EP: 02 – THE BACKSTORY BY MICHAEL SELDITCH
I’ve produced non-scripted television on a variety of topics: medicine, food, fashion, the environment, child birth, sex, new age practices, even exorcism. But architecture I know better than any of these subjects. I was an architect for 14 years. I practiced mostly in New York where I was licensed. I taught for 10 of those years at universities in New York and California, where I met Stan Bertheaud [the co-creator] while we were both teaching architectural design studio at Woodbury University in Los Angeles. That was 1989 and at the time Stan was also studying screenwriting at USC.
I never lost my passion for architecture — it was the profession of architecture that repeatedly tested my dedication to this demanding field. The frustration and stress of working with contractors whose agenda is to build as cheaply and easily as possible, thus shortchanging the design, takes its toll. Over the years, I had witnessed too many contractors hijack the architect’s valued position as the client’s trusted representative, capture the client’s ear and take control of a project. As if all this isn’t bad enough, this admirable and respected profession offers a rather mediocre salary. Amarit (one of our main student characters) jokes in the first episode, “A friend of my parents is a big architect in Chicago and he says, ‘Get out of the business while you still can. Don’t expect to make any money.’”
Teaching architectural design was always gratifying, though. I got to talk about buildings and debate and experiment and draw. I always had a strong interest in film and I started to discover that the process of making a building and making a film had strong parallels. In fact, the key concepts of what I have learned in architecture are the same principles that drive my work as a filmmaker.
When Stan and I were students ourselves, there were no architecture curriculums that involved construction (that I can recall). If they existed, they were rare. The idea of sending a bunch of unskilled students out in the world to build a building was a stretch, not to mention a liability. The time alone that it takes to construct a building is a limiting factor, and the money it takes, makes it even more complex. Today, there are a growing number of design/build programs across the nation, becoming more prevalent each year. Most of these programs have students designing and building structures in-kind for individuals, families or neighborhoods that are in need.
Since our meeting in ’89, Stan and I have collaborated on several screenplays and wanted to develop a project about architecture students in a graduate program. We kicked around the idea of writing a narrative script, and/or a competitive reality show (Project Runway with architects). But the idea of a documentary series shot in a university was always the clear front runner in our hearts.
I pitched the idea to the Sundance Channel. Let’s see what goes on behind closed doors in a graduate architecture program. There’s design; there’s debate; there’s competition. They were intrigued. Now, add a design/build curriculum to the mix. When students go out and build what they’ve designed, (altruism combined with the creative) the potential becomes clear for a documentary series that is visual, stimulating, informative and moving.
A week later, I was preparing to join Stan on a symposium panel at Auburn University, a renowned architecture school in the Deep South. They have a design/build program started by Samuel Mockbee in the early 90′s, where the students build structures out of junk and found objects: a house shingled in old license plates, a chapel with a 20-foot glass wall made of car windshields. There are several published books on the built works of these students, and I returned to New York with one under my arm.
The folks at Sundance took one look at the book, and the foundation for our project was laid. Stan and I went onto research eight different design/build architecture programs in universities across the US and Canada. There were a lot of exciting programs to choose from, each with its own specific circumstances regarding the people they were building for. When we learned about the collaboration between Tulane’s School of Architecture and a local New Orleans non-profit organization that helps families purchase homes — we were all excited by the possibilities. It was unanimous; we would go to New Orleans.