Architecture on Film: En Construcción (Work in Progress)

Mon 29 Mar 2010 6.15pm

  • En Construcción, 2001

En Construcción (Work in Progress)

A lyrical and humorous cinematic observation of a neighbourhood, its inhabitants, its history and its future, En Construcción, won the Fipresci, Best Film and Special Prize of the Jury at the San Sebastian Film Festival at its premiere, and was recently voted the 5th best film of the decade (2000-09) by Nicolas Azalbert of Cahiers du Cinema.

The film focuses upon the construction of an upscale apartment block in Barcelona’s Barrio Chino district, as swathes of the neighbourhood are demolished in the city’s eradication of the physical infrastructure of vice as part of an EU funded urban development scheme. Guerin shot over 120 hours of footage to create a document of a city, ‘searching for its future while jostling its past… a construction site, where if you listen carefully, you can hear the sounds that move the world.’

The neighbourhood’s history of migration and flux is reflected in the film’s depiction of the urban site as a continual ‘work in progress.’ As the camera spends time with bricklayers ruminating upon the imperatives of speed in the construction of the new apartments, whilst working in the shadow of a medieval church and above a recently unearthed Roman cemetery, the film suggests significant dialogues around permanence, skill, legacy and time, with both lightness of touch and poetic detail. As one worker wryly muses, ‘Jesus wasn’t in a hurry.’

A perpetually stoned prostitute and her boyfriend serve as the occasional eyes of the area’s past of heroin, bordellos and the infamous gambling dens of Picasso and Hemmingway; El Raval’s old-timers discuss the rising price of houses and hookers over lunch; whilst the local and immigrant construction team build picture-windows and insert video-entry phones into the new apartments that will eventually result in their own displacement.

Guerin creates magical cinema that takes a keen look at the transformation and inhabitation of a specific urban site, as both a window onto wider realities, and as a bridge between the past and the future.

Spain 2001, Dir José Luis Guerín, 125 min

In Spanish with English subtitles


Beauty In Progress, Programme Notes by Jordi Ballò

Writer, Head of Exhibitions at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB) and Professor of Audio-visual Communication at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

The genesis of Work in Progress* (2001) by José Luis Guerin can be summed up in a few words: we all live in spaces constructed by people we don’t know. In this film-to-be we are to take into account the craft of the bricklayers’, alongside what they say, feel and think in the daily process of their work, their relations with new workers, and their encounter with the future owners of the apartment they have constructed on the day the latter visit a flat they considered theirs, but about which they knew nothing.

These are some of the near abstract principles faced by the Work in Progress film crew. Yet in order to take the next step, they also had to pinpoint the actual building being constructed and to decide who the real stars of the film would be and how they would interrelate: everything that would enable the abstract to start being anchored in the real. After this intensive search and process there appeared the site of a new building in Barcelona’s El Raval neighbourhood - a poor area undergoing a process of renovation with the explicit aim of bringing variety to the human geography of its inhabitants - a building site combining a close-knit community of local bricklayers with newly-arrived immigrant co-workers. As the location and the characters that would inhabit it were coming into focus, so the film was taking shape too - emulating the work in progress of the building as the film and apartment block take shape in unison.

The film crew of Work in Progress was something new. Fruit of an initiative in the form of a master’s degree in auteur documentary-making at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University, the film was made with a team of young people working in tandem with the director; discussing stylistic decisions with him and establishing a programme for their own immersion in the task that created a parallel between the work on the building and the work on the film itself. The crew started their day’s work at the same time as the construction workers, and finished with them. Some days of the week they limited themselves to observing what was happening without filming: other days they tried to capture those moments of deep truth that unfolded before their eyes. This capturing of the real was done via “real-life staging”, as the protagonists were invited to engage in their usual activities before the camera - allowing the beauty of chance to be inscribed in the film. Complimented by more formal static shot sequences, sometimes using two cameras to enable shot-reverse-shots, the film conjours the indefinable redolence somewhere between fiction and reality that it stirs in its audience.

The mimesis between the manner of filming and the work being done on the housing block came to a critical point when archaeologists discovered a number of Roman tombs where the building’s foundations were to be constructed, which temporarily paralysed the building work but gave rise to the film’s most celebrated scene. Would the film be put on hold whilst construction was? On the contrary. Attracted by the archaeological finds, the hugely diverse residents of El Raval started to gather around the building site, to observe the tombs and reflect aloud upon this corroboration of the fact that we live on top of the dead without knowing. The film then departed from its initial concept and was able to invite new guests into the development of its plot. The neighbourhood residents would also play leading roles, intermingled with the bricklayers in a variety of registers that would even include a love story. Work in Progress truly demonstrates that the beauty of a film lies in its ability to be open to all the possibilities of its shooting, without ever being locked into itself.

Years later, the architect Josep Lluís Mateo won the competition to build the new Filmoteca de Catalunya (Catalan Film Institute) in the Raval, just a few metres from where Work in Progress had been shot. He described his project as an homage to the film, because Guerin’s work had shown architects that the beauty of a building is only felt when one palpates the process that has made it possible.

* The original title of José Luis Guerin’s film is En Construcción (literally: Under Construction) while that of the English-language version is Work in Progress. Of this choice, Guerin notes that it captures “something that is moving, something that is being made”, “a neighborhood or the whole society”, “some small part of the world’s movement” while also referring to the film itself, in contrast to films made strictly according to a prior plan. “We want to free cinema for the sake of a new experience.” (Talk given at the colloquium “Cinema and Thought: The Filmic Essay”, Madrid, 28 August 2003,

Download programme notes here