Heather Purcell Leja of Design OnScreen talks architecture and modernist preservation
Did you have a personal interest in architecture outside of the formation of Design OnScreen?
It's kind of a funny thing; I owe an almost lifetime of interest in architecture and design to a wonderful high school teacher that I had in Dallas, who taught a course called "Monuments in Contemporary Culture." We were studying avant garde theater and cutting-edge architecture and design. He instilled that curiosity in me and gave me a little bit of knowledge. Then I just took some courses on the history of architecture in college and it's something I've followed in the New York Times every day since high school. Of, course this job has also educated me in ways I've never imagined, too.
Can you talk a little about some of the films Design OnScreen has been responsible for?
It has been incredible to say, make films on Donald Wexler and William Krisel in Southern California, who are in their early eighties, and to work with a filmmaker like Jake Gorst. To start a new interest in their work and see younger generations of architecture students and design lovers come to appreciate them, and to see these designers come to the screening and to see them bask in the recognition. is a really rewarding part of the job.
What is the process behind choosing who or what subjects Design OnScreen makes a film about?
We have a board of directors made up of several architects and art and design consultants. We also have geographic diversity, with three of the people on our board from Denver, a couple from California and some from New York. Our board essentially decides what subject to pursue next, and we have a list of over one hundred very deserving subjects. It is one of the most difficult parts of Design OnScreen's activities -- determining what to do next. Sometimes it is a function of grants we might be able to get to fund it or if there's a traveling exhibition that's coming up in the next couple of years that a film can accompany. There is always a different set of factors in determining which things we approach next.
We always find and work with the "expert" in that field, or on that particular designer or period, to work on the film as a consultant. That way we can ensure that the viewpoint and the facts that are captured are representative of what needs to be captured in the historical record. With our last film, Modern Tide, we did mid-century modern architecture on Long Island. So we're starting to even approach the unsung places of architecture and design that maybe everyone doesn't know have a rich tradition of heritage -- or the architectural gems that are threatened by development and deserve preservation.
The architectural preservation part of these projects -- having the potential to save a piece of design work -- has to be wonderful and also heartbreaking.
That's right. And part of our hope is that the films help to generate an appreciation for architecture that people wouldn't have otherwise. When a film can show the roots of the architecture and how beautiful it is -- a recurrent theme in our films is how living in good architecture changes people's lives. It is something that the people who live in some of these buildings talk about, and then the architects talk about how that is their intent, too.
We've all seen how sometimes preservation ordinances or legislation for preservation often doesn't work, so another angle to come at it from is to say, well, watch these films. Then when you come to own or live next door [to a building in danger of demolition], you can say maybe that's something I don't want to disappear.
But there's some fresh ideas in some of the films. In Modern Tide, there's an iconic, incredible house on Long Island done by Andrew Geller and it's threatened with destruction -- as a lot of them are in that area -- because the land is now so valuable. But the person who owns the house decides to keep it and build his own complementary structure next to it, and run tours through the (Geller) house, which pays for the preservation. It is a different solution for a building that is an issue.
Our screenings have become a place where communities can have these arguments, in the context of the film they have just seen. That kind of back and forth, I feel like our films are doing what we hope they will do -- start the conversation and make it from a place of experience. There's more than just two viewpoints.