How do you turn ordinary flash movies into works of art? london’s squint/opera delivers the digital gesamstkunstwerk.

Picture a gray morning in a mid-sized industrial British city. It’s early, and you’re the only one awake. Suddenly, the windows of every building are glowing, emerging from drab clarity to bright color until each window is exploding from its frame, flying together to create an ever-shifting combination of brilliantly colored squares moving through the city, leaving shiny new structures and playful landscaping where once there was just street and car.

It sounds like some psychedelic version of tomorrowland, but in fact, it’s Squint/Opera’s vision of today. And it makes most architectural animation look so last week. When Ollie Alsop, Julius Cocke, and Alice Scott founded the London-based Squint/Opera in 2001 after meeting at Archigram co-founder Peter Cook’s architectural edcuation program, they concentrated on producing their particular take on the style of glossy animated film about architecture that populates everything from marketing portfolios to polished sales centers. This year, the firm won the ultimate honor when Picture a City, the flying windows project, was acquired (jointly) by the departments of film and architecture for the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

“We pride ourselves in being able to tell stories,” says Squint/Opera’s director of business development, Alex Scott-Whitby. Picture a City, a look at the Yorkshire city of Bradford’s urban redevelopment, visually narrates an overlooked town’s transformation into a revitalized city through the implementation of renegade architect Will Alsop’s (literally) colorful masterplan. It’s an easy reading of a difficult architect’s most esoteric work, but Scott-Whitby points out that Squint/Opera’s ambition is to create a conversation between often unintelligible architects and an interested—if often amateur—public. Another film produced with Alsop shows the architect sitting in a giant bird’s nest, “tweeting” a narrative for his Birdhouse Project in Japan while gigantic bird cut-outs clumsily fly around his head. Gritty, messy, and punchy, Alsop’s Birdhouse makes a refreshing contrast to much of the blandly lustrous architectural animations currently making the rounds.

“We use a lot of processes from the film industry,” Scott-Whitby explains of Squint/Opera’s free-thinking creative approach, which includes incorporating slices of multiple programs’ products into a film. The firm’s designers—now a team of 25 including former in-flight safety-film animators and an artist straight from Jim Henson’s idiosyncratic puppet shop—use traditional architectural modeling programs like 3dstudio Max and Maya, as well as film industry holdovers like Houdini, a parametric modeling program. The short movies end up a combination of final rendering-quality images and quick-cut on-the-fly pop-up moviemaking. Next up: a Tokyo exhibition with fashion designer Paul Smith, a large-scale masterplan project in Singapore, and a major retrospective with futurist Luigi Caloni, the inventor of Sony’s first earbuds. Enough opera to make you squint, no doubt. —Eva Hagberg



“We pride ourselves in being able to tell stories”