This Wednesday, August 20, 2008, the Sundance Channel will premiere Architecture School. The docudrama follows twelve students enrolled in the Design/Build Program at Tulane University's School of Architecture as they build a sustainable, design-forward home for a family returning to New Orleans.
by Liz Martin
Under the creative direction of Robert Redford, Sundance Channel is the television destination for independent-minded viewers seeking something different. To architect-turned-director Michael Selditch, Sundance seemed the ideal place to pitch the shows idea of bringing the architectural process to the screen capturing the design-build experience as seen through the student's eyes.
After positive feedback and interest from Sundance, almost two years later, co-creators Michael Selditch and Stan Bertheaud got the green light in August 2007. "Two years have passed since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and there is still an extraordinary amount of work to be done," commented Laura Michalchyshyn, Sundance Channel EVP of Programming and Creative Affairs. "This series provides a great opportunity for Sundance Channel to be part of the rebuilding process while presenting inspiring and compelling programming that spotlights sustainable design and the next generation of community planners."
First, the creative team was given 40k to pull together a 10-minute trailer to show the intent and character of the proposed reality based design/build school project. Bertheaud pitched the idea to several architecture schools throughout the country starting with the renowned Rural Studio, however, Tulane University dealing with post-Katrina New Orleans jumped at the chance to tell their story and showcase their proactive and socially-conscious architecture curriculum.
Yes, in Architecture School (and you have to love that plain-Jane title), there's a competition. But it doesn't involve a judge's panel or weekly stunt challenges. A group of, yes, Tulane University architecture students are assigned to design a low-cost house to be built in an area devastated by Hurricane Katrina; and the winning house gets built. The show walks us through the design process and workshops, explaining principles of modern affordable design along the way, as well as factoids like "shotgun house," or "stringer".
There's conflict, though not the stage managed kind─not that I have anything against the Project Runway style, but this is higher education so to speak. Rather the series accurately shows the combative discussion sessions, we've all been a part of with students and professors challenging the designers on their work and how well it serves the low-income residents it's intended for. "How does your design make better the life of someone who wants to live in the house," one critic asks, "rather than stoke the ego of the architect who wants to express their nifty idea?" Ouch! As important, the show spends a considerable amount of time with New Orleans neighborhood residents, discussing the hurricane's effect on them and their hopes for rebuilding.
In a nutshell: "Architecture School" tells the story of twelve idealistic architecture students who are bringing a social mission into the classroom by working with communities and populations that do not traditionally have access to architects. Although it's considered reality TV, the series was filmed more like an old school documentary told from a classic fly on the wall point-of-view. Selditch, who spent most of the time on-location, mic'd up each student while he asked questions, but took himself, as narrator, out of the final editing leaving the experiences of the team building the house, neighbor's opinions, the staff at housing services, and the life of the city to tell the story.
Liz Martin interviews co-creators Michael Selditch (MS) and Stan Bertheaud (SB) along with Tulane faculty Professor Byron Mouton (BM) regarding the T.V. series.
LM_ How was the series conceived? And what was the show's intent?
SB_ Michael Selditch and I are both architects as well as filmmakers. We've talked about fusing architecture and film for many years. After visiting Auburn University and seeing what they do in Hale County with Rural Studio, we realized the arc of a design-build studio would be a good story to tell.
MS_ The show touches on many different levels from the students own personal journey to the people living in that neighborhood to the individuals that are desperately trying to get a house to the bigger city issues of knocking down public housing that seems perfectly fine and so on. It comes back to the idea of Sundance really wanting to do the show in New Orleans thinking that it was the ideal place to film this series. It sounds like a clichÃ©, but New Orleans is very much a character in the series-you see a lot of New Orleans culture with the students going to bars listening music, the food, etc.
BM_ The series aim was to capture the studio experience and expose the audience to the creative process. The crew strategically organized filming based on our design-build process spanning two semesters. One of the early episodes exposes the studio learning process during a pin-up critiquing the work and the late night hours students often embrace throughout the semester.
LM_How did you choose the students that were a part of the TV series? Were all students in the class a part of the actual series?
BM_ The class was developed as a design studio and the topic of research was described in the course catalogue. There was no special process. Students simply selected the course of study and signed-up like any other class on campus. All students in the class are visible in the footage, but not all have primary roles.
LM_ This is being billed as a reality TV series. Was anything scripted or did the teaching style change as a result of the camera?
BM_ Not really. Once in a while students and faculty were asked to repeat something that had already been said. The series is the result of some editing, but basically what you see is what you get.
SB_ Nothing was scripted. Occasionally we had someone repeat a line if it was garbled the first time through. It's as real as we could make it. Series is filmed actually like a documentary in an old school "fly on the wall" sense. There's no artificial competition here. No one gets voted off the island.
MS_ When we get on site, [as director] I might ask a question like. "Begin by telling us how the final design was chosen," and then the students begin to banter about their final review. That's where the directing, quote-unquote, comes in for a documentary-style project like this one. I'm never telling anyone what to do or what to say, but I'm also always thinking in my head, "What do I need to tell this story to try and accurately capture it?" So it's all happening and it's all real, but as the director you kind of influence and "edit" how to portray all these interesting events to tell the story and tie together activities from episode-to-episode.
LM_Were you able to capture the design or studio learning process on film?
SB_ We spent time in the studio during work hours and after. The after hours conversations of the students were very revealing...and often funny. Watching smart students balance internal design questions with studio politics is pretty engaging...And Byron Mouton, the studio's professor, is very good on camera. He's a very comfortable guy to be around so he puts the students at ease. He's smart too...
MS_ Bryon Mouton has a major presence, but he is not consistently in every episode, in fact, there is probably an episode or two where he's barely in it. We essentially followed the process of the design-build project and some students were really vocal and others were more behind the scenes; sometimes the faculty stood out and others times they were completely back ground. But there is a scene on the roof, which became Byron's scene because he'd had a very traumatic experience falling and it was a story he had told us prior to shooting that we thought was really interesting. It was an experience that had happened to him 12 years earlier, but it was a story that was a thread throughout the entire series. For example, there is one student, Carter, who wanted to do a three story house in a two story district and Bryon had a strong opinion of it and you realize it most likely had to do with his fear or trauma from his previous accident. Its one thing that I'm really proud of is that there are a few things, like Bryon's accident falling off a roof, that arc throughout the series.
LM_Bryon, you had a personal scare a few years back--falling off a roof of a building under construction--how do you deal with that experience and heading up a design-build program?
BM_ Safety is a priority. Yes I had a scare in 1998; I fell from a framing platform and was unconscious for a while. In fact, I had an 'accelerated brain concussion' and was forced to spend 6 weeks attending physical and occupational therapy. I'm lucky to have walked away.
That experience strongly influences the way we control the job site and establish limitations of risk. No matter what, the job site and tools are dangerous; we cannot avoid that. However, we do our best to reduce the risks. This responsibility alone justifies the need for three experienced faculty members to be involved during construction. We attempt to lead by example, but we must constantly remind the students to take care. In the end, we cannot forget that they are adults, and they are expected to respond to all situations as such. They do repeatedly rise to that challenge....But we still keep a careful watch.
LM_ Why did you choose Tulane to feature in the series? How do post-Katrina New Orleans issues affect the series?
SB_ I used to teach at Tulane and Katrina had just happened. With my contacts and the national attention the storm focused on the city it was really a no-brainer. Post-Katrina Nola issues permeate the series and Nola is definitely a character. The city is still recovering. We shot in and around the city whenever we could. We spend a good bit of time with the students after hours doing "student stuff"... and it is New Orleans.
MS_ Filming in New Orleans post-Katrina seemed timely. A big realization, or shock to be honest, I had while doing the original 10-minute teaser trailer was that there were a lot of horrible abandoned housing and poverty situations prior to Katrina. When I first went on a tour of the city outskirts with Bryon and Reed Kroloff, who at the time we began filming was Dean of Tulane, I was shocked and said, "the storm did all that?," and Bryon said well this area has been abandoned for almost 30-years [before Katrina]. The poverty level in some parts of New Orleans would shock the rest of the nation. Of course, there are other cities that have similar problems like if you go to Detroit, or Bronx in NY, or Watts in Los Angeles, but Katrina shed light on this phenomena in the US where not only rebuilding became really important, but also simply those who are in need.
BM_ There has always been support for our design-build program, but the greatest amount of support was, in fact, provided by H.U.D.. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, while students and faculty were in exile, Ila Berman (associate dean at the time...has since gone off to San Francisco) collected the works and progress of several faculty members and students in effort to assemble and submit a grant proposal. The proposal described the intention to conduct urban research at both the Macro and Micro scale of the city. The $300,000 grant was awarded, and that really propelled the program. Ila concentrated on the study of urban strategies, while I concentrated on the development of dwelling and neighborhood strategies.
As with other educational design/build programs across the nation, the goal was to provide students with the opportunity to work collectively on the design, development and construction of affordable housing prototypes. However, in contrast to programs offered by other schools, students were challenged to develop progressive proposals amidst selected deteriorating neighborhoods of an existing historic urban fabric and of course, the idea of water / flooding.
LM_ What do you think the students will learn from this experience that is different than a normal design studio that never leaves the studio?
BM_ Students leave the program with a sense of group accomplishment rather than individual accomplishment....they learn a very important skill - how to respectfully hold their colleagues accountable for their actions and decisions while still maintaining progress in the workplace. They learn professional conduct amidst the arena of difference in opinion.
SB_ Architecture is often just too abstract, so learning what happens on the job site is invaluable for students...But maybe even more important were the interpersonal lessons learned by all involved, both within the studio group and extending into the neighborhood and city.
MS_ To me, building efficiency beautifully. The house is really beautiful; flawlessly made with a really smart compact plan-no wasted space in that house. It's on a tight little foot print, its 1200sf house-super small and it is packed with three bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, living and dining room, kitchen, etc. It's an efficient floor plan with open feeling the way it's designed with multiple outdoor spaces off grade. And I think the neighbors' kind of came around, especially the ones that thought it was ugly at first, once they saw all the interesting and efficient spaces that were built by these students.
LM_ Describe one of your favorite episodes?
MS_ During production, Architecture Record came and did this great little story on what we were all doing and the kids were energized by all the support. This essentially is captured in episode 5, the house designed and fully framed. Then there's open discussion on the arch record website, people start blogging in and at first they were very supportive and positive, this is great that these students are doing this for New Orleans, congratulations and blah, blah, blah...and then the discussion started going south and became really harsh. One comment was "it looks like terrorists dropped a bomb, what are these kids thinking?" And it kept going and got really unnecessarily cruel. And one student, in particular, got really discouraged and took it really personally. This was one of the students that was really about the altruism of the project. Through this series of events, it comes out on film through this one student, how architects, with the best intentions, can feel completely underappreciated within not only the neighborhood and community they are so desperately trying to heal, but also their peers. If you try and do something out of the norm, it will always open you up to criticism.