by Vladimir BelogolovskyJun 09, 2021
“It’s about identity, and it’s about faking it.”
-David Theodore, Curator, Impostor Cities
Cinema is a joyous venture: for those who create it, and more so for those who view it. Through a two-dimensional medium of display in front of the viewer, worlds are created, transformed, developed over time, and even lived-in. The experience and the imagination allowing viewers to do that is boundless. It is fantasy brought alive, even if the film or TV series may be a hard hitting, real life drama, even if the setting may be the city one may have grown up in. Through the visual persuasion of the maker, we live in these cities, these spaces, and these urban edifices all over again. Apart from physically inhabiting a space, a city, in our being, we are imbued with the capability of simultaneously inhabiting places we may not have physically visited. That special relationship, deeply personal to every viewer, is inimitable. In the age of the pandemic particularly, our relationship with our screens, with these edifices of entertainment, seems to have been transformed, even pronounced. Locked in, and in the absence of travel, they have come to be windows to the world outside, or what it once used to be. In the absence of a prerogative, we too seem to have happily given in.
This, however, is not about the magic of movies and their impact on viewers. This is about the silent character in the backdrop, one that ‘acts’ as good as any actor that mouths the film’s dialogues: our cities. It is about their identity, and the identity of its residents entailed so: and it’s about that identity: architectural, cultural, social, and even political, being faked. Architects and educators David Theodore and Thomas Balaban have an interesting name for that phenomenon: “Impostor Cities”, urban edifices that we see on screen, ‘impostered’ as another. Their exhibition pavilion, headed to the la Biennale di Venezia this year as Canada’s official representation for its national pavilion, and commissioned by the Canada Council for the Arts, seeks to examine how that is particularly true for most of Canada’s world famous cities, wherein Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec all fill in for New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Hong Kong, and even Mumbai, as physical sites, but not spiritual settings. In an exclusive conversation with STIR, Balaban and Theodore examine this notion from the lens of Canadian locals.
Ever notice how for a film that is a “globe-trotting adventure”, shifting cities within minutes, the marker of place, the quickest identifier for the audience is a visual landmark: the Eiffel Tower for Paris, the Golden Gate bridge for San Francisco, Big Ben for London, the Statue of Liberty, Chrysler or Empire State Building for NYC, Christ the Redeemer for Rio de Janeiro, and so on. Nearly every film featuring these locations has these as probably the opening shot. Without them, and the current trend of announcing said location in bold letters, you as a viewer would be lost. The guess you could venture would be continent-sized, at best. The Americas, or Europe. Zooming in further onto the scene, now featuring a block, a street, an apartment, or even a room, and what you are in now is no city and every city at once. The immediate sense of place is either lost in translation, or faintly lingers from the introduction you had been fed merely a scene ago.
According to the exhibition’s curator David Theodore and presenter Thomas Balaban, their display and exhibition of Impostor Cities celebrates the notion that “Canada’s architecture is film famous. Citizens of the world know about Canada’s architecture not only because they visit our cities and enjoy our buildings, but because they watch film and television”. They, however, lament that the same Canadian cities, despite proving resource rich for the cinematic landscape and housing booming film and television industries of their own with several people gainfully employed, have rarely served as the settings for popular films and shows. Filmmakers and showrunners have conversely often found it viable to film in Canada, and have its cities pass off as another. Impostering.
The impostor city is troublesome rather than specific, interesting rather than comfortable, diverse rather than uniform.
Impostor Cities is thus an exploration of and an inquiry into the mimicking of globally known cities on film by Canada’s own global cities. Confirming the hypothesis of a globalisation in architecture, in a deeply academic sense, Impostor Cities talks of a global city, one we may not be living in yet, physically, but one that exists in the mindspace of nearly every global citizen, impinged upon us through multiple impressions of a nearly homogenous architecture. While engaging its audience through the widely public medium of film, Impostor Cities stimulates you, the viewer, to trace an urban genesis in the films you watch and the content you consume, and segues that narrative request into a matter of national identity, and by extension, a distinct architectural identity. It pleads you to be observant and find it.
A lot of that “homogenisation” may be owed to the essential movement of modernisation in the West, the skin and bones architecture of glass and steel, climbing along the vertical axis. “The American dream” in essence was also replicated in various other corners of the globe, with the same aspirations. So much so, that in terms of planning, in terms of individual architecture, and in terms of an urban character, we all sub consciously harbour a very similar image of this global city, making them easily replicable for films, despite supporting very diverse cultures, even if inertly so. Cinematically, it may be Canadian cities being impostered. However, the subject matter begs a deeper enquiry into that replication architecturally, that may itself be the genesis of Impostor Cities.
Intelligently so, as the pavilion proceeds to Venice, it proposes to counter and subvert that narrative through visual wizardry that is at the very heart of modern filmmaking: through a green screen. The pavilion acquires a tepee like form, covered in green screen. Employing chroma key technology, and through camera and online, the pavilion itself would be digitally morphed into an iconic Canadian building every week, “transforming a historic part of the garden in Venice into Canada”. Inside, patrons would be directed to walk through interactive visual installations that place the viewer in the film, to observe and bear witness to years of impostering of Canadian cities by popular Hollywood films by employing immersive sound and supercuts.
An essential question arises then. Why Canada? During the course of the conversation, Theodore revealed that the University of British Columbia in Vancouver was the ninth most filmed-in location in the world, filling in for many global institutions of higher learning, both real and fictional. Leaning for an answer that was more direct than any of us would have imagined, turning the lens inward, he simply stated it was so because the university allowed it. Shooting on the campus grounds was not only “allowed” per se, it was encouraged. The relatively smooth process for permits and “many different kinds of architecture that could easily double up as elsewhere” on the grounds were definite added benefits. The answer, simplistic as it may have sounded, evading academic discourse, astounded us interviewers. A number of such factors, primarily economic, may be behind the mammoth question, “Why Canada?”, but it is as Balaban stated, following up. It wasn’t about finding the answer to why Canadian cities were able to pitch in so well as a one size fits all solution, a globally accessible (and desirable) filming location. It was about asking the right questions, to initiate an enquiry. And that it does.
The enlightening and stimulating chat ended on a ubiquitous, contiguous note; a chain link of sorts with the potential to segue into a larger narrative. The closing question implored a reversal of narrative, a flipping of the binoculars inwards to see if buildings from elsewhere had stood in for native Canadian architecture in any filmic representations. Triggering amazement and bewilderment, the enquiry whether the “global generic city” operates on both ends of the cinematic prism remains unclosed yet, and the notion that this virtual “impostor City” that we all live in may be more real than imagined, takes ground. Another imminent STIR.
Curated as a series of thoughtful engagements that enhance the contemporary debate and discussion on architecture, the STIRring Together series introduces readers to the many facets of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. Tracing the various adaptations and following the multitude of perspectives, the series carefully showcase some incredible projects and exhibits, highlighting the diversity and many discourses of the show.