The Secret Lives of Urban Space

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By Miyoko Ohtake / Published by Dwell
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Earlier this week, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival presented a collection of six experimental short films, grouped as The Secret Lives of Urban Space, which explored how the environments we inhabit shape the ways in which we define our lives.

The first film in the presentation, and also my favorite, was Heather Keung’s Upside Down-Downside Up, in which she filmed herself on a 14th-floor rooftop in Hong Kong doing a headstand in her underwear. After the screening Keung described the short as a study of the female body and its voluntary and involuntary actions (it’s part of a larger body of work called Bending Over Backwards), but viewing the work through the lens of architecture, it's also easy to her budy as a metaphor for large-scale architecture.

Seven minutes passed from the time Keung lifted her legs off the ground to when she finally lost balance and touched down again. In those intervening minutes you saw her nearly lose her balance twice and the shadows dance across her stomach—both of which reflected the dynamics of the buildings framing the shot. Keung's vertical orientation made her blend loosely into the cityscape, underscoring the living, breathing quality of the skyscrapers surrounding her. Her moments of faltering balance raised the idea of how buildings weaken over time, and to what degree they are vulnerable to the environment and gravity. Keung's form also made apparent why the exterior walls of buildings are called skin.

Another film that caught my attention was Nuevo Dragon City by director Sergio De La Torre. In his 12-minute short, six Chinese-Mexican teenagers barricade themselves in an abandoned corner store that has floor-to-ceiling glass. At first, they appear to simply be moving furniture but as they arrange the couches, lockers, chairs, and cabinets with doors facing outward and stack one on top of the other it becomes apparent that they’re turning opaque the transparent walls.

Apparently there is a very large "invisible" Chinese population in Tijuana, where the short was set, De La Torre said after the film. They occupy these formerly commercial spaces whose interiors, corner after corner, are hidden behind walls of furniture. "The fantasy in architecture is that through glass buildings, public and private spaces, indoors and outdoors all become one," De La Torre said. "But here it is evident that modernism as transparent buildings failed."

The other films—which included Green Dolphin and Shrivel by Oliver Husain, Suspended by Kimi Takesue, and Block B by Chris Chong—explored ideas of density, containment, and buildings, rooms, and the people inside as degrees of architectural scale that relate somewhat like babushka dolls, housed each inside the next. In describing her exploration of transparent structures, De La Torre concluded, "it's really the people who live in glass buildings who have the most to hide."