Making a documentary about a creator of spaces by confining him to the four walls of his apartment. This is the paradox that informs the documentary James vs Wines – The High Rise of Meanings, presented at the Milan Design Film Festival 2022, directed by Gianluca Vassallo, produced by Foscarini and dedicated to a great thinker and humanist before being an architect: that James Wines who, with the interdisciplinary group SITE (Sculpture In The Environment), which he founded in the early 1970s, has created ephemeral and ingenious works, capable of intervening in non-places on the margins of the great US metropolises.
Suburbs, highways, urban sprawl: anonymous and indistinguishable places that have forged the imagination of entire generations of artists, visual (just think of Wenders in Paris, Texas) and otherwise, to whom Wines and SITE they conferred an unpredictable 'ornamental' patina, convinced as they were that art, in contemporary society, had by now been relegated to the status of a decorative activity.
The orientation chosen by Vassallo for his documentary is already contained in the title, in which James is pitted 'against Wines.
The man James, now lively in his nineties, is shown in anonymous everyday life exchanging jokes with his wife Kriz (also part of the SITE team); the artist and his work are instead investigated through the testimonies of those who knew and studied him: colleagues, journalists, writers, the sociologist Derrick de Kerckhove.
The formula of the traditional documentary is overcome precisely by this dual way of story: because if it is true that the interviews aimed at framing the figure of Wines are part of a consolidated and 'traditional' investigation procedure, the long shots of the old man intent on drawing a project (image which is the true fil rouge of the film), interspersed with discussions with Kriz, represent an unprecedented insight into a multifaceted personality and difficult to assimilate.
These are sequences to which Vassallo manages to give an ineffable suspense through exquisitely and purely cinematographic means and which he takes care of personally: the camera movements, the music and a very precise editing, now relaxed now strangely syncopated.
And that the author is more interested in the man (even if it is by no means certain that he loves him) than in his work is confirmed by the fact that the works of Wines - who, let us remember, lived in Rome and came into contact with groups Archizoom, Superstudio, Ufo, frequenting Branzi and De Lucchi – are shown only at the end, interspersed with the credits and preceded by a series of images of those suburban suburbs to which the architect has offered a generous aesthetic loophole: the 'peeled' brick facade of one of the Peeling Projects (series of interventions commissioned to SITE by the Best Products commercial chain), the one in Richmond, which reveals the independence of the shell from the shed to which it was juxtaposed ; the Indeterminate Façade in Houston, in which the white brick cladding extends beyond the height of the building, while at the top the profile is left fragmented, with the bricks collapsed on the overhanging canopy as if they had just collapsed; the Tilt Showroom in Maryland, whose main facade is detached from the rest of the complex by resting on the ground at an angle on one side and on the building on the other; the Forest Building in Virginia, a shop invaded by the forest that surrounds it and which breaks in generating a fracture between the facade and the rest of the structure (a work that cannot fail to recall the Bosco Verticale, constituting a luminous precedent); and the Floating McDonald's, a sublime 'floating' mockery at the client, who did not want the archetypal architecture of the famous fast food to be compromised.
And while of these ephemeral works, as we said, little or nothing is now left, the man is still there, seraphic, in his apartment drawing, perhaps imagining an ideal battle in which James has finally prevailed over Wines.