We don't see Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura until the last 20 minutes of Reconversão, the new documentary by L.A. filmmaker Thom Andersen. But the build-up to the interview is a visual assemblage of Souto de Moura's built and un-built work -- some of it still functioning and some of it abandoned -- through Andersen's sympathetic lens.
"Most films about architecture present buildings as art objects," says Andersen, who is known for the now-iconic L.A. documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, about how the city is portrayed on film. "Like Ken Burns' film on Frank Loyd Wright, for example. You could watch that film and you wouldn't know that the Larkin building no longer exists. The building is shown as an ideal, eternal form. I wanted to show the real life of the buildings."
Eduardo Souto de Moura was the 2011 winner of the Pritzker prize -- architecture's highest honor. He's fascinated by architecture's problems and conflicts, and enthralled by it's unintended after effects. Case in point, his Carandá Cultural Market in Braga, Portugal (featured in the film) opened in 1984 with much fanfare, but, because of developments that grew up around it and cut it off from the surrounding city, it became an abandoned shell inhabited by criminals and addicts.
City leaders ordered the roof to be torn off the building, leaving only the foundation, vendor counters and columns (with their craggy threads of reinforcing steel remaining). Now, in its current "afterlife" -- although the building is still roof-less -- it's an even more successful public place despite its ruination and deviation from its original, intended use. Souto de Moura relishes these unexpected results. It's what makes him an anomaly in contemporary architecture as well as one of architecture's most thoughtful creators.
Relics and ruins are re-occurring themes in Souto de Moura's work and in Reconversão. Late in the film, Souto de Moura explains that he's not fetishizing the half-crumbling granite walls, foundations and buildings in which he finds the raw matter that inspires much of his work -- he says he's "using" the ruin, as opposed to romanticizing it. Andersen likes to talk about that line in his film, and he paraphrases Souto de Moura: "The ruin is like a living thing that changes, something not necessarily to be preserved, but something that can be built upon. We wanted to title the film Ruińa, which is Portuguese for ruin, but there was already a film with that title."
Andersen extracts meaning from the ruins of Los Angeles in much the same way, turning his lens towards derelict billboards, signage and some of L.A.'s most roughed-up, forgotten buildings, most notably in his film Get Out of the Car (2010), and also in earlier films like Olivia's Place (1966), in which he documents the final moments of a Santa Monica diner -- apparently the diner inspired The Doors' song "Soul Kitchen." "The difference between Porto and Los Angeles," he says "is that there isn't a compulsion to tear these things down immediately in Porto. In Porto, everywhere you look you see ruins of buildings. There's always a question of what can be done with these buildings."
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Andersen's and Souto de Moura's mutual allegiances and sympathies became apparent to them both almost upon meeting. "When we met, I felt like I had known him all my life," Andersen plainly adds, "He's a generous person, he thinks a lot about what he's doing and he's sincere about what he's doing - he's unpretentious. If you look at the books around his office, he could be a philosopher. And we like a lot of the same music."
Reconversão looks unconventional in a totally intentional way that communicates Andersen's respect for the architect's work. By animating still photos of the buildings, Andersen simultaneously alters the structure of timing in the film and circumvents the passage of time required to appreciate some of the buildings. The process is also a nod to architecture as a time based art, and specifically to the hyper-temporal nature of Souto de Moura's work. Andersen says of the process he uses, "It's a way to control time through the image. I quote Aldo Rossi in the film -- he's written that 'Architecture is always battling time.'" Andersen laughs, and adds about his own battles, "It would've been better if each shot was a day long, but in just two weeks of shooting, there were constraints on us."
Reconversão screens Monday, Nov. 19 at REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd Street, dwntwn. 8:30 p.m.; $10, $8 students. (213) 237-2800, redcat.org.