Keeping it Reel

The best architectural films from this year’s Sundance/Slamdance

International Media
The best architectural films from this year's Sundance/Slamdance. Seen here: Dave Made a Maze. (Courtesy of the filmmakers)
The best architectural films from this year's Sundance/Slamdance. Seen here: Dave Made a Maze. (Courtesy of the filmmakers)

The annual ritual of the Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals that take place simultaneously in Park City, Utah in January have just concluded. Here’s a rundown of films where architecture and design are featured characters. Watch out for these titles as are they are released. (Note: All films were screened at Sundance, unless otherwise noted.)

Columbus is set in this Indiana town that has become a modernist architectural mecca (and is the birthplace of V.P. Mike Pence). The Cummins Engine Company, then run by J. Irwin Miller II, initiated a program where the company paid architects’ fees for public buildings in this small town (population 44,000 in the last census) if selected from a designated list, yielding buildings from architects like Eliel and Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Roche-Dinkeloo, Robert Venturi, César Pelli, Richard Meier, and Harry Weese.

A magnet for architects to visit, the plot begins when a notable Korean architect is in town to deliver a lecture, only to collapse at the Miller House (Eero Saarinen, architect; Alexander Girard, interiors; Dan Kiley, landscape) in the opening scene. A young woman, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), who grew up in Columbus and works in the library (I.M. Pei, architect), has come to love the architecture, unlike her peers, who barely seem to notice. Casey says of Columbus, “Meth and modernism are really big here” to the Korean architect’s estranged son, Jin (John Cho), who has come to be with his now-comatose father. She takes him around Columbus, often at night, to show him the architecture that moves her. She also tells him that she met architect Deborah Berke when she delivered a lecture in town—Berke designed the Columbus’s Irwin Union Bank in 2006 as well as a building for Cummins in Indianapolis in 2017—who encouraged Casey to go to the University of New Haven, audit her class at Yale (where Berke is now dean) and intern at her office in New York. Casey even quotes Jim Polshek about the healing power of the built form. In the film, architecture symbolizes hope for the future, a utopian vision. The director, Kogonada, made his name as a film critic and maker of “supercuts,” short online videos on cinema history. (See his website for “Kubrick’s One-Point Perspective,” “Auteur in Space” and “Mirrors of Bergman.”)

Abstract: The Art of Design is a new series premiering on Netflix on February 10. Each of the eight episodes focuses on a designer—Bjarke Ingels (architect), Christoph Niemann (illustrator), Es Devlin (stage designer), Ilse Crawford (interior designer), Paula Scher (graphic designer), Platon (photographer), Ralph Gilles (automobile designer) and Tinker Hatfield (Nike shoe designer)—all chosen by Scott Dadich, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. The one shown at Sundance was on Niemann and directed by Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom, Best of Enemies). The question arises: Is the designer the filmmaker? Is the film about the maker or made by him or her? By taking us inside Niemann’s head and processes with clever animation, they are clearly partners. The title “abstract” refers to taking meaning down to the essence, like Niemann’s explanations with Legos—yellow for a New York City taxi, or several configurations to explain a nuclear family from different members’ point of view, or his many New Yorker covers including one of Donald Trump in U.S. flag motif.


Slamdance presented Aerotropolis, whose title refers to an ambitious urban development project for Taoyuan, a city in northwestern Taiwan, as a major transportation hub for airplanes and ships. However, it has been a bust with an incomplete airport subway link, unaffordable luxury properties laying empty, land sold at wildly inflated prices, and thousands of displaced residents, all accompanied by conflicts of interest and corruption scandals involving government officials overseeing the project.

Allen (Yang Chia-lun) has invested all his inheritance in real estate hoping to cash in on the market bubble created by the Aerotropolis project. But his scheme is a failure as he is unable to find buyers. Although he owns a luxury property, in order to keep it pristine for potential buyers, Allen essentially lives like a homeless person, sleeping in his car and using public restrooms at the airport.

The web series Gente-fied (executive produced by America Ferrara) depicts slices of life in a gentrifying L.A. neighborhood, Boyle Heights, with stories of those struggling with (and adapting to) the changes brought by affluent people moving in and long-term, less-affluent residents facing displacement. The series tries to humanize the issues. In the first vignette, Chris has a taco shop. Mexicans won’t buy $3 tacos because they’re too expensive, while whites say the food is so authentic, it’s like they were kidnapped by a cartel. Chris is given a “Mexican” test by his cousin and elders.

Another story depicts Ana, who paints a gay-themed mural on side of bodega for the supremely pleased, new white landlord—to the horror of the staff. Her attempts to appease the shopkeeper are rebuffed, as she fears the mural will scare away her regular customers.

In the third, Pancho runs a bar. New customers want the bar to look like “Frida Kahlo threw up all over it.” The same white landlord (who owns the bodega) raises the rent repeatedly, and when the price doubles, Pancho gives up the bar and washes floors in a bodega with the mural.

In the winner of the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Screenwriting, Pop Aye, Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) is the once-praised architect of Gardenia Square, a 1990s landmark high-rise in Bangkok. Now that his boss’s son has taken over the firm and is replacing Gardenia with a sleek new skyscraper called Eternity (seen in a slick video), Thana is depressed. Now unkempt and out of place in his office, as well as an unwanted presence by his wife in his own modernist home with an interesting curved front gate and clean lines (complete with a Barcelona chair). He goes on an unexpected road trip with an elephant he believes to be from his childhood—they never forget—through the Thai countryside to his hometown where his childhood home has been sold to developers and replaced with a mundane apartment block.

Another example of sleek development is shown in the Middle East in The Workers Cup, where construction workers from India, Kenya, Ghana, Nepal, Bangladesh, and the Philippines work in Qatar to build the 2022 FIFA World Cup Stadium. We see the work camps where they live, the luxury shopping centers they have built (but cannot enter after they open to the public at 10:00 a.m.), and their arduous construction sites. We follow a group who participate in a corporate-sponsored “workers welfare” soccer tournament.

The Nile Hilton Incident, which won the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, is set against the backdrop of Cairo in the days before the Tahrir Square uprising. A wealthy real estate developer of the “New Cairo” is mistakenly accused of the murder of his mistress in the upscale—yet still seedy—hotel of the title just off the square. As we follow Noredin (Fares Fares), a cop who is corrupt but has his limits, around the new and old cityscapes—from the Sudanese immigrant community to the palatial home of the developer—it’s like watching a Graham Green novel.

The Nile Hilton Incident. (Courtesy sundanceorg/flickr)

The Nile Hilton Incident. (Courtesy sundanceorg/Flickr)

Winner of Slamdance’s Narrative Feature Audience Award was Dave Made a Maze. During a weekend when his girlfriend, Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) is away, Dave (Nick Thune) decides to build a cardboard fort in the living room; essentially, he is the architect of the maze. On her return, Annie speaks to the unseen Dave inside the maze, who tells her that he is lost inside. She calls a friend for help, who in turn calls a documentary filmmaker and other friends. When they enter, the world inside the maze is far bigger than what appears on the outside, with a seemingly unending string of puzzles and booby traps all cleverly brought to life through the use of cardboard, modest digital effects, and animation. The filmmakers assembled 30,000 square feet of cardboard to build full-scale sets for this fortress-like environment.

After losing her job and boyfriend in New York due to binge drinking, Gloria (Anne Hathaway) moves back to her hometown to discover a strange connection with a monster attacking Seoul, South Korea in Colossal. When she moves, the monster moves. The plot is motivated by the child Gloria’s model of a town: skyscraper, tower, and bridge that is blown away, and then seemingly rescued by her friend Oscar, who then destroys it. As adults, alcohol makes Gloria and Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) into monsters who can destroy this far-off city with their actions.

Berlin Syndrome portrays Australian architectural photographer Clare (Teresa Palmer), who is in Berlin shooting GDR buildings for a planned book. We see examples of her work and traverse the city with her until she meets a handsome English literature teacher, Andi (Max Riemelt), who shows her a Schrebergarten colony, miniature follies on the outskirts of the city with tiny gardens sprinkled with gnomes, windmills, and vegetation, used by middle-class Germans in the summer. He takes her back to his East German-era apartment building with central courtyard, which is largely abandoned except for him…where he then holds her hostage.

Berlin Syndrome. (Courtesy sundanceorg/flickr)

Berlin Syndrome. (Courtesy sundanceorg/Flickr)

In Rememory, Peter Dinklage plays an architectural model-maker turned sleuth.

Rememory. (Courtesy sundanceorg/Flickr)

Rememory. (Courtesy sundanceorg/Flickr)

Chasing Coral, winner of the Audience Award: U.S. Documentary and coming to Netflix, shows how coral reefs are underwater cities and skyscrapers where life can flourish. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef on the Northeast coast of Australia is called “the Manhattan of the ocean.” However, the film charts how coral reefs are being imperiled by rising temperatures to their death, first by bleaching the coral white and then disintegrating. In 2016, more than 2/3 of the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef died.

New Frontier is the Sundance section devoted to art and technology. The most interesting of the VR experiences were Heroes, Melissa Painter’s exploration of dancers in a movie palace and the historic Ace Hotel in downtown L.A., and Saschka Unseld’s Dear Angelica, which creates a drawn, magical universe where we explore loved ones who have died. Also of interest was Hue, an immersive environment of a color-blind man who we help to see color, and the installation Pleasant Places, which displayed Van Gogh’s Provence landscapes. 

Films and Projects:

Abstract: The Art of Design, Morgan Neville, director

Aerotropolis, Li Jheng-neng, director/screenwriter

Berlin Syndrome, Cate Shortland, director

Chasing Coral, Jeff Orlowski, director –

Colossal, Nacho Vigalondo, director

Columbus, Koganada, director/screenwriter

Dave Makes a Maze, Bill Watterson, director/co-screenwriter

Dear Angelica, Saschka Unseld, director

Gente-Fied, Marvin Lemus, director

Heroes, Melissa Painter, director

Hue, Nicole McDonald, KC Austin, Tay Strathairn, directors

The Nile Hilton Incident, Tarik Saleh, director

Pleasant Places, Quayola, director

Pop Aye, Kirsten Tan, director/screenwriter

Rememory, Mark Palansky, director/co-screenwriter

The Worker Cup, Adam Sobel, director

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