Interview: Get to know the 2018 Grand Prize Winner

Pictured above from left to right: Andrew Cook (Kramer + Marks Architects), Heather Koury, Hon. AIA (AIA Film Challenge Juror) Cheryl Hess (2018 Film Challenge Winner), and Kyle Bergman (Founder of Architecture and Design Film Festival) Photo Credit: LOU AGUILAR

Filmmaker Cheryl Hess has had a busy month. After being named the 2018 AIA Film Challenge Grand Prize winner, she was off to New York to accept her award and screen her film at the opening night of the Architecture and Design Film Festival. Meet the person behind the camera and learn more about her winning film, “Past/Presence: Saving the Spring Garden School.” 

What is your background as a filmmaker?

CH: I am a documentary filmmaker and cinematographer based in Philadelphia. My first love is shooting observational and verite films. To me nothing compares to the challenge of telling a story on the fly, utilizing my skills as an observer and listener to make a scene come to life. 

What does winning this year’s Grand Prize and having your film featured at ADFF mean to you? 

CH: I am very honored to have been chosen as this year’s Grand Prize winner and to be able to highlight an adaptive reuse project that not only restored a great old building to its former glory, but also is providing affordable housing for both veterans and the elderly.  

Can you give us a brief synopsis of the film?

CH: The Spring Garden School in North Philadelphia had been sitting vacant and abandoned for nearly 30 years before the Philadelphia Housing Authority teamed with the non-profit Help USA to convert the property into affordable housing for low-income senior citizens and homeless veterans. “Past/Presence” shows how the preservation and adaptive reuse of a historic building is meaningful to both the new residents and those who knew the building in its original iteration.

 How has participating in the AIA Film Challenge influenced your idea of architecture’s positive community impact and the power of film in sharing that story?

CH: In the case of the Spring Garden School, the building really meant a lot to the neighborhood, and even though it had been a blighted structure, people did not want to see it torn down. One of the people who I interviewed for the film not only went to the school when he was a boy, but also worked at the school as a maintenance person until it closed.  He hadn’t been back inside since. You could see how genuinely moved he was to visit it again and that it brought back a lot of memories for him. And when he comments that “the structure will always be here” it reads as a comment on our own mortality. Very few people get to say, “I designed that building.” But maybe we become part of history in our own fashion by participating in the life of that building whether it be as a student, a graffiti artist, or a new resident.  


Congratulations to this year’s Grand Prize Winner, Cheryl Hess, and many thanks to everyone who submitted films. Your inspiring stories are the heart and soul of the AIA Film Challenge.