Build Back Better film honored by AIA I Look Up Film Challenge

What a difference a week makes. As downtown re-opens and our city breathes a collective sigh of relief today after the Cedar River crested at its second-highest level earlier this week, OPN is thrilled to announce that our submission to the AIA I Look Up Film Challenge by filmmaker Sam Fathallah was honored with third place in this year’s contest.

Our film, which ironically chronicles Cedar Rapids’ rebirth following the devastating floods of 2008, was screened on Sept. 29 at the Architecture & Design Film Festival in New York City. It will also will be screened at SXSW Eco on Oct. 12 and again at the 2017 AIA National Convention in Orlando. Each of the 47 films, all of which were completed in one month, explore the theme of architecture as a solution.

OPN’s story is truly Cedar Rapids’ story, which is even more apparent after they way our community rallied last week to ensure that all the progress made in the last eight years wasn’t eradicated by floodwaters again.

This film reinforced our belief in the transformational power that architecture can have on people’s lives. In 2008, when the city of Cedar Rapids – our hometown both personally and professionally – was all but submerged in a flood of epic proportions, we were too close to the drama of the moment to fully realize the ramifications of the event. Our own offices were some of the hundreds of homes, businesses, and public buildings affected by the flood. In the moment, sifting through the salvage, wading through the mud, recoiling from the emotional onslaught of driving through wreckage in our city, the devastation was numbing. In the years following the floods as we worked on various flood recovery related projects, the overall narrative was secondary to day-to-day decisions within the context of each renovation, restoration, and new design. It wasn’t until nearly 10 years later through the process of making this video that we were able to step back and reflect on the entire experience and appreciate how architecture and community and the human spirit come together.

Our story isn’t about one design, one solution. It is about how we as architects were able to use our talents and training to help our city find hope in devastation by identifying the core of who we are as a community and charting a course forward based on that knowledge.That is the parallel between architecture and filmmaking. Architects tell stories through built environments. Filmmakers tell stories through imagery and the spoken word. Both, though, are art forms about constructing an experience.

In many ways, the filmmaking process reflected the same collaboration architects endeavor to achieve with clients. As a result, we understood our fillmmaker Sam Fathallahs process and he ours in ways neither of us anticipated. We are so thankful to Sam for his mastery in telling this story. He asked the right questions to force us to unpack memories that had been left in the past and distilled hours of interviews to translate our shared creative vision into a video that is visually compelling and immersive. We are thankful too to Jim Hoffman, Casey Prince, and Amber Mussman for sharing their pieces of our collective story with Sam for this video. Because their roles in our community’s recovery have been critical, so too was their participation in this film.

The 2008 flood was a crossroads for Cedar Rapids. Even though the flood – the fifth largest natural disaster in our nation’s history – was undeniably devastating, it forced our community to reinvent itself at a time when we had become complacent.  Outside consultants warned us not to expect to return to normal for at least a decade.  We haven’t marked that milestone yet, and the communities of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City recently celebrated the re-opening of a new Hancher Auditorium (which OPN designed in collaboration with Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects), the final building to return post-flood.

When we reflect at where our city is now, eight years after the flood, we are confident that we have made more progress as a community than we would have been if the flood had not happened. Instead of regressing, we looked to the future and re-invented ourselves. We used each flood-affected project as a chance to not only rebuild, but to build back better. The result is a great testament to the power of design and the unique opportunity that architects have to help lead a community dialogue on how each project had a chance to create great projects, but also how they could each impact the surrounding area. The sum was greater than the individual parts.

We went from a city that essentially rolled up its sidewalks at 5 p.m., to a city that has great performance spaces, rich cultural facilities, outdoor public art, diverse restaurants, terrific outdoor spaces, bike lanes, and defined neighborhoods with an abundance of urban housing options. While we may have achieved this eventually, there is no doubt that the flood of 2008 was the catalyst to getting there now. At a time when the nation was hit with a financial slowdown, and cities with manufacturing roots like Cedar Rapids were struggling, we have had a renaissance of culture and enjoyed economic growth. The same can be said for OPN Architects. The recession caused many architecture firms to flounder or fold. At the same time, we found ourselves in this bonanza of development and design.

We were compelled to tell this story because the flood fundamentally shaped our city and firm. We built back better, together.