Presented in competition at the Milano Design Film Festival, the documentary directed by Gianluca Vassallo offers a many-sided and far from canonical portrait of James Wines, a leading exponent of environmental design and organic architecture

Make a documentary about a creator of spaces and confine him within the four walls of his apartment.

This is the paradox behind the documentary James vs Wines – The High Rise of Meanings, presented at the Milano Design Film Festival 2022, directed by Gianluca Vassallo, produced by Foscarini and presenting the great thinker and humanist even more than the architect. With the interdisciplinary group SITE (Sculpture In The Environment), which he founded in the early seventies, James Wines has created ephemeral and brilliant works capable of intervening in the non-places on the margins of the great American metropolises.

Outer cities, highways, urban sprawl: lackluster, featureless places that have forged the imagination of whole generations of visual artists and others (just think of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas).

Wines and SITE have given them an unpredictable ornamental patina, convinced as they were that art, in contemporary society, has now been relegated to the status of a decorative activity.

The approach Vassallo chose for his documentary is already contained in the title, pitting James against Wines.

The man James, today a lively ninety-year-old, is shown in a nondescript everyday setting joking with his wife Kriz (also part of the SITE team). Then the artist and his work are explored through accounts by those who have known and studied him: colleagues, journalists, writers, the sociologist Derrick de Kerckhove.

The traditional documentary formula is superseded by this twofold mode of storytelling.

While it is true that the interviews that try to frame the Wines’s achievement are part of an established and traditional procedure, the long takes of the old man engaged in drawing a project (an image that is the true unifying thread running through the film), interwoven with discussions with Kriz, offer an unprecedented insight into a multifaceted personality that is difficult to comprehend.

They are sequences to which Vassallo manages to convey ineffable suspense through the typically and purely cinematographic means which he devises in person: the movements of the camera, the music and the very precise editing, at times unhurried, at others strangely syncopated.

And that the filmmaker is more interested in the man (though it is not at all evident that he likes him) than his work is confirmed by the fact that the works – and remember that Wines lived in Rome and made contact with the groups Archizoom, Superstudio, Ufo, and frequented Branzi and De Lucchi – are shown only at the end, interspersed with the credits and preceded by a series of images of those outer cities to which the architect has offered a generous aesthetic redemption: the ‘peeling’ brick facade of one of the Peeling Projects (a series of interventions commissioned from SITE by the Best Products retail chain); the one in Richmond, revealing the independence of the envelope from the shed it was applied to.

The Indeterminate Façade in Houston, where the white brick front extends beyond the height of the building, while at the top its profile is fissured with the bricks tumbled on the overhung canopy as if they had just collapsed; the Tilt Showroom in Maryland, with its facade detached from the rest of the complex and tilted over with one corner resting on the ground at one end and attached to the building at the other; the Forest Building in Virginia, a shop invaded by the forest that surrounds and breaks into it, generating a fracture between the facade and the rest of the structure (a work that cannot fail to recall the Bosco Verticale, a striking precedent for it); and the Floating McDonald’s, a sublime ‘floating’ mockery of the client, reluctant to have the archetypal architecture of the famous fast food chain compromised.

And while, as we have seen, there is now little or nothing left of these ephemeral works, the man is still there, seraphic, drawing in his apartment, perhaps imagining an ideal battle in which James has finally prevailed over Wines.

Cover photo: Un’immagine del novantenne James Wines, protagonista del documentario diretto da Gianluca Vassallo