INTerview: John Szot

The area that exists between film and architecture houses a powerful, multidimensional idea. It's inevitable that a line would exist between the two subjects, but when individuals start to blur the lines between the two fields and create a new topic, something profound starts happening. We have been following the work of John Szot for many years and his work has been one of our biggest inspirations. John Szot recently finished his film series, Architecture and the Unspeakable, which is a triptych of films, produced by Brooklyn Digital Foundry, which explores architectural concepts while using cinematic techniques. The film series is revolutionary in the ways that the architecture is depicted and more importantly, explored. Interiors had a chance to catch up with him about his work and hear his thoughts about these explorations.


INT: In many of your projects, you question our preconceived notions, whether it be about graffiti and the graphic representation of a project or with the film series, Architecture and the Unspeakable. Is this something you've always been interested in or has that developed over time?

JS: Breaking down barriers is either the by-product of innovative thinking or a narcissistic act of self-conscious rebellion. I'm hoping to fall into the former category, but the historians and curators will ultimately decide.

INT: The film series, Architecture and the Unspeakable, is brilliant in the ways that it not only depicts three separate projects, but it does so in three different cinematic styles (abstraction, infomercial and music video). Did the three contrasting styles develop organically from the aesthetic of the architecture or was that something that came later?

JS: The video 'tropes' in each case developed organically with the projects as we delved deeper and deeper into the designs. They're meant to reinforce some aspect of the project they showcase. 

For example, the Shibuya segment became a sales pitch out of the realization that the tower's design was inspired and guided by a premeditated act of mistranslation. Shibuya's idiosyncrasy can be traced to the rationality of its Edo-era planning, but the impression it makes on visitors reinforces Tokyo's reputation as a hyperactive metropolis. While this reading is accurate in the sense that the contextual sensitivity that originally informed Shibuya's layout has been eclipsed by the city's growth, it is not a reading that recognizes the conservative reality of the city's attempt to preserve its heritage. Even that interpretation is not wholly true; it might simply be out of convenience that the lots and roads haven't changed much in over 900 years. Regardless, we prefer the aesthetic reading that casts Shibuya as a manifestation of unbridled urban ambition since it pairs properly with the exciting intensity of its bristling buildings and complex streetscapes. With that in mind, we wrote a sales pitch for the tower in English and sent it to a Tokyo-based team of real estate marketers to translate it to Japanese, granting them license to embellish as needed to get the ideas into common parlance. Then, as a reflection of the reading described previously, we had a different team of language experts transpose the Japanese text back to English - that is, the words were interpreted at the literal level and no effort was made to bridge any cultural differences in the idioms and word choices. As a result, the subtitles occupy a similar conceptual position to the tower: both are consciously distorted interpretations of a common cultural context. 

It's worth mentioning that this kind of manifold expression is only possible in filmmaking. Cinematic material provides a unique opportunity to embellish the conceptual ambitions of architectural proposal without repeating the mistakes of postmodernism - that is, obligating the product of one's efforts (e.g. the building) to make impotent rhetorical statements through its form or material makeup. 


INT: The Detroit piece (music video) in Architecture and the Unspeakable is so unique and I had remembered you mentioning in an interview that you had done music videos in the past. I'm just curious if you see that as a potential new form of representation for architectural projects?

JS: I do, but first it's important to recognize that the music video format is not new to architecture. Of course I believe video in general presents great potential for communicating architectural ideas (music videos being one manifestation of such work). More importantly, I think our recent work has demonstrated that video is a lens through which an architectural subject can be studied in unparalleled detail and in such a way that the conceptual vehicles of filmmaking can shed light on its development.

That said, we ran a risk doing a music video for the Detroit segment because the bulk of architectural video work in circulation is executed in such a mode, and usually with a near-pornographic level of bombast and fetish. As a result, there is a conspicuous lack of interest in animated work in critical forums. Hindsight suggests it might have been best to distance ourselves from that association by going another route, as some notable architectural film festivals turned our video down simply because it's an animated feature, despite their unrestricted submissions policies. 




INT: The three pieces in Architecture and the Unspeakable are all presented very clearly and all feel like a distinct setting. Have you ever considered using these settings as a potential film setting with characters and a narrative, or do you see the physical architecture as the character telling the story?

JS: For this feature, I preferred the suggestion of occupation and use made via subtle details. In part because using human subjects presented a whole new technical level of complexity to the production, but also because the subject (the building) benefits from some degree of anthropomorphic transference without a person in the frame to steal the show.

Of late, we've been talking a lot about the use of video to develop architecture proposals; characters and plot lines would be a digression into serious storytelling, so it's not currently on our radar, but that isn't to say it won't be part of our future...

INT: There are some work you've done, which lend itself to a larger discussion about cinema. Do you see film in the same way as you do your work?  Who are some of your inspirations in the film and art worlds, if any?

JS: Despite my enthusiasm for film, I find most of my inspiration lately coming from literature and sculpture. Literature provides a richer sense of human insight being so explicit, and sculpture has more to offer in terms of formal, material, and spatial precedent. J. G. Ballard's work is remarkable in its imaginative reach and nonchalant handling of lurid subjects, which I find refreshing. In terms of sculpture, the work of Lee Bae and Michael Johansson bring compelling visions for surface and scale to light; pictures of their work hang prominently in the studio in hopes that some of its brilliance will take root in our projects.

INT: You had mentioned that the film series that you created was trying to highlight the social interactions and moments that a building contains. You were trying to emphasize that certain aspects of a project need to be represented by a film. In our current climate, everything has become digital and virtual that it almost feels like a shift is inevitable. Do you feel that you've only scratched the surface in terms of how film can be used in the field of architecture?

JS: This is an excellent question - and I'm comfortable stating that I'm not certain. I will say though that video is already a common medium for personal expression, which suggests to me that, in the future, the ability to make an emotional connection with one's audience via some directorial experience may be the competitive edge that distinguishes one from one's competition in any industry.

Our experience doing Architecture and the Unspeakable has been enlightening, but we're already pivoting to our next building proposal, and while video is certain to play a role, we're not explicitly looking to re-invent that role. It is our hope that our video work will spark conversations about bringing the projects it features into reality, but if it also inspires others to forge careers from examining film and its potential in the service of architectural practice, so much the better. 

John Szot is an award-winning architect in New York City, whose studio focuses on the relationship between technology and the locus of meaning in the built environment. Please visit his website for more of his work.