the Seoul Biennial of Architecture and Urbanism, to New York’s MoMA (the latter acquired their complete work for its permanent collection). In 2020 alone, they won at the Milano Design Film Festival and scored an Artistic Vision Award at DocAviv with their feature-length Tokyo Ride, focused on a day in the life of architect Ryue Nishizawa. Bêka & Lemoine have also guest lectured at GSD, Harvard University, and UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture, and have been guest professors at GSAPP, Columbia University, and Geneva’s HEAD. They are currently teaching at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London.
Late last year, the Venice-based duo released Homo Urbanus—a series of observational documentaries pitched as visual anthropology, “a city-matographic odyssey” surveying geographies across ten cities, from Bogotá to Tokyo. Strelka Mag contributor Vlad Ilkevich spoke with the multi-hyphenate filmmakers to get to the heart of what makes us human, and to talk film as ethnography, children as placemakers, and keeping the eye on the present as a key to the future.
Instinctive approach to cities
Vlad Ilkevich: What are the main questions that Homo Urbanus as a project is raising about cities and people that inhabit cities? What are the main thinking points for you?
Louise Lemoine: That’s a wide question, let’s say. It’s not an experimental form of filmmaking, but it’s a sort of rather fragmented structure in terms of narration. And the way we build these films is actually made through a process of sort of free association of several themes and topics that we are interested in. But we keep certain freedom in the way we associate them. And so the way we conceive them in terms of preparation is less about writing a rational script. We build up a sort of graphical script, which is based on connectivity between themes and topics that are related—essentially as political or human or sociological questions linked to the way that we live in cities. And so there’s a sort of generic questioning that relates to how the idea or the figure of the Homo Urbanus is understood globally. And then each time we go in a city, this graphic shrinks or evolves differently because of the local situation. And so if you want, it’s a really wide and sort of endless questioning regarding how much we, as a human dweller, are influenced, determined, shaped under the influence of the environment in which we live—be it climatic, be it topological, be it social, be it economic, be it historical, etc.
There are many, many factors that influence, obviously, and shape our cultural understanding of what living in the city and living together is. This theme is not born as an academic project. And that’s quite important for us at least, because even if now there is an academic extension to it because we teach at the AA in London and the subject of the course is very much linked to these projects, it was really born as a purely cinematographic, intuitive, and instinctive approach to cities, questioning our conditions of Homo Urbanus.
So that is following a bit a certain school of filmmaking, which can be related in a certain way to Jean Rouch in the 1960s in France. And Jean Rouch once said that “ethnography has to be filmed before being theorized.” If you want, these films are very much in this mood, in the sense that they are made in an incredibly instinctive, very intuitive way. We use the cultural difference, the curiosity one has towards the concept of the other in order to be open in the maximum way to understand the little displacement of how culture relates to the urban environment. And so that’s why it implies, in a real production way, the fact that we stay within a rather short time; these films are not produced out of years and years of study of local condition, but are much more done extremely fast—like in two weeks, 20 days—in a very intense relation to a place, gathering these moments of surprise, moments of awe, of real curiosity towards what you don’t know.
Ila Bêka: I would just add that even if we make ten films on ten cities, the topic of this work is not really each city but is kind of the Big City on the scale of the world, because we’re interested in the relationship between human beings and the urban environment in general. Obviously, every film is made in a particular city, but in a way, we are filming the behavior of people in the space, in the urban space. In all kinds of cities, everything is different because of climate and culture but we can find the always-the-same relationship that we have with the urban environment. And when we go into detail in this kind of relationship, we can understand a lot about the normal balance in general.
On vulnerability and empathy
VI: You mentioned how you always try to seek this point of connection between different cities. Even out of these ten—what unites all these cities in your artistic lens? Any specific items or specific features that the cities across the world have in common?
LL: There are several topics. Let’s say that we also defend certain freedom in identifying subjects which we are really interested in, and one is the vulnerability of human beings. We are very interested in understanding that the city as a pure artifact—as a purely artificial environment that we as human beings have built for ourselves that we obviously inherit from the past and preceding generations—is an environment in which people struggle to live in. And it’s rare to find a peaceful environment, an environment which is totally serene for people.
And so, we always focus or we always give certain attention to how to observe the struggle, be it generational, for instance—we are very interested in observing the elder generations. It’s a question of a theme, but also treated in a very physical way. We are extremely interested to understand how physically you can read and understand this struggle. So that’s why also we have a certain way of filming which is very sensorial, very physical, very close to people in order to really let you understand—not as an article with data in a purely conceptual way; we really want the spectator to feel that difficulty with very small-scale little events: you follow an old man in the subway of Tokyo or you follow people in a physical struggle in some areas of cities everywhere in the world, and that allows you—thanks to the proximity—to feel empathy and identification with the people who are in this difficulty and you perceive it in a stronger way than just reading data of how our cities are aging and dealing with those issues of elder generations.
IB: It’s also a different concept of time because I think in the city, the concept of time is completely different than in a village or even in nature. The modern city has accelerated a lot the rhythm of the life of people because we have a function, we have to be very efficient. When we live in a big city, we think just about our life, how to be more efficient, and how to take advantage of the city. So we don’t have time to stay for a while and watch what is happening to other people. The modern city is a selfish way of living. So we don’t see how other people struggle, we see how we struggle ourselves. We don’t see that for the others over time—we don’t take time for it. So we wanted to just stay for a little bit more, just observing the others. If you think about it, we built the city just for being better off and not in the danger of nature—and in the end, we struggle much more because the city is just conceived for this kind of efficacy, economic efficiency...
Those who are around twenty years old, all the way to forty-five or fifty, can thrive in cities—but those outside of that age group struggle much more. So the city is not a place for children, it is not a place where kids are in the best world. So we made a film in St. Petersburg. What was very funny was seeing how St. Petersburg, during the winter with the snow and the ice, changed into a sort of playground for children. This was very interesting for us because we are always trying to see the city through the eyes of children. And in St. Petersburg, it was very interesting because whether there’s a place for children or there’s no place for them, they can still appropriate space for themselves because of the snow. Watching children in St. Petersburg, in Tokyo, which is a very safe city so kids can play on the street, and in Bogota, where it’s very dangerous, you start to understand something about what childhood is in the urban environment.
On the pandemic and the struggle for control of public space
VI: What has the current pandemic made you realize about the city and the nature of the city? How did it update your perspective on it?
IB: Making this film, we noticed that there’s a tendency for cities to go in a direction of much more order. And so there are some cities—I’m thinking about Seoul or Bogota—where there are some neighborhoods that resist. And even in Shanghai, there are some neighborhoods that resist the order that is asked by those in power, and the city is going in a direction where the system doesn’t want to have life on the street, in the public space because this is dangerous, because you cannot control it. So everything is controlled by the city, by the architecture, so as to have a sort of urban landscape that is very safe for those in power. And I think the pandemic is a fantastic opportunity for the system, for those in power to go even further in that direction. So this is the big danger, if in six months or one year we will come back to the situation we had before; we have to be very careful of these little changes that we are having now.
LL: And we may never go back!
IB: Now we have to put on a mask, we have to keep our distance from others because of a fear of the virus. And maybe what is very interesting for people in power is that we can have this kind of fear all the time—to control the people more and to control public space. Because when you have 50,000 people going out in the square and asking for new rights, it is a big danger for the system. So if you have in your hands an opportunity to avoid this kind of manifestation, that, as you imagine, is fantastic. You say “don’t go because there’s another virus!” and no one goes. And it’s not the same on the internet because the internet is incredibly easy to control because I just cut your connection, and you’re out! But on the street, I can’t cut your connection, I have to beat you up—and we can film that—so it’s much more complicated. I think the public space is the real political space and the control of public space is something fundamental in the city.
LL: And the fear of death is obviously the best tool to manipulate or to control the society.
A Laboratory for Sensitive Observers
VI: You mentioned your work at the AA. Could you elaborate a bit on this, and tell how your practice outside academia informs your teaching?
LL: As I said before, we run this diploma unit at the AA. It’s a master’s program for fourth- and fifth-year students, and it’s elaborated very closely to our current probation around the Homo Urbanus, the brief of the unit is shaped around our films. But let’s say that we do not ask students to work in a similar kind of way or understanding of the same topic; we’re leaving incredible freedom to the students. It’s really a course about exploration of many things at a time, because obviously we are not in a school of cinema, it’s a school of architecture. So it’s a real journey with the students to understand the power of cinema in regards to architecture, and what cinema as media can bring in terms of language, in terms of a new—really new—way of expressing oneself as an architect, and in also understanding topics of actuality.
So the principle is to avoid general discourses, which have, in a certain way, quite a tendency to have a critical approach but remain very theoretical and stay within the school walls. So with the students, we really have a totally different approach, which is based on a really immersive dynamic of going out and mixing yourself with local situations of filming, of surveying. The title of this laboratory is “A Laboratory for Sensitive Observers.” So what we try to do is really to develop their skills of observation from very close up, and this is what we teach them from our experience. You have such a strong understanding from the experience rather than just from a rational and theoretical approach to a topic, so it’s not reading books that will let you understand deeply what a situation is about, but it’s really living it and it’s really sharing the moments, discussing, interviewing; it’s really observing.
On the illusion of objectivity
VI: Film as part of architecture criticism, as part of architecture studies—what makes it so useful and so interesting for you?
LL: I think for us it’s extremely interesting because it short-circuits the rational discourse. It’s a very powerful way to suggest rather than to explain. And I think in the architectural-theoretical world, there is a lot of discourse, there is a lot of the weight of rational thinking.
IB: People are requested to be experts, because in architecture, as in many other fields, when you have to say something, you have to be the big expert that brings the “absolute truth.” I can’t say this term, because I don’t think it exists. This is a fundamental of what we want to do: use cinema so that, if you don’t put a voiceover that explains everything you are watching, and you just feel the reality, and you just show the reality, this is much more powerful to suggest what is happening in reality; you don’t have to explain.
We have a problem with people who know everything. And obviously, what they know the best is the future. In architecture or in the city, everybody “knows” what is going to happen in the future. So there’s a lot of people coming, giving a lecture and saying “yeah, we will see this, we will have this, we have to be prepared for this,” always in the future, in a projection of the future. And we think that the best way to understand the future is just by observing the present. No one does it now because it is complicated to observe reality because you have to take the time to do it. So I think that the power of cinema is there because it’s cinema about reality.
LL: Following what Ila said, the way we understand it, it’s not cinema in itself; it’s really documentary filmmaking or observational cinema, if you want, in the sense that it creates a reversal of the hierarchy of knowledge in a certain way in the architecture world. And that’s also how we teach at the AA: it’s really to let them understand that to root your knowledge, to root your understanding of something, to be able to express yourself is through experience rather than just gathering an artificially constructed knowledge from just purely conceptual sources of information. The way we do it is sort of an act of modesty towards knowledge because learning from experience, learning from the field, and maintaining this position of the observer rather than of the theorist who knows everything, in itself is an act of modesty.
What is important for us in an architectural school environment is defending a subjective point of view, and that’s something we have always defended from the very first film. I think we are suffering so much in the architecture world that architects and theorists in architecture are so much looking for the objective status of their speech, of their concept, which is for us a total illusion. And so that’s what we try to teach students: the strength of affirming your subjective point of view, which is fully rooted in experience.
Images courtesy of Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine