Saved on Film

Society's Competition Focuses on Places


Perhaps only a movie can capture the plight of the abandoned 1920s bungalows in Buffalo, N.Y., that are being torn down. In a six-minute film, a camera moves inside several of the doomed houses as workers tear them apart. Filmmaker Billy Erhard tracks across walls, peers through holes in ceilings and floors, and travels upstairs and onto roofs. Jittery home movies flash against one house's half-razed walls, accompanied by the sound of hammering. Called "Urban Disintegration," the movie highlights the complex personal histories that are often lost when structures are demolished.

Erhard's piece was one of the entries in a short-film contest hosted by the Society for Moving Images About the Built Environment (SMIBE), an all-volunteer organization that works to collect and share digital media about buildings. Founded in 2007, the Los Angeles-based group held its first annual "Story About a Place" film competition in late 2008, awarding winners this past February.

"There exists a really interesting convergence between architectural education, planning, landscape, preservation, and the moving image," says Bill Ferehawk, a founding member of SMIBE and a documentary filmmaker with a background in architecture. "We had this desire to put together an organization that had to do with storytelling—a place where [people] could talk about their interests and their work with [others] of like minds, in a more specified online environment than through a bigger Web site like YouTube."

In the spring of 2007, Ferehawk met Los Angeles-based architect Sarah Lorenzen at an architecture review at Cal Poly Pomona College of Environmental Design, where Lorenzen is also a professor. "I had an interest in starting something like SMIBE for about five years before I met Sarah," says Ferehawk. "Surprisingly, it's hard to find someone who will commit to something right away, and just as rare, someone who will commit the time to do it. We jumped right in."

Months later, the group was expanding and attracting curiosity from the California architecture and design community. After another Cal Poly review and screening of some of SMIBE's initial film entries, a number of people approached Lorenzen and Ferehawk, eager to join the governing board. (Among them were Orhan Ayyuce, an architect and editor at the online magazine Archinect, and Peter Tolkin, also a California architect. Two others now round out the six-person board: Mitchell de Jarnett, also a professor in Cal Poly Pomona's architecture department; and Juan Azulay, a professor of film and design at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, who joined SMIBE after serving on the film competition jury.)

With a name and a leadership group in place, SMIBE focuses primarily on soliciting films. There is no entry fee for the contest, so that, as Ferehawk says, "there would be no barriers to entry, and we'd get as many people submitting their work as possible.

In the 2009 contest, the organization received 90 entries from 13 countries, divided into student and general categories, all edited-down to no more than six minutes in length. Some presented a traditional view of a specific structure—a group of Hungarian students' historical and architectural celebration of the Marcel Breuer-designed Cleveland Museum of Art, for example—while others experimented with alternative spatial environments. University of Oregon student Allyson Oar's submission "Adapt,"  a co-winner, detailed life in Portland, Oregon's, Dignity Village, where the city's homeless have constructed a communal and functional living area out of tents, architectural scrap, and pieces of recycled wood. And "Story of a City: The Bazaar," visualized an open-air market as an ephemeral "micro-city," erected, used, and disassembled in the span of a day.  

SMIBE tries to collect films that touch on this notion of recording or "preserving," space visually. Indeed, several competition entries focused on abandoned, blighted, or environmentally damaged structures or areas. Andy Campbell's film "Goodbye, Sudz" chronicled the slow tearing-apart of a nondescript, brick Minneapolis commercial building—he focused on the hammers that punched through the structure's walls, the hard-hat-wearing demolition crew that tossed internal beams and wires into a pile two stories below, and the disinterested non-reactions of passing pedestrians.

To Ferehawk, each film is an analysis of a residential or commercial structure, neighborhood gathering place, rural area, or city. "This raises some interesting questions about what we preserve, and how we preserve it," he says. "Buildings can be architecturally insignificant but personally very significant; one of the things that film can do is bring these notions together."

SMIBE will open its second film competition in November.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, we incorrectly cited McMansions as the reason Buffalo's bungalows are being demolished.  

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Submitted by Pat at: April 20, 2010
I don't understand why they are being torn down. I thought that there was a need for affordable housing there? Or at least they should have sold them for a dollar so somebody could buy them and move them to a vacant lot. It is such a waste environmentally to lose them to landfills.

Submitted by Brian at: July 9, 2009
We need to somehow make historic properties exciting and desirable for the general public. How we do that is beyond me, but the first thing that comes to mind is: Education.

Submitted by Betty Barcode at: July 6, 2009
Correction from a Buffalonian: these houses are not being lost for McMansions but because of depopulation and disinvestment in our urban core. In the Buffalo area, McMansions rise only on farmland at the fringes of suburbia, far from these abandoned neighborhoods. The connection is therefore indirect: as we continue to add more housing and infrastructure to a local economy and population base that is shrinking instead of growing, urban neighborhoods pay the price.