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Architecture + Design Film Series Returns With Eight Documentaries

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Still from Ailey - COURTESY OF NEON
  • Courtesy Of Neon
  • Still from Ailey

The Burlington-based Architecture + Design Film Series, now in its ninth season, has a singular purpose for its three organizers: to share beauty with the community.

The free series consists of eight documentary films selected by architect Andrew Chardain, artist Lynda Reeves McIntyre and Vermont Eco-Floors co-owner Karen Frost. Each spends oodles of time trolling the internet for excellent films about people in architecture, design, art, landscape architecture and the occasional uncategorizable subject. But they all have one indispensable criterion.

"It has to be a beautiful film," said McIntyre, a former studio art professor at the University of Vermont. Her late husband was the Shelburne-based architect Roland Batten, after whom the university's annual lecture on architecture is named.

"Each of us watches each film separately," McIntyre said of the curation process. "Then we each give them a score of 1 to 5."

Formerly screened at the BCA Center, the roughly monthly films were streamed online in 2020. This year, the first four will again be streamed, starting on Wednesday, September 29, with Ailey. The trio will reconsider safety protocols and the possibility of restarting in-person screenings in January.

This year's lineup promises beauty in a number of areas.

Making Space: 5 Women Changing the Face of Architecture is a 2014 documentary directed by Ultan Guilfoyle. It features five female architects with successful practices around the world telling their own stories: Annabelle Selldorf, Farshid Moussavi, Odile Decq, Marianne McKenna and Kathryn Gustafson.

Running Fence, a 1977 film directed by documentary pioneers Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, documents the making of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's 24-and-a-half-mile white fabric fence in California — a project that required convincing 59 ranchers to cede access to their land.

Alvin Ailey - COURTESY OF NORMAND MAXON
  • Courtesy Of Normand Maxon
  • Alvin Ailey

Artists form the center of two more films. Roger Sherman's 1998 "American Masters: Alexander Calder" covers the ingenious sculptor's mobiles and other works. Hilma af Klint, the rediscovered Swedish artist who began making unprecedentedly large-scale, abstract paintings in 1906, is the subject of Halina Dyrschka's 2019 Beyond the Visual — Hilma af Klint.

All the films the organizers chose meet their beauty criterion, but one in particular "got a 5 in all our rankings," McIntyre said: George Nakashima: Woodworker (2020) directed by the artist's nephew, John Nakashima. At nearly two hours, the film exceeds the trio's preferred limit of 90 minutes, "but there's no frame that can be edited out," McIntyre opined.

The film is Frost's favorite.

"When I watched [George Nakashima], my reaction was: This is everything that we look for in a documentary," Frost recalled. The film follows the life of the architect and designer, who was born in Spokane, Wash., in 1905 to immigrant Japanese parents, through his architectural training and his spiritual conversion to the beauty of wood in India.

"He's someone who really works with the wood, its imperfections and its beauty, so everything has a lot of character," Frost said of Nakashima, considered a founder of the American craft movement for his furniture designs. "His search for meaning and purpose and his intentionality, in combination with his Japanese ancestry — he lived in Japan for a period — [are evident in] the home he lived in, his process, his workshop. But it's a journey. The film portrays how he learns different things over time and how it all combines into this production of wood. It's a beautiful life.

"You know how so many architects have these tragic lives?" Frost added. "Like Louis Kahn; there's a lot of that. Nakashima didn't have that."

McIntyre landed the season's opening film, Ailey (2021), directed by Jamila Wignot, after tracking its production for years. Documenting the life of the Black dancer-choreographer (1931-1989) who founded Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, it features a musical score by Daniel Bernard Roumain, the new creative chair of Burlington's Flynn.

"We've been looking for four years for a dance film that's not too long or only for dance fanatics," said McIntyre, who is also a dancer. "This film just premiered in New York in August, so [our showing] is a [Burlington] premiere." (Montpelier's Savoy Theater showed the film earlier this month.)

"Even if you don't like dance, you will be moved," McIntyre continued. "It follows Ailey's life from [being] a young boy in Texas to his life in the church to moving north with his mom to discovering dance. That became his avenue of expression. His work is rooted in ballet. 'Revelations' [choreographed by Ailey in 1959] is still one of the strongest, most powerful pieces about the Black experience.

"To me, it's one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen," McIntyre said of Ailey. "It doesn't make a god out of him; it reveals the sources of this man's creativity, his vision, as he crafted these pieces that continue to be performed."

Chardain called his top choice this year — Alumination, a 2021 film by Eric Bricker about Airstream trailers — "a little personal." That's because the architect, who works at Birdseye in Richmond, recently moved with his partner out of their house and into a 2018 Airstream.

The film traces the life of Wally Byam (1896-1962), the creator of the iconic product in the 1930s, and his vision of what the Airstream could mean to American culture. "It introduced this freedom of mobility — this ability to get out and see the world in a way you couldn't before," Chardain explained.

The film contains original footage of events that Byam organized: sightseeing tours by huge caravans of Airstreams through deserts and jungles to destinations such as Mexico City. Since then, the trailers' uses have only multiplied: Airstreams are pop-up coffee shops, mobile offices, vehicles for minimalist living and more.

"A lot of the beauty of the film really is in the design of the Airstream itself," Chardain said. "You get to see early models, mid-models, the newest ones. The old ones were so light, you could pull them with an ordinary car; these days you need a truck. People collect and refurbish old ones" — including a friend of his who recently purchased a 1969 model.

"We were able to compare old and new, and the amenities [in the old model] were nicer than the house I used to live in," Chardain noted.

The organizers had a reason for placing Alumination at the end of the film series, on April 13, Chardain said: "When you're in spring headed into summer, [we like to show] films that energize you to get out and experience adventure — maybe even revisit some of those dreams you've put on the back burner."

Architecture + Design Film Series, streaming beginning Wednesday, September 29, at adfilmseries.org. Free.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Beauty Spots"