BY BRIAN LIBBY
Before beginning my architecture-writing career a little over 15 years ago, I spent a number of years as a film critic, and the work of iconoclastic independent documentary and experimental filmmakers like Bill Brown was always of greater interest to me than the latest blockbuster churned out of Hollywood's factory. In films like 1999's Confederation Park, 2009's Chicago Corner and 2012's Document, the Harvard-educated filmmaker has long shown an eye for wondrous visual poetry as well as a nomadic traveler's sense about what makes each place or region unique, be it the tensions of the US-Mexico border, the endless Trans-Canada Highway, or the decaying missile silos of North Dakota.
In the new documentary Speculation Nation, coming Tuesday to the Northwest Film Center, Brown and co-director Sabine Gruffat look at how the global financial crisis of the late 2000s impacted Spain, one of the hardest-hit countries because of its embrace of real estate speculation and its all too willing, arguably corrupt government, willing to accommodate the dreams of those contributing to its elected officials' campaigns, even if it meant building islands of urbanity in otherwise desert-like isolated locales.
Recently I conversed with Brown by email to discuss not only Speculation Nation and Spain's housing crisis, but what we can learn about America's prevalent real-estate speculation, which also can be blamed for wrecking the economy of the past decade, and how Brown sees Portland in the context of his world travels.
Portland Architecture: How did you wind up making a film in Spain? Did you set out to make a film about housing initially or a film about that country?
Bill Brown: The movie began with a train trip. Sabine and I were heading to a film festival in Pamplona on the high-speed train from Madrid. Somewhere in the middle of the journey, in the middle of nowhere, we saw a town in the distance. It looked recently built and totally abandoned. A newly built ghost town. That was our introduction to the Spanish housing crisis, and the abandoned real estate developments all over the country. After everything we'd read about the exotic and abstract financial shenanigans that caused the global economic crisis of 2007-8, here was a very real, material expression of it. We had a hunch that we could learn something if we explored the physical evidence of the housing bust.
How might you compare the crisis in Spain, with so many speculative developments sitting empty, versus the US, where this an affordable housing crisis as well as rampant speculation?
The US is definitely no stranger to real estate speculation. If you drive around the far suburbs of Las Vegas or Phoenix or south Florida, you can still find ghost towns left over from the 2007 crash. But the scale of real estate speculation in Spain was something else. Construction has always been a huge part of the Spanish economy. After the country entered the Euro Zone in 2002, things kicked into overdrive. Tons of money from northern Europe came flooding into the country, often funding projects that were pure fantasy: housing developments in the middle of nowhere, cut off from jobs, water, and transportation. It was a vast criminal enterprise disguised as a national economy.
If you were given a magic wand to make changes with respect to housing policy, either here in America or elsewhere, what would you do? What makes healthy residential communities?
I guess I'm enough of a capitalist to think that markets can be a positive good. They can incentivize innovation and address needs. But markets can break, and it's up to governments to fix them. Housing bubbles and real estate speculation, not to mention rampant gentrification, can be managed if there's the political will. I'm definitely not an expert, but I imagine there are nuts-and-bolts responses that could help: changes in tax codes that encourage mixed-income housing and small businesses, and discourage large-scale development and property speculation; changes in zoning and planning that make it easier for working class people to live near where they work; investment in public transit and infrastructure.
You've made films that explore a variety of places in the US and beyond. Given the increasingly wide divisions and the growing tensions that seem to exist in this country between urban and non-urban populations, what role do you think architecture and planning play in that divide, or can play in bringing people of different demographics back together?
I spent a good number of years driving around the US, poking around the old centers of little towns and big cities. What always surprised me— what still surprises me—is to discover that this used to be a country of center cities: a country of lively downtowns and relatively dense development; a country of trains and street cars and pretty public buildings; a country that invested in infrastructure and valued public space. If you drive into the center of any town or city in the U.S., you can still find the remnants and remains of that country. But then cars ruined everything, cars and the government/corporate policies and alliances that enabled them, and policies that encouraged sprawl and suburbanization and freeways. It will take a long time and a lot of good planning and policy to fix the damage. Cities like Portland can be part of the solution, I think. Places that try—even imperfectly—to imagine what a livable city can be.
Part of what inspired us in Spain was spending time with activists who hoped the housing crisis could be an opportunity to re-imagine the city, to consider who has a right to it (to use David Harvey's term). Maybe that's where we are now. A era of pilot projects. An era when the cities we live in are broken, and it's up to us—activists, artists, dreamers—to experiment with better, more humane, more equitable ways of living. It's hard to imagine a better way of living unless you see examples of it: models, prototypes. Maybe that's the real value of the occupation movement: to model another kind of city, and another way of living in it.
I'd love your take on Portland. I know you've visited here a time or two, and given how much you've traveled in general, I wonder if you have any sense of what seems to be working here and what isn't. We have a sizable homeless problem, for example, and our heretofore pretty affordable city suddenly feels expensive. But it's all relative sometimes. What's your impression of Portland? What are your favorite or least favorite things you've encountered?