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Heather Purcell Leja of Design OnScreen talks architecture and modernist preservation

Heather Purcell Leja of Design OnScreen talks architecture and modernist preservation

Since 2007, Design OnScreen has worked to preserve modern architecture across America by producing and presenting films focusing on unheralded architects and designers, and also curating architecture-centered film festivals around the world. And it's fought this good fight from its headquarters in Denver, Colorado.

As Design OnScreen's Architecture + Design Film Series comes to a close this week, Executive Director Heather Purcell Leja took some time to speak to Westword about the foundation's origins and what's in store for the non-profit.

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Westword: Design OnScreen as a non-profit has been around for a while. Can you talk a little bit about go how it started, and your role in the organization?

Heather Purcell Leja: It was founded in 2007 by Kirk Brown and his wife, Jill Wiltse. They are terrific supporters of the arts in Denver -- as well as design and photography. They are all-around great people, who had the idea for a non-profit foundation that would just focus on making films about architecture and design. The idea was really to make films more on the "unsung heros" of architecture and design. Frank Lloyd Wright has a lot of films about him, but there are so many architects and designers who are making incredible contributions not just to their profession, but to their communities. Their ideas and designs really deserve a wider audience, and film is a terrific way to bring the experience of being an architect and their designs to people all over the world.

I am an attorney who specialized in entertainment and intellectual property law in the past, and I was working with [Brown and Wiltse] and heard about their idea and thought, wow, this sounds terrific, and I wanted to help. So we worked together to bring the organization into being and get the 501(c)3 status secured starting in 2008. I came on board in in August of 2008 and had that status granted in 2009. Since then, we have been making films -- we have produced six films since 2008 on both architects and designers.

We also began co-producing and participating in architecture and design film festivals and film series. First here in Denver, and then we started to spread to something we've done annually in Palm Springs, and then doing them around the world. We've been contacted by people in places like Moscow and Auckland, New Zealand and Venice, Italy, saying, "We see that you do this and we'd really like to do this in our local community." So that has become of tremendous part of fulfilling our mission, too.

And what is that mission?

We are a non-profit foundation dedicated to producing, promoting and preserving high-quality films on architecture and design. The promoting part is kind of the festival part. The preserving part -- we've also given grants to places like the Museum Of Modern Art in New York to digitize old design-related films so they can be preserved and featured in exhibitions. [Design OnScreen is also] using film to capture interviews with these great architects and designers, particularly from the mid-century period who they (themselves) are in their mid-eighties and -nineties -- so there's kind of an urgency about even getting certain people on film.

Did you have to step away from practicing law to become the Executive Director of Design OnScreen?

It's very helpful that I'm an attorney as well as executive director, because I end up doing the production legal work -- the image releases, production agreements, location releases, clearances for various images used in film and things like that. So I certainly use my law degree a lot in what I do, in addition to having a background in hotels -- which helps me put together events. It kind of brings together a lot of things that I enjoy doing. I'm very fortunate.

There is another organization in New York called Checkerboard Films, and they have been around for thirty years. They have a broader portfolio that includes films on art, architecture and design -- and have done several films on architecture and design as well. They have kind of been an encouraging older sibling for us -- they supported the idea of another foundation like us coming into the same space. They've given us a lot of advice and support along the way. Our mission is a bit more focused than what they are doing.

Did you have a personal interest in architecture outside of the formation of Design OnScreen?

It's kind of a funny thing; I owe an almost lifetime of interest in architecture and design to a wonderful high school teacher that I had in Dallas, who taught a course called "Monuments in Contemporary Culture." We were studying avant garde theater and cutting-edge architecture and design. He instilled that curiosity in me and gave me a little bit of knowledge. Then I just took some courses on the history of architecture in college and it's something I've followed in the New York Times every day since high school. Of, course this job has also educated me in ways I've never imagined, too.

Can you talk a little about some of the films Design OnScreen has been responsible for?

It has been incredible to say, make films on Donald Wexler and William Krisel in Southern California, who are in their early eighties, and to work with a filmmaker like Jake Gorst. To start a new interest in their work and see younger generations of architecture students and design lovers come to appreciate them, and to see these designers come to the screening and to see them bask in the recognition. is a really rewarding part of the job.

What is the process behind choosing who or what subjects Design OnScreen makes a film about?

We have a board of directors made up of several architects and art and design consultants. We also have geographic diversity, with three of the people on our board from Denver, a couple from California and some from New York. Our board essentially decides what subject to pursue next, and we have a list of over one hundred very deserving subjects. It is one of the most difficult parts of Design OnScreen's activities -- determining what to do next. Sometimes it is a function of grants we might be able to get to fund it or if there's a traveling exhibition that's coming up in the next couple of years that a film can accompany. There is always a different set of factors in determining which things we approach next.

We always find and work with the "expert" in that field, or on that particular designer or period, to work on the film as a consultant. That way we can ensure that the viewpoint and the facts that are captured are representative of what needs to be captured in the historical record. With our last film, Modern Tide, we did mid-century modern architecture on Long Island. So we're starting to even approach the unsung places of architecture and design that maybe everyone doesn't know have a rich tradition of heritage -- or the architectural gems that are threatened by development and deserve preservation.

The architectural preservation part of these projects -- having the potential to save a piece of design work -- has to be wonderful and also heartbreaking.

That's right. And part of our hope is that the films help to generate an appreciation for architecture that people wouldn't have otherwise. When a film can show the roots of the architecture and how beautiful it is -- a recurrent theme in our films is how living in good architecture changes people's lives. It is something that the people who live in some of these buildings talk about, and then the architects talk about how that is their intent, too.

We've all seen how sometimes preservation ordinances or legislation for preservation often doesn't work, so another angle to come at it from is to say, well, watch these films. Then when you come to own or live next door [to a building in danger of demolition], you can say maybe that's something I don't want to disappear.

But there's some fresh ideas in some of the films. In Modern Tide, there's an iconic, incredible house on Long Island done by Andrew Geller and it's threatened with destruction -- as a lot of them are in that area -- because the land is now so valuable. But the person who owns the house decides to keep it and build his own complementary structure next to it, and run tours through the (Geller) house, which pays for the preservation. It is a different solution for a building that is an issue.

Our screenings have become a place where communities can have these arguments, in the context of the film they have just seen. That kind of back and forth, I feel like our films are doing what we hope they will do -- start the conversation and make it from a place of experience. There's more than just two viewpoints.

How have architectural film festivals in other places come together? Is Design OnScreen asked to bring a pre-chosen set of films, or do you curate?

It goes both ways -- in some places we've been asked to curate the films. We try to make the film (choices) the best and most recent, but also films that appeal to that particular community or region where they're being shown. We did that for New Zealand and Venice. We presented their first ever architecture film festival as part of the Venice Architectural Biennale. But in other cases, general film festivals and other architectural and design film festivals will ask to be allowed to screen some of our films as well as make suggestions about films we have gotten to know. We're not just promoting our own films; we like to see the very best. The ones that we think are higher quality we promote so they can be seen as widely as possible.

Does Design OnScreen have a new film or festival in the works right now?

Yes. Right now we're doing fundraising for a film on modernist architecture in Houston. That might fall into the unsung places category -- people say, oh, Houston has good architecture? (Laughs.) But they really do, and they have a strong foundation -- it is a classic post-war boomtown in the U.S. and it is all taking place in the context of a city that has no zoning. So anything goes -- it really is the wild west.

We're working with a very talented filmmaker named Sam Wainwright Douglas, who is based in Austin. He did a film a few years ago called Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio that was very well-received and had a PBS run. His father is an architect in Houston, so he has a particular knowledge and entrée into houses there.

We've gotten a grant from the Graham Foundation in Chicago, which funds architecturally-related projects. The Houston Architecture Foundation has also given us a grant, and Design OnScreen will be providing about a third of the funding. We have to raise about $35,000 to make that film happen. Something we like to do is work with a local non-profit in whatever community we're either staging a festival in or making a film about -- there's a local non-profit called HoustonMod that is dedicated to helping people learn to appreciate and go to see good modernist architecture in the area. We're working with them on applying for grants and also identifying the experts there who will consult on the film and make it as good as it can be.

Houston as a hub for architecture. Who knew?

It might be one of the lessons people take from these films -- whether it is about Palm Springs, or Long Island or Houston -- what is my community have? Do I know? Can I find out and care and get involved? Then they usually see that there is a group already there they can work with. It is one of the most rewarding things about what we do: with the films and the screenings, because we partner with local entities, it helps to strengthen the local design community. It brings out people who are connected, say, on the internet. It brings them out to meet other people who care about architecture and design in real time. They can exchange business cards, have a drink, and hopefully projects grow from there.

Catch the three remaining films in Design OnScreen's Architecture + Film series through Friday, September 28, at the Denver filmCenter. At 7 p.m. tonight, there will be a showing of Detropia, a look into the past, present and future of Detroit through the lens of a sustainable culture. For more information on Design OnScreen's work, visit the organization's website.


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