The third Architecture & Design Film Festival runs Thursday through Monday, April 12 through 16, at Music Box, with 31 films screening in 15 different programs. Tickets are $11, with packages available for $45 (five tickets) and $90 (13 tickets). Following are selected films screening; for a full schedule see adfilmfest.com.
Detroit Wild City French filmmaker Florent Tillon calls RoboCop one of his favorite movies, but his 2010 documentary owes little to Paul Verhoeven's 1987 Motor City dystopia. In place of gunfire and anomie, this ruminative video essay spotlights rebirth among the ruins. Below the elevated train in abandoned downtown Detroit, a young explorer acts as tour guide along blocks of architectural skeletons, rummaging through the artifacts left behind when businesses fled. With fewer people and cars, space for animals and agriculture has returned: urban farmers reclaim large patches of empty land, and a pheasant, goats—even a horse—find homes in backyards. How long this new Eden will last is anyone's guess, but judging by the ranks of the creative class flocking to his nightclub, owner Larry Mongo suspects that gentrification is not far away. —J.R. Jones 80 min. Fri 4/13, 5 PM, and Sat 4/14, 9:15 PM
Eames: The Architect and the Painter The married couple Charles and Ray Eames emerged as design innovators during the postwar boom and remained so for decades; their staggering output of furniture lines, toys, films, prefab houses, and exhibitions made them household names (even if talk show host Arlene Francis, in a 1957 interview with the couple, patronized Ray as the "woman behind the man"). This serviceable documentary shows how their unparalleled professional partnership was anchored by both Charles's background in architecture and Ray's training as a painter, though their commercial success owed much to the military-industrial complex (their plywood splints for injured soldiers prefigured the molded curves of the wildly popular Eames chair, and an early animation promoting IBM computers led to more corporate commissions). Filmmakers Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey deliver a nostalgic zing reminiscent of the TV drama Mad Men but tread lightly around Charles's mood swings and extramarital affairs. —Andrea Gronvall 83 min. Fri 4/13 and Sat 4/14, 7 PM
Incessant Visions The life of German architect Erich Mendelsohn was so interesting that it shines through the bland presentation of this short documentary. Inspired by avant-garde art and radical politics, Mendelsohn developed an expressionist approach to architecture between the world wars, trusting his imagination over tradition and producing fantastic, curvilinear forms that would become a major influence on art deco. Director Duki Dror emphasizes the ironies of Mendelsohn's legacy: in Tel Aviv a generation of imitators made his most unusual ideas seem banal, and his most important American assignment involved replicating traditional German homes for the U.S. Army to destroy in firebombing tests. In English and subtitled German and Hebrew. —Ben Sachs 70 min. Thu 4/12, 6 PM, and Sat 4/14, 7:15 PM
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History Completed in 1954 and demolished in 1972, the 33-building Pruitt-Igoe housing project in Saint Louis has been used to support diverse social theories—that government funding is bad; that modernist architecture fails; that poor blacks are irresponsible—all of which are debunked in this affecting documentary by Chad Freidrichs. The city's population peaked at the time the project was completed, and Saint Louis quickly emptied out as whites fled to the suburbs; as the project's maintenance funding declined, elevators stopped working and it became a crime-infested ruin (which some residents still remember with great fondness). The opening, which shows the mix of forest and rubble where the homes once stood, is especially poetic, its empty spaces later filled in for the viewer with archival footage of the project, lovely initially but gutted in its later years. —Fred Camper 83 min. Fri 4/13, 9 PM, and Mon 4/16, 7:15 PM
Unfinished Spaces This fitfully interesting documentary posits that the history of Cuba's National Schools of Art mirror the larger history of Castro's revolution. Designed in 1961, the futuristic-looking complex was intended as a shrine for imaginative thinking; however, unimaginative hard-liners in the Castro government—who deemed the architecture "nonproductive"—halted construction before the buildings could be finished. The schools deteriorated rapidly due to natural disasters and economic downturns (during which impoverished Cubans stole pieces of the buildings for scrap), but international advocacy efforts, along with the testimony of generations of art students, inspired Castro to launch an ambitious renovation project in the early 2000s. Directors Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray acknowledge both the frustrations and the enduring hope of the revolutionary generation, which results in some affectingly bittersweet moments. In English and subtitled Spanish. —Ben Sachs 86 min. Murray takes questions after each screening. Thu 4/12, 8 PM, and Sun 4/15, 7 PM