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Film: On site at Freehaus’s revamp of the Africa Centre

Architect and presenter Tarek Merlin talks about his Behind Closed Doors film series, including his most recent one, which was supported by the AJ

Next month, the Africa Centre in Southwark will reopen its doors following a major overhaul by AJ 40 under 40 practice Freehaus.

The emerging studio landed the job to create an ‘embassy of optimism’ within an existing 1960s block following a competition in 2019. Late last year Merlin, director and co-founder of Feix&Merlin, took a tour of the half-completed project with Freehaus co-director Jonathan Hagos to get an exclusive peek at this much-anticipated retrofit scheme.

What are you hoping to achieve with the Behind Closed Doors films and this one in particular for the AJ?
One of the original ideas for the Behind Closed Doors series was to feature lots of different kinds of buildings by lots of different kinds of architects: work from black-led practices, LGBT+-led practices, and female-led practices, as well as others, celebrating the diversity that already exists in the profession and showing, by representation, that there is space for everyone in architecture.

This film is perhaps the first that really starts to do that, so it’s important to me. The building we are exploring is the Africa Centre, a London-based charity that celebrates the diversity of Africa and its global diaspora. It is being refurbished by Freehaus, a young black-led practice based in London. This is the first film in the series where I hand over to another architect to present: Jonathan Hagos, who leads us through the project. This episode is shot by young black filmmaker, Giovanni Edwards.


Source:James Betts

Tarek Merlin and Jonathan Hagos with Giovanni Edwards during filming for the latest in the Behind Closed Doors series: The Africa Centre by Freehaus

What audience are you appealing to and what has been the reaction?
Another key ambition of the series is to make architecture more accessible – getting into buildings you can’t normally get into. We sometimes forget how lucky we are as architects, getting into buildings and on sites that most people don’t have access to, especially those not in the profession. The intended audience is really anyone interested in design, architecture and the built environment. But by making the films short-form and hosting on YouTube and social media, I am also hoping to reach people outside of the profession that may not necessarily know about it already.

The reaction so far has been fantastic. The films go out on all social channels including Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and, yes, also TikTok. And what’s great is that you get instant reactions, comments and engagement. Some of the videos on TikTok are getting 10,000 views. It just shows there is a huge interest in this sort of thing and it’s really rewarding to play a part in that.

Can architecture films ‘work’ on platforms such as TikTok?
I’ve always felt that there was a gap in the way architecture was being portrayed on TV; the only options being a lengthy documentary or a very lifestyle-oriented design programme, neither of which fully appealed.

If you watch how younger people absorb content now, it’s all on their phones and it’s all a mile a minute scrolling through different content; and I just felt that there was nothing in that sphere that was dealing with architecture. So the Behind Closed Doors films are all short-form, no more than six to eight minutes max and just very simply and authentically explore spaces and places.

We edit each one down into smaller clips for social channels so for example 30 to 60-second clips for Instagram Reels and Stories. And one-minute clips for TikTok and Twitter. The idea behind this is to take the content to where the people are, so each edit is slightly different for each channel.


Who and what are you hoping to cover in future films?
We’re going to continue this idea of handing over to someone else to present, I think. The next one is being led by our own Julia Feix, who is taking us around Feix & Merlin’s Walworth Town Hall project. We are hoping to explore more spaces that are relevant to other underrepresented groups in architecture. And there’s also something coming up that has a very interesting LGBTQ+ community focus that we’re really excited about.

We’re also looking at ways we can tie in with other fantastic institutions: OpenCity, for example, who have access to some of the most exciting and interesting buildings in London and beyond.

We’ve made six films so far, so hopefully we can meaningfully call it a series now. But each film is independently funded at the moment, some by clients and some by other architects, so it’s all about trying to find the next opportunity together.

Has the industry seized the potential of film yet?
There is an interesting discussion about how we present ourselves outwardly as a profession – more open and accessible. Film is really great way to do that. Film is so much more visceral, instantly engaging and makes it so much easier to understand volume and form. Lots of people are using moving images

What advice would you have for anyone else hoping to make films about their buildings?
Making a film can be a bit daunting. It’s so much more revealing than a still photograph and can make you feel a bit vulnerable. I would say: try not think too much about trying to make it perfect or trying to be perfect yourself. Be yourself and look to make the content simple and short-form, authentically showing the reality of spaces and revealing the real individuals behind the work.

Source:James Betts

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