By Ellen Besen
The first time I really noticed the impact of architecture on social interaction happened to also be film related. Some 20 odd years ago (getting closer to 30), the Toronto office of the NFB ended years of nomadic living when it acquired a building of its own: a high rise on up-and-coming John Street in the heart of downtown. The NFB would occupy a number of the lower floors of the building with the rest leased out to other enterprises.
It was very exciting to have a real home. They had even included a room with a special high ceiling well to accommodate an analogue animation camera stand. We had all arrived at last. But it wasn’t long before the deficit in this new housing became apparent, especially in comparison to life at the NFB’s headquarters in Montreal.
Headquarters are located in a long low sprawl of a building where it easily takes more than 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other. Time consuming it’s true, but excellent for one’s overall fitness. More importantly, though, is that all this walking takes you regularly past lots of other people’s work space. And after walking past any given office enough times, it becomes quite natural to nod and eventually strike up a conversation with its occupants. Before long you’re striking up conversations all over the building and quite suddenly, you have become part of family.
By comparison, in the new Toronto high rise, you could really only interact with people on your floor, bookended by those no-talking-to-strangers rides up and down the elevators at the beginning and end of the day. Yes, you met your fellow workers at parties or screenings but the critical factor of regular, dependable, casual contact which actively builds friendships was pretty much obliterated simply by the building’s floor plan.
In other words, this is all about staging- except that unlike in your feature or independent film, this is less about controlling every detail and more about setting the stage such that something essentially spontaneous- like social flow- becomes inevitable. On one level this may seem like nitpicking but as all good animators know, it is the attention to precisely these kinds of underpinnings that make all the difference.
Social flow is particularly important at animation festivals- we all spend too much time alone at our desks communicating mostly with ourselves and really look forward to the camaraderie 5 days at a festival promises.
All this only made the NAC-less years that much more frustrating. The beauty of the NAC has always been its excellent lobby, a large inviting space big enough to accommodate the market, with plenty of room for productive milling about. Back in the day, you could count on everyone showing up well before the evening screenings for an unscheduled cocktail party and lingering long after the screening before moving on to other venues. And that meant your chances of seeing everyone you hoped to see through the course of the festival and finding someone worth talking to on any given evening were very high, even for the shyest among the crowd.
And while in recent years, there have been the usual parties (very loud parties), the picnic and a funky little après-screening scene on the sidewalk outside the Bytowne, these couldn’t make up for the fact that under the new circumstances, through no one’s design or fault, most casual greeting grounds had effectively gone linear. When you weren’t lining up to get into a screening or lining up to get on and off a bus, you were sitting in rows or racing up and down streets to get to the next venue.
So what’s the problem? Well, unlike the kitchen party dynamic of the NAC lobby that allows free circulation and sets the stage for random encounters- all of which promotes community building- linear set-ups limit access to people (other than those right beside you), make it hard to join an ongoing conversation (hey- no butting in!) and even harder to find anyone who doesn’t happen to end up behind you in line. Get held up in the washroom for an extra 2 minutes and you’ve missed the bus. Arrive late for a critical line up and your friends may already be so far ahead of you and/or so spread out that you end up sitting alone.
The real world end result of all this was too many festival goers at loose ends, wandering the streets of Ottawa looking for somewhere to connect- not an outcome that anyone wants. So hooray for the NAC homecoming. Yes, it was all a bit more crowded than in the past. And yes, the consequently serpentine line- for entry to the screenings- that wound through the lobby crowd always seemed on the verge of hooking up with itself, leaving us to conga unknowingly round and round the fountain all evening. But no matter- it’s all for the good and a huge step in the right direction.
Copyright © 2012 by Ellen Besen. All rights reserved.