Since I'm married to someone who went to architecture school, our house has a bookshelf full of titles like The Poetics of Space, A Pattern Language, and How Buildings Learn. We've talked about these books at our house, or I've flipped through them, and I've even read a few.
I think of that last book when I watch the films that Pedro Costa has been shooting with a group of nonprofessional actors in Lisbon, Portugal. The first two films in the series are about an area called Fontaínhas where the people live in dark, improvised hovels, and the third film is about their move to a new apartment complex as the slums of Fontaínhas are systematically demolished.
How Buildings Learn is Stewart Brand's pictorial essay on how structures change over time to accommodate shifting needs, and the part I always think of while watching Costa's films — especially the second in the series, In Vanda's Room — is the chapter on what Brand somewhat facetiously calls "low road" architecture, buildings that were thrown up quickly without much thought or planning but that nevertheless seem comfortable and uncommonly productive, perhaps because they're not valued highly by the real estate economy. They're malleable.
Since he's a sort of entrepreneur himself, some of Brand's best examples of this form of architecture are from the world of technology, starting with the lore of Silicon Valley. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard famously started their company in a garage, as did Steves Wosniak and Jobs who came along later. Brand says that it's neither a myth nor an accident that groundbreaking businesses — Hewlett-Packard and Apple — grew out of the spaces that nobody wanted, germinating where nobody cared what messes were left. Such spaces allow a level of control and freedom that more rigid structures, because of their perceived value, don't allow.
Brand's best example of low road architecture is MIT's famed Building 20, a building that was, in his words, "constructed hastily in 1943 for the urgent development of radar and almost immediately slated for demolition... When I last saw it in 1993, it was still in use and still slated for demolition."
It wasn't perfect, but it endured. "Like most Low Road buildings," Brand writes, "Building 20 was too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, Spartan in its amenities, often dirty, and implacably ugly. Whatever was the attraction?" The people who worked in Building 20 liked it because no one else cared about it, which made it flexible, which made it theirs. What did the students and scientists who worked in the building like? "Windows that open and shut at will." "The ability to personalize your space and shape it to various purposes. If you don't like a wall, just stick your elbow through it." "One never needs to worry about injuring the architectural or artistic value of the environment." "We feel our space is really ours. We designed it, we run it."
Brand completed his book in 1994. Let me build on his timeline:
Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth, the third film in his ongoing Lisbon series — which is, for now, being labelled a "trilogy" — repeatedly makes a striking observation: the machine of commerce often values buildings more highly than both the people who live in them and the people who did the physical work to erect them. The film revolves around an elderly father figure named Ventura. In one scene, he visits a museum that he helped construct when he worked as a mason, a museum for which he was injured. He fell from a scaffold. But he'd never been inside the building after it opened, which makes Colossal Youth's museum scene something of a fantasy sequence, distinct in style from the rest of the movie, in part because it takes place in a location that Ventura isn't allowed to frequent. In the film, the floor where Ventura stands is wiped indiscreetly by an employee after Ventura steps away. The same man later puts his hands on his hips when he sees Ventura relaxing on a chaise lounge. Ventura is shown the exit.
The attitude toward Ventura and his neighbors extends beyond the hallowed walls of the museum and into their homes. When Ventura sees the studio apartment where he'll live after his place in the slums is demolished, he leans against a wall in the entryway and gazes despairingly at the space. It's a small white box. After a silent moment, he moves into the kitchen, and the agent behind him wipes the wall with the sleeve of his suit jacket.
Ventura's complaints about the apartment seem nonsensical to the agent. It's too small for all of his children. It's full of spiders. (What children? Doesn't he live alone?) But what Ventura senses in the move is a loss that he does not articulate. The new apartments are clean, but they're cold and isolating. When he chats with his daughter — one of the last people still living in the all-but-demolished slum — they take turns describing the figures that they see in the dirty walls, as if they're watching clouds. They won't be able to play this game when the walls are clean and white, they remark.
But to get a deeper sense of what's lost in the move to new apartments, you have to see the previous film, In Vanda's Room. Costa shot it in and around the eponymous home of Vanda Duarte, one of the neighborhood's hubs, and while it utilizes real people and locations, the film is not what we'd typically call a documentary. It's highly manipulated — scenes are planned and acted, lines are prepared and memorized — but it's not purely fiction, either, since the scenes draw from the actors' lives. There really is a Vanda, and the film is a reflection of her space.
At the beginning of the movie, my feeling about Fontaínhas — and about Vanda herself — was probably similar to the bureaucrats who would eventually flatten the buildings and move the residents somewhere clean, safe, bright, and sturdy. The film opens with Vanda and her younger sister Zita smoking heroin on Vanda's bed in a dimly lit room. The scene is shocking given the somewhat sanitized view of the neighborhood that we saw in the first film, Ossos (Bones). To my eyes Vanda's room looked like absolute squalor. It's a prison. The room, the neighborhood, the drugs, the poverty: prisons, all of them. And there's not a minute of this 3-hour film that lets us forget them. Furthermore, Vanda seems not only trapped but indulgent. She's hooked and lethargic, she coughs and sniffles, and she pitifully scrapes remainders of heroin from the phone book where drugs are left to dry.
That was my first impression, but it changed gradually in ways I couldn't have predicted. For example, we later discover that Vanda is, first of all, generous and that one of the things she has to offer is her space; the room I'd dismissed in an instant is actually a valuable location with a comfortable bed covered by a roof, a small oasis that Vanda occasionally offers to a neighbor in need. It comes with free sustenance and an ear willing to listen, Vanda's. The neighborhood is alive, organized by the residents who Costa shows building shelves from found timber, carrying stray doors and mattresses to places where they can be used, and making deliveries through cracks in the wall, through windows covered with blankets. It's a fascinating hive, a community that has emerged in spite of poverty, in defiance of a world that couldn't care less.
Vanda has a very realistic, matter-of-fact view of herself. In one scene she tells a young man named Nhurro that she feels they've chosen this life, in some ways, that it hasn't necessarily been forced on them. It's a frank and unexpected remark (and Nhurro, by the way, disagrees). She and Zita also fondly recall their childhood in the neighborhood, telling about a time when someone was talking badly about someone else and a chair came crashing down from above onto the speaker's head, revealing not only how long they've been living here but how physically close the neighbors are to one another.
So in the third film, when Vanda's room no longer exists and she lives in a clean box with a bed and a television, Ventura tells the relocation agent that the new complex has no room for his children, and in a sense he's right, even if he doesn't literally have any kids. In the film's opening scene, Ventura's wife throws him out of his Fontaínhas home. (Costa denies any symbolism, but this plot point is certainly a poetic echo of reality.) For the rest of the movie he attempts to reconnect with his community in the new location. He shuttles from one person to another, one room to another, but it's different in the new apartments. In the film's iconic shot, he stands outside the complex of buildings and shouts, "Vanda!" No response. He looks around and tries again — "Vanda!" — and he hears a faint reply from the grid of windows. This is a stark contrast to the bustling neighborhood at Fontaínhas, where heads poke into homes through doorways, where chairs fall on trash talkers, where passageways seem to have been preceded by footsteps — rather than the other way around — and where Vanda's room was a hub of activity instead of an isolated point in a geometric stack of rooms.
And half of the difficulty is the very need to reconnect. Even if the neighborhood were moving to an identical neighborhood with the same charms and pitfalls, the very act of moving is unsettling enough that connections are broken en route to the final location.
Redevelopment isn't unique to Lisbon, and it's not unique to this century. Look at what Robert Moses did in New York. Look at what Justin Herman did to the Fillmore district in San Francisco. The powers that be in Lisbon may believe that the new apartments are preferable to the slum — and by most obvious measures, they'd be right — but neighborhood cohesion never seems to count for very much when redevelopers are waving their arms in front of maps.
That's not to say that the residents of Fontaínhas deserved their living conditions or had no reason for complaint, nor that they have much in common with the privileged tinkerers of MIT and Silicon Valley. But in all of these cases, the people who are close to the materials in question — the walls, the floors, the history, the community — have a different sense of their environment than the outsiders with the power to level and reshape it.
The value of Costa's work, aside from its obvious aesthetic qualities, is that it takes us along on his discovery. He's an outsider, too, but he took the time to meet the people of Fontaínhas, listen to their stories, get a sense of their world, and include them in his project as collaborators, following in the footsteps of anthropologist-turned-filmmaker Jean Rouch. No mere 6-week film shoot, the production of In Vanda's Room took Costa two full years of shooting and another year of editing. Before production began he switched from traditional equipment to tiny digital cameras, from massive flood lights to mirrors that redirect natural light; in his words, these changes were a form of rebellion against the inherent disrespect that a typical film crew brought to such close quarters in the first film of the series, Bones (Ossos). It's surely no coincidence that the drugs in Bones are all offscreen — represented on-screen by a recurring motif of suicide-by-gas-oven — but they appear frequently in the second film. The two movies were shot in the same locations, but Costa's refined process seems to have lifted several layers of gauze from the lens.
So if my attitude changed by passing through Vanda's room, it's thanks to Costa's patience, the three hours he offered me, condensed from his own multi-year journey. In Vanda's Room ends with two remarkable scenes that function as Costa's final comment on Fontaínhas before he shifted his attention — along with the relocated residents — to new quarters.
Both scenes are memorable for their highly manipulated sound design. In the first, Zita is in Vanda's room as we hear the sound of demolition equipment working very nearby. Somewhere close, a backhoe is knocking against concrete, producing a rumbling and thudding that's stronger than we've heard before, as if it's just next door, as if it might come through the walls of Vanda's room at any moment. Mixed with the grinding and pounding is the voice of child. He enters the room. He's playing with a sharp piece of splintered wood. Be careful. You might hurt yourself, Zita tells him. And in this one shot we sense all of the danger of this situation, not just the boy with a stick but the machinery, the structurally unsound housing, the dens of heroin, the threat of tuburculosis, and the hospital that's described by visitors in the same terms they use to describe a prison sentence. Vanda and Zita and all of their neighbors seem to exist on the edge of destruction.
But then the final scene reminds us of the other side, not the danger and disease but the vitality. It's a still shot of an alleyway in Fontaínhas, virtually empty except for two anonymous people who walk past. On the soundtrack we hear the life of the neighborhood. It looks still, but it sounds active, as if we're listening to the lives of residents who are too busy to stand in front of a camera just now, the sound of a hive that vibrates with the unending murmur of people. If the authorities knocking down Fontaínhas saw only the former, Vanda and her neighbors know their neighborhood as the latter, and throughout Colossal Youth, we can read in Ventura's face the loss of a way of life that was eked out of the circumstances and which now, in some way, must begin again.
If Stewart Brand is right, if "low road" spaces are fertile ground for innovation, then perhaps Costa's films themselves should be counted as one of the artistic products of the space. A testy Costa recently chastised an audience member in Berkeley for implying that his films are "high art," largely inaccessible to the people who appear in them. Why do you assume that making a film is a higher art form than masonry? Costa asked. If his films show in museums and festivals instead of multiplexes, he said, it's the symptom of a skewed system, not an inherent hierarchy of work. Perhaps Costa would also object to Brand's architectural terminology, but on the underlying ideas they seem to agree.
Costa's work seems largely free of the condescending whiff that rises from the cracks of many a big city film festival, the kind generated by privileged filmmakers who deign to expose an underclass to a comparatively wealthy audience by tugging at their heartstrings and flattering their sensibilities. That's the sort of thing brilliantly skewered by Luis Bunuel's Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread), although in the 75 years since he made it, cinema has often failed to heed its lessons. In contrast to the worst of these, Costa's long-term, immersive attempt to learn and discover the lives of his collaborators doesn't cast them into a dramatic mold and doesn't provide any obvious moral reaction to their way of life. He's interested in who they are, not who they should be.
The main character in Colossal Youth is referred to only as Ventura. The man who plays him is similarly credited: Costa's favorite white-on-black, all-caps, bold, san-serif font names the Cape Verdean actor simply as "Ventura," giving him an almost mythical quality. According to All Blossoms Again, his real name is Ventura José Tavares Borges, and although he seems like the neighborhood's dignified elder, Costa told his Berkeley audience about discovering — with some surprise — that he and Ventura are about the same age, making the man on the screen both a father figure and a guide, a surrogate and an opposite. "I never pretend that I know or understand the other," Costa said. "The big ocean, black ocean between me and him is this film."
What a wonderful piece!! I've thoroughly enjoyed reading it this morning. Its full of inviting tangents of information. Straight off, I love the comparison of Ventura to Chaplin and I wish I could have confirmed this with Costa. I love that insight that Ventura is being thrown out of places like Chaplin's The Tramp.
Thanks, man. I wasn't sure I'd ever get around to posting these lingering thoughts, but the last gasp of the Costa retro last week was the nudge that brought it together in my head.
We know from your interview and from his lengthy Q&As who Costa's favorite filmmakers are, and the mention of each one seems to turn a movie like Colossal Youth — which had seemed so unique and foreign to me — around so it catches different rays. It becomes yet another unique thing. Tourneur! Straub! I don't remember if he directly compared Ventura to the Tramp, but he mentioned Chaplin several times, in several different Q&As, and in the class he taught at the Tokyo Film School (which comes to us via Rouge), he said this:
Take Chaplin, for example, the character of the Tramp. In several films, as soon as the Tramp enters a deluxe hotel or a bank, he's immediately thrown out. You see that in many of Chaplin's films: as soon as he enters, he's rejected, somebody throws him out. It's systematic, and so not by chance that he does that. This means, I believe, that he wanted to tell us that cinema belongs to the street. It was born in the street, and it stays in the street, with those who are powerless. This is not a militant position. He remains with people who need poetry and not money. He will stay with those who have feelings, and not with the bankers.
That hands-on-hips scene in the museum works like a silent movie, and it always gets a chuckle.
Great piece. I'm happy you've taken a close look at the importance of architecture to the films and to the world they present.
Thanks, Dave. I've enjoyed your pieces, too. Thanks for digging into the history of the relationship between Portugal and Cape Verde.
I missed out on the reprise, unfortunately, but this is a pretty awesome stand-in. Thanks for the link, too. The series was my cinephilic highlight of the year so far. Say, given your familiarity with Stewart Brand, are you a fan of The Clock of the Long Now?