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Modern Ruin: Filmmaker Matthew Silva on the New York State Pavilion

05/21/2015 03:52 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2016

Written by Julia Rocchi

For the past three years, the futuristic New York State Pavilion -- a National Treasure looking for a new future of its own - has enchanted many people with its dramatic design and World Fair history. One of those people became so enchanted that he decided to make a film about the structure -- a passion project that quickly grew into a larger grassroots campaign to save the Pavilion.

That person is Matthew Silva, co-founder of People for the Pavilion and the filmmaker behind the documentary Modern Ruin: A World's Fair Pavilion. His tireless efforts behind the camera, on social media, and at the site itself have not only helped get more people talking about the Pavilion, but it's brought them together as well, focusing their energy on reinvention for an inventive space.

This week, the documentary that started it all three years ago is having its world premiere. So before the curtain goes up, we chatted with Silva to learn more about his fascinating route from schoolteacher to filmmaker to preservation advocate.

What first inspired your interest in the New York State Pavilion?

I, like many people my age (born in the '80s, but a kid of the '90s), would always pass the building in the back seat of my parents' car on the way to my grandmother's house and anywhere on my way to New York City. I would see it and I'd say to my parents, "What is that?" [But] my parents didn't go to the fair because they're both immigrants that came after the World's Fair had ended, and so they didn't have any explanation other than "Oh, it's from the World's Fair."

It wasn't until many years later when I was really curious and I Googled, "What is that spaceshipy-looking thing on the side of the Long Island Expressway." And images of what I came to learn as the New York State Pavilion appeared and I started to read about it and I was just fascinated by the history and blown away by the fact that Philip Johnson -- a pretty well-known, renowned architect of the 20th century -- had designed the building, [yet] it was rotting away in plain sight.

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(From left to right) Salmaan Khan, Matthew Silva, and Christian Doran, co-founders of People for the Pavilion.

What did you think about the building once you learned what it was?

I was fascinated. I'm a lover of design architecture and design thinking, and as a middle school and high school technology teacher I'm always looking for ways to incorporate architecture, but also creative thinking, into my curriculum. So I looked at the New York State Pavilion as a really great design problem that kind of sits in limbo at this crossroads: It can be knocked down and forgotten by future generations, or it can be re-purposed into something new that can really benefit future generations of New Yorkers or tourists.

In setting up that lesson plan, I started to do more research on the Internet and realized that there wasn't any kind of established place to learn about this building. There were a lot of venues, a lot of different sources to learn about the World's Fair but not a whole lot specifically about this building. So I said, "I want to try and get in touch with people who actually visited, actually went to the building and experienced firsthand during this era, maybe even through the years."

So what was your next step?

I looked on Facebook for a group about the New York State Pavilion and there wasn't anything like that. So I started one [in spring 2012] and I called it People for the New York State Pavilion. And people started joining it and sharing their memories of the World's Fair, but specifically the New York State Pavilion. I started to establish relationships with people who have worked over the years to try and save the building, and I collected this really unique network of people who know about the building or were really passionate about the building.

I was going to write a book about the building and use my resources from people who I'd met and other academic articles and newspaper articles, etc. [But] I decided that it might be more interesting if I sat down with them with camera and interviewed them. And this idea quickly evolved into what has become this documentary Modern Ruin.

These last three years have been just incredible in terms of who I've been able to meet, and where I've been able to go, and what it's been able to do for the visibility of this building. I feel very privileged to have been able to be a part of it in this capacity; it's just been a lot of fun.

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Salmaan Khan, Christian Doran, and Matthew Silva planning the People For the Pavilion January 25th 2014 Kick-off event.

What did the film allow you to do as opposed to writing the book?

What the film allowed me to do was to create content along the way that I was able to post and generate a lot of buzz on social media. I was able to start interviewing people and put little short clips onto the web, and this got people really excited and it got newspapers and big news outlets to pay attention to what was going on in terms of the preservation effort. The film was something tangible and visible that really got people excited in the early stages leading up to the 50th anniversary.

Why did you decide to title the film with the word "ruin" -- a term that can sometimes be construed as a place beyond saving? What were you hoping to invoke?

Philip Johnson himself referred to the building as a modern ruin. And it's no secret he remarked about this on more than one occasion that he kind of thought the building looked nice as a ruin. But he also did kind of feel like something should be done. Either do something with it or get rid of it, stop going back and forth -- that was kind of his attitude about it.

I also am just fascinated by modern structures and sort of how they age over time. Modern architecture is already 50 plus years old, and it's interesting to see how some of these structures have endured and some of them haven't. And people don't regard modern architecture always as stuff that is "good" architecture and some of it has not survived.

It's interesting to me that in such a short period of time this really monumental and cool piece of architecture has been left to ruin. And it appears from the road, and up close, to be a ruin.

There are similarities in appearance to that of the Roman ruins, I think. That is controversial; some people take issue with that. They don't like to compare the "historic" or "ancient" Roman ruins to something that was really from a pop-culture, sort of bubble-gummy event. But I think it's undeniable that there's something kind of alluring, whimsical, and haunting, and romantic about the New York State Pavilion in the current state that it's in.

Also, the film doesn't necessarily end with a solution because the book hasn't been written, so to speak, on what is going to happen with it. There's still a lot of buzz and a lot of positive things happening with the building. We're still in the state of limbo.

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Matthew Silva preparing to film an interview outside of the Queens Museum.

What do you hope this film will achieve?

I hope that the film reaches a wider audience beyond people who are just interested in architecture or historic preservation. I hope that people see the film and they're able to learn about that thing they always see from the side of the road. It is an internationally known piece of architecture, but a lot of people -- if they know it was from the World's Fair -- they don't remember what it looks like or they don't even know what it looked like. And when they see the contrast, I think they'll start to dream.

Ultimately, that was the thing that started the whole project with my students. It was like, "OK, here's this piece of decaying architecture, but let's have a little bit of vision, let's not see it just as this rotting piece of concrete. What's the dream? Let's dream about what it can be in the same way the people who dreamed up the High Line, dreamed it into something so amazing and beautiful."

So I hope that the film helps people re-imagine the space and are inspired to dream for what it can be in the future.

If people see the film and they walk out and remember nothing else about the Pavilion, what one message (or one idea) do you hope they will walk away with?

How can I help? What can I do to revive this building? That's the feeling I want them to have. Because ultimately, one thing I've learned about becoming involved in preservation just in the last couple of years is [that] it really takes a large community and the effort of a lot of people to make change happen. And the more people that feel inspired to voice their opinion for saving a structure, the better. So I really hope the film reaches a wider audience and more people come into the effort of saving the building.

For more information about "Modern Ruin", visit http://www.aquarelapictures.com/.