The City in Film: Мaison d’Être Project

25.03.2020, Karina Garnaga

*The multidisciplinary nature of urbanism means there is a wide range of research methods available. Most of them are based on the academic principles of objectivity and provability. Others are less conventional and encourage the use of imagination and experimentation. One such method is a documentary. It resorts to creativity, helps collect extensive research material and always invokes an emotional response.* *Which language do we use to talk about cities? How do we communicate with it? How much are we driven by our emotions? The founders of the **[Maison d'Être](** project **Ekaterina Dyba**, **Alexei Novikov**, **Sasha Zubkov** and **Marina Sapunova** describe their cinematic experiments and how they use documentary to explore the notion of ‘home’, one of the least studied yet promising themes in contemporary urban studies* **What is the idea of the project? How did it start?** *Katya*: It all started at the [Graduate School of Urbanism]( For several years in a row we held a [summer visiting school in Paris](, and every time it generated exciting themes and involved a diverse spectrum of experts. We wanted to somehow synthesise the knowledge we were gaining, and that’s how the idea of an urban documentary came about. In 2017 we released our [first film]( It seemed that we finally found a new lens through which to look at the city. Urban research is often difficult; there are so many aspects to consider, and it is so easy to lose sight of the whole. With a documentary you can talk about complex subjects in a language that anyone can understand. {{Pic1:The founders of Maison d'Être: Ekaterina Dyba, Alexei Novikov, Sasha Zubkov and Marina Sapunova}} **Can a documentary become the lingua franca of urban research? Do you aim at establishing such a common tongue?** *Katya*: It probably can be, yes, at least one of such languages. Our intention is to investigate a whole range of them, not just a documentary. There are lots of educational formats, including traditional ones such as lectures, videos and reading materials, and together they may form an educational ecosystem. And we do place cinematography at its very core as it generates emotional engagement. It does not matter whether a layman is watching our film or an urban expert with 30+ years of experience. Living in a city is something anyone can personally relate to. An urban documentary is exciting and captivating, you want to think about what you’ve just seen and form your own opinion. *Alexei*: I agree. A documentary is an emotional medium, yet unlike in fiction, you have to respect facts and stay true to life. And this is why it can be so useful in urban studies. Five minutes of a documentary have the potential to replace hours of a university course. Our goal is to produce such documentaries and then to use them for learning purposes. So far we have only made two films, but it is just the beginning. *Marina*: The absence of a single language is what makes cities so intriguing and urban studies so fascinating. By definition, a city is a dense settlement of people with very diverse ideas, values ​​and goals. An attempt to find a simple or universal language to describe the urban mode of living is doomed to fail, it would mean to reduce complexity of living in the city to a primitive scheme ignoring any cultural, social or political context. A documentary is just one of many languages to talk about the city, yet it can capture and describe a multitude of urban modes of life. And the complexity of urbanism is something that any urban professional should be aware of. These people are ultimately responsible for shaping our cities, so we need to equip them with a critical perspective, appreciation of cultural contexts and a diverse range of other skills. {{Pic2:Screenshots from Maison d'Être, an exploratory documentary about people's emotional place attachment in highly dynamic Greater Paris}} *Sasha*: I see our mission as bridging the gap between documentary filmmaking and academic research. In a documentary, the distance between the observer and the study object is much shorter, and there is also energy and vibe that is simply not there in lectures, monographs, or conferences. I think we are advocating a new type of research, somewhere in-between a documentary and purely academic formats. I see a lot of potential for it in urban studies. *Alexei*: Indeed. A documentary can be full of energy, besides it can offer a unique research methodology. It bypasses the usual dichotomy between the objective and the subjective. It operates in a third dimension altogether, that of fair representation. There are clear rules of how to achieve this fair representation in a documentary. It is not about demonstrating an artificial balance between two contradicting viewpoints, it is simply a fair and honest depiction of reality. This is a way more advanced approach than in science which is bound by the cartesian notion of objectivity. **Your main focus today is on Home. Why do you consider this theme so important? Is it because everybody can connect with it?** *Katya*: Home is an entry point to our project, and a new way to analyse the city. Unlike conventional urban studies, we do not view the city from above, to only see a large-scale masterplan. We analyse it from within, taking the viewpoint of an individual and their perception of urban change. The notion of home is essential to everybody, it is where we belong, a zero milepost from where all our journeys start. Home impacts our understanding of the world and also sets a lens through which we look at the urban environment. *Marina*: It is worth mentioning that home did not manifest itself as our main theme straight away. Our initial plan was to investigate how certain formal indicators, such as square metres, accessibility of public infrastructure or quality of public spaces, translate into an urban habitat. This habitat can mean somebody’s home, a neighbourhood or another place that has been domesticated by an individual, yet who does not own an exclusive right over transformations. The question is how much his/her expectations or actions are in line with the overall urban agenda. And vice versa, how nuanced can urban governance be to match individual needs? I think the divide between Home as a private space and the city as a public space is extremely important. This is where citizenship begins. {{Pic3:Screenshots from Maison d'Être, an exploratory documentary about people's emotional place attachment in highly dynamic Greater Paris}} *Alexei*: While working on our films, we were reading a lot on the subject of ‘home’, and its evolution in the past. One of the books we came across was [The Making of Home]( by Judy Flanders. She explores how people’s perception of home has been changing over the centuries. For example, in the early Renaissance, the household included workers and apprentices who were part of the family, and the house was perceived as a place of work. Gradually, it shifted from being an economic unit to being a family unit comprising several generations. Then came a nuclear family, home as a woman’s own place, home as a space for children, etc. Today for many people ‘home’ follows you wherever you go. Interestingly, the distribution of space in a house has also been changing across the centuries. For example, a hallway as we know it today only appeared in the 19th century, and it marks a shift towards privacy. Earlier most houses would have a walk-through layout. While we were doing our reading and research, the Moscow government launched a so-called housing renovation programme, and the question of ‘home’ and ownership became ever more salient. We decided to make [a documentary on renovation in Paris](, as a kind of response to what was going on in Moscow. That’s how step by step we were moving towards our main theme. Home and how we relate to it is an extremely powerful factor in human behavior and culture. I like this quote from Walter Benjamin, “Only where comfort ends, does humanity begin”, it’s so true! There’s a common metaphor that your car is your outfit, and if we develop this metaphor further, your home is your line of defense. It is also a point of contact and communication with the outer world. Urban professionals see the city differently. Geographers take a bird’s eye view, while architects look at elevations and plans. Home is hardly a point of interest to anyone, and yet this is where we spend most of our time, and it also influences our use of urban space. Home is connected to the concept of homeland in its cultural sense. It is a place where you feel good no matter whether it is luxurious or unpretentious, simply because it is your place. Our home reflects who we are and how we perceive the world around us. Being away from home, we intuitively know whether it is ‘our place’ or not. **Is your project a retrospective study or an attempt to foresee the future?** *Katya*: We have held a series of interviews on the history of home in Russia. We didn’t incorporate them in the films, and we plan to use them separately for educational purposes. For example, we interviewed [Alexandra Litvina](, a professional researcher of the Soviet-era housing, or [Lev Rubinstein]( about living in a communal flat. Both interviews are quite retrospective, and we are indeed very interested in history. People often carry old behavioral patterns and stereotypes that control them. If not for anything else, they need to look back into the past to see the limitations of their current opinions and beliefs, and try to connect the dots between the past and the current. {{Pic4:Screenshots from A Room in Moscow, a documentary by Maison d'Être}} *Marina*: At the same time, our [Moscow film]( captures the present moment by looking into what the Muscovites care about when choosing a place to live. A documentary is a way to encapsulate the current state of affairs and minds, this is another reason why we value it so much. **So, what’s next?** *Sasha*: We are currently working on our third film. Luckily, we did not get too carried away by the subject of renovation in Moscow or Paris. Instead, we moved on to investigate the home phenomenon and privacy, and are reflecting on their past and future in the context of mega-cities. The third film will also be about home but we are still discussing what angle it should take. In our [first film]( we kind of stumbled upon the right focus. We were then guided by urban experts, public officials and ordinary people who all mentioned what home meant to them one way or another. In the [second film](, one of the two protagonists is a property agent. She showed us a variety of Moscow properties in the city centre and shared her insights into what home and privacy mean for her clients. The other protagonist was a young theatre actor who introduced us to a bohemian way of living. It turned out to be quite typical of actors, artists and young people who are still in the process of shaping their identity and defining how they interact with the city. So the film ended up being about what it feels like to have a home in central Moscow. It is a mish-mash of attitudes, aspirations and lifestyles, which is extremely exciting to explore through a documentary. *Marina*: The focus is truly important because it forms the narrative. Yet it is never static and changes over the course of the project and through discussions. Very often we are redirected by the footage itself which sets a new angle. Nonetheless, the original idea is crucial, it is a starting point and an entry point to the theme. Our next documentary will be about [Tel Aviv]( It is a new context and a new challenge for us. There are so many aspects to consider, such as cultural mix, the rise of suburbs, real estate prices, the modernist White City and how it adapts to the present day needs. Each theme is worth a separate discussion, so I think our film is bound to be very multifaceted. {{Pic5:Backstage photos}} **How will the urban planning job change? What current trends are important to consider if you are a young professional?** *Alexei*: I think there are two major trends. First, work is becoming a luxury. In the EU, there is a special commission for employment whose main concern used to be unemployment. Now this commission is analysing how to keep the middle class busy. Wealthy countries with an advanced level of robotisation can already afford to pay minimum living allowances to their citizens. This means you can do whatever you want with your free time, however, if you want a professional job, you need to make a lot of effort. Employment that used to be a means of survival is now becoming a luxury. The second trend is the versatility of professional jobs. In a way, we are witnessing a new Renaissance, and a universal man is becoming an employer’s ideal candidate. It is someone who is capable of many things, and does them quite professionally, although the notion of professionalism is different today. As for the urban profession, it is very versatile by definition because it covers many disciplines, from engineering to arts. I believe like the math profession, it will become even more universal soon, in Leonardo da Vinci’s sense. *Katya*: And this is why the debate around the urbanist profession is gaining momentum. Who is an urbanist? An architect, a city planner, an urban sociologist? These clear-cut professions of the good old days no longer reflect what is needed, so the word ‘urbanist’ is used more and more often to refer to a general expert, ‘a man of many languages’ who has knowledge of narrower areas and can help other professionals to understand each other. Having said that, I believe at some point this concept of a universal man will roll over again; we need both visionaries capable of strategic planning and practitioners with a broad outlook on the city. *Marina*: The range of urban issues is extremely broad, dauntingly broad at times. So the ability to synthesize information while remaining accurate is a crucially important skill for a professional who needs to come up with a solution for an urban issue. Even small-scale local changes should consider the changes on a bigger scale. We often refer to the multidisciplinary nature of urban studies, even to the extent that it is sometimes difficult to define the borderlines of disciplines. So there is certainly an acute need to coordinate and find common ground. Yet being able to understand each other does not replace the need to be diligent and meticulous when suggesting urban change. *Alexei*: Let’s get back to the future of the urban planning profession and look at the key economic trends. In the last 500 years we have seen the rise of corporations, and today global market indices are tied to the top 500 private companies. Then urban infrastructure organizations emerged with their large-scale projects. They differ from private companies in many ways, and there is a lot of money involved. For example, the turnover of Moscow water treatment organisation is comparable to that of oil and gas giants Gazprom and Transneft. Recently we have witnessed the emersion of the sharing economy and its pioneers Airbnb, Uber and Lyft. Suddenly the city itself is becoming an important economic asset and will probably soon be quoted in S&P 500. Shanghai, London and New York will certainly be, in fact, they already are, key players at the capital market. First are states, then their regions and then major cities; corporations only follow after. And among those borrowers, cities are the most reputable, because they collect taxes. If cities borrow, nothing prevents them from becoming income generators, and it is the urban environment that will make them successful or not. In such a context, urban experts are likely to be in high demand, similar to oil and gas experts of today. We will also see a tighter regulation of the city economy. The importance of zoning will increase, and it will be more tightly connected to urban science. And urban economics itself will turn into mainstream economics whereas today it is a kind of a black sheep. So if you want to invest in your career today, you should enroll in urban studies.