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AFFR: A true Rotterdam film festival with a mission

'Architecture has always been seen as an afterthought. I see it as a necessary thing, not an extra. You now see, for instance, that technocrats have taken over power. They come up with a technical solution for everything. They can make buildings that are well insulated, that use geothermal heat: that is now the job of the builders. But all those techies forget that in the end it is about people. People long for beauty, for shelter, a memory.'

Speaking is Jord den Hollander, curator and founder of the Rotterdam Architecture Film Festival. This equally inspired and flamboyant architect started his festival when Rotterdam was cultural capital of Europe, in the year 2001. It became a biennial festival, but starting this year, 2018, it will become an annual phenomenon. Apparently, not only is there enough enthusiasm for it, there are also plenty of films being produced that fit such a festival. Films starring architects, or their work.

Delusions of grandeur

The Friday I go to watch I fall head over heels. A documentary about the new building of the Metropolitan Opera in New York shows well how art, documentary, architecture and human interest can coincide. The documentary doesn't attract a huge audience around noon on this exceptionally warm October Friday, but what's there is fully alive. Opportunity abounds. Moving, for instance, is the portrait of the usher, who once started in the boys' choir. He finds it hard to say goodbye to the old, ramshackle building. Disarming is the black opera singer who was privileged to sing at the opening performance of the new building.

Disconcerting is the building process, and this causes a lot of recognition in the room. We see, of course, the architects and directors starting out with something big that hangs together with delusions of grandeur and compromise. The documentaore shows the sobering werdegang of the design, which begins as a megalomaniacal sketch of a building that relegates St Peter's in Rome to a village church, to the still grand modernist box complex that now forms Lincoln Center.

House prices

Outside the auditorium, it is now lunchtime at Lantaren Venster. To the left of the film theatre complex's terrace on Rotterdam's Kop van Zuid, a forest floats in old sea buoys. To the right, an architectural intervention connects the old whore and sailor neighbourhood of Katendrecht with Hotel New York. Gentrification has now crossed that bridge. Even in that old Rotterdam, house prices are now soaring. Right opposite the Film Theatre, cattle buildings have been turned into luxury flats with huge sun balconies and a 5-ton price tag.

No better place than here for the Architecture Film Festival. Rotterdam is architecture. Rotterdammers cherish the pieces of pre-war city that survived the German bombardment, but are, if anything, even prouder of the new buildings that emerged after the war. Housing experiments, such as the flats between Schouwburgplein and Lijnbaan, Lijnbaan itself, the new addition now called 'Koopgoot', the Market Hall, the skyscrapers on Kop van Zuid, Central Station.


This Friday, I see another wonderful documentary: 'Shelter'. It is about the different ways people try to make a roof over their heads in a changing world. Superb, but also quite confronting, is the story of a new construction kit for a refugee barracks. We see how it is designed, and how it is the subject of a highly aesthetic exhibition at MOMA. In between, we see a Syrian refugee, a distinguished middle-aged gentleman, nurturing his hastily brought collection of three-piece suits in that same shelter, but in a huge refugee camp near the Syrian border. At least as important as a roof, it turns out, is the suit you live in.

Nice clothes and striking frames, that also determines much of the identity of the audience at the festival, which becomes more numerous and diverse as the day progresses. The AIFF is not a folk festival, shall we say. Indeed, I almost knock off a couple of top architects on my way to the toilets. The AIFF is unique in the world, and so is attended by architects and enthusiasts from all corners.

Friends of Architects

Eugene Franken and Xander Arets came from Arnhem and Eindhoven respectively to immerse themselves in the festival. Arets: 'I've been to this festival before, but this is the first year I'm going for several days. I booked a hotel and now I'm going to watch a lot of films. And then, one by one, my architect friends will drop by. Eugene today, a German friend is coming tonight.'

Arets is an architect himself. At the festival, he is especially looking for films about foreign colleagues. 'It helps to look more broadly. Architecture is a very nice profession, but often you only deal with a very limited part of the world. I myself do a lot of renovations, so reuse. I am busy converting old buildings into new functions. This is where I gain new insights.' His friend Eugene adds: 'You can binge-watch at home, but here it comes naturally. Architecture is also a visual culture, of course. You can do a lot with that.'


They especially like the introduction by an expert colleague or scientist that precedes each film. 'We just watched a film with a very nice introduction. This film was about modern architecture in Africa. Then it is nice to have some background information on that from someone who knows about it. We are also going to Africa soon to see modern architecture, so that's why we chose this.'

Arets: 'This story was about 1950s Western architecture in Africa. So typical western buildings: lots of government buildings, bank buildings and large residential buildings.'

Franken: 'It's nice to see how those buildings resemble the ones we studied in, in Delft and Eindhoven. Those brutalist, modernist buildings. They were copied there 1:1. It's of no use to you for your profession, of course, but it does make nice associations. And of course you save things, you collect information, but then I can't pinpoint what exactly I do with it.'


Arets: 'The last film was about a mining village built by a Swedish company in Liberia. Really just the Swedish idea of: "we're going to build the ideal village here". Very noble, but when the mine was exhausted, everyone left. Now the ideal town is a ruin. But at the time, it was a piece of Western idealism about Africa.' Franken: 'But then again, that was more of a social problem than it was about architecture.' Xander Arets disagrees: 'Architecture is also social, isn't it.'

Further down the sunlit terrace sits David Young. He is there for the second time, and is mainly interested in the social aspect. 'I'm interested in film, but also architecture. Especially modern architecture. I set up a small club as a guide for tourists in Rotterdam. Rotterdam architecture is fantastic, of course. I'm not really a connoisseur, more of an enthusiast. At this festival, I have a chance to learn something. In particular, how architects think and see the world. I'm interested in creative people anyway. I myself am not a creative person at all. I don't have any talent, unfortunately.'


The clearly creative Evie Penders (art school, studying illustration) was brought to the festival by her companion Joost. Why?

Joost: 'Just because it's fun to go to a film together.' But to an architecture film.' The trainee visual artist acknowledges this, but: 'That was not the main reason. The film looked interesting. And I also happen to be doing a minor that has a bit to do with public and private space. Through a teacher from that minor, we were tipped off about this festival. So I started looking at the whole programme and made a choice.'

Joost does not consider himself an architecture freak, and neither does Evie: 'This film was not about architecture per se either, but more about what 'home' is for people and how people can establish a community or living environment in certain places, whether by necessity or voluntarily. I am also not here specifically because I want to see certain architects, I must admit. I think we go more to films that deviate a bit from it. That use architecture as a kind of tool for art or that offer certain perspectives, other than standard.'


Dirk and Irma are here with friends from Germany. Irma, herself a structural engineer but now working elsewhere, does not necessarily come for the buildings either: 'I am here to look at the aesthetics of life again. I used to hang out more with construction experts and architects, but not any more. Then this is a good time. I definitely come for the films. We were just at 'Mies on scene'. That film was more about emotion and social components of the building Mies von der Rohe designed for Barcelona, rather than explaining how architecture worked.' An architect himself, Dirk was also inspired by the film about the world-famous architect: 'A building in itself cannot create an experience of happiness. That's what people used to think. I think architecture determines only a small part of happiness.'

Architecture and happiness. It is the theme of this year's festival. Curator Jord den Hollander himself does not live in Rotterdam, but is based in Amsterdam, where he has a large flat on the river IJ. He has pledged his architectural heart to the Maas, though.


In a debate, during a film preview, with the president of the Union of Dutch Architects, he stated: 'In Rotterdam, you could live affordably a while back. Now prices are rising. Poor people can no longer live in the city. Segregation arises between rich and poor, we see uncontrollable forces at work. I may be charging now, but we are no more than a pawn in the game. We can negotiate all we want, but the property developers and bankers don't even see us standing. We need to become activists again.'

That activist mentality is reflected in the programme, making the Architecture Film Festival a festival that is good not only for architects and builders, but for anyone interested in happiness. Next year again.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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