Heinz Emigholz’s “Architecture as Autobiography”

The industrious Adam Hyman of the Los Angeles Filmforum has organized an exciting collaborative event between various local film institutions (Filmforum, LACMA, REDCAT, UCLA) and the MAK Center: a week-long retrospective of German filmmaker Heinz Emigholz from April 6-13. Emigholz’s Schindler’s Houses was one of my highlights of last year’s Toronto film festival, so I’ve been eager to explore previous entries in his thirty-film “Photography and Beyond” series (begun in 1983) showcasing architecture, sculpture, writing, and drawing. Unfortunately, however, I’ll be in New York City next week, so I was delighted to discover that Facets Video has already released a couple Emigholz architecture films on DVD (Goff in the Desert and D’Annunzio’s Cave) with more on the way (Sullivan’s Banks, Maillart’s Bridges, and Schindler’s Houses). The discs are direct ports of fine German DVDs (chapter stops for each building, maps, informative extras) released by Filmgalerie 451.

Emigholz’s architecture films are not the kind of historical/aesthetic information overviews one might expect; the best in that mode I’ve seen is Arte’s excellent European Architectures series (also distributed by Facets) complete with its creative model photography, poetic insights, and wall-to-wall narration. By contrast, Emigholz presents “Architecture as Autobiography” by focusing on the work of a specific designer in its natural environment without any narration at all. (His dialogue-suffused D’Annunzio’s Cave is an exception we’ll get to shortly.) By shunning still photography and talking heads, Emigholz presents the spaces in a more ambiguous, less mediated fashion, allowing the viewer to construct a personal sense of the designer’s creative voice (informed, of course, by the medium’s inherent constraints, ellipses, and subjectivity). “Grasping, designing, and experiencing space is the starting point,” Emigholz says in an interview printed in the Schindler’s Houses sleeve. “I believe in first impressions and the analytical power of the first encounter.”

Several formal qualities facilitate the viewer’s experience through the twin media of 35mm and Dolby stereo: the setting of each building is emphasized visually (structures are often introduced in long shots where the subject isn’t even entirely obvious at first; trees, signs, or cars often loom in the foreground) as well as sound (on-location recordings edited for smooth transitions and atmosphere, which also help convey the space). The almost always stationary frame is often slightly tilted to one side or the other, which breaks habitual ways of perceiving (or ignoring) horizontal and vertical lines. Emigholz knows the viewer will mentally construct the overall space given a succession of shots or related details, and his tilted compositions create an almost playful seesawing effect when the shots are edited together, continually adding one more element to kickstart fresh perceptions. All of these elements (including a reliance on natural lighting) offer ways of perceiving the buildings in ways different from architectural books. His films are meditative and revealing, offering a surprising range of emotions.

Here are some thoughts on the following films:

Sullivan’s Bank’s (2000)

Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) coined the phrase “form follows function” and is considered a father of modern architecture, but the eight midwestern banks he designed late in his life showcase his taste for decorative floral ornamentation. Often beautifully contrasting turquoise and red brick colors, the various textures in some shots are a marvel of diversity–graceful, arching curves against thin crossbeams bristling with intricate carvings. At times, Emigholz introduces his banks from outside the buildings; at times, he begins from the inside. Sullivan’s spaces remain cavernous centers of modern commerce–one lengthy shot emphasizes the line before an ATM machine set within the brickwork–under grey, late-winter skies and the easygoing bustle of life in places such as Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Lafayette, Indiana.

The DVD contains an onscreen biography of Sullivan (that can also be read here) as well as a challenging but fascinating one-hour bonus film by Emigholz entitled The Whitman Project (2007). It consists of a split screen featuring the work of two camera crews who follow (in uninterrupted tracking shots) a German-speaking actor and an English-speaking actor (both reciting texts–such as “A Sight in Camp” and “Manhattan Arming”–by Walt Whitman, who was an ideological influence on Sullivan) as they wander around the same space (a large rural enclosure filled with wounded Civil War soldiers) lamenting the human cost of war. Their voices overlap, but they recite the text asynchronously, and their differing interpretations, tone and levels of empathy create a double-pronged, stereoscopic portrait of Whitman’s writing.

Maillart’s Bridges (2001)

Robert Maillart (1872-1940) was a Swiss architect who revolutionized concrete designs; this film showcases 14 roof constructions and bridges built between 1910 and 1935. Of all the extant “Architecture as Autobiography” films, this may be the most pleasantly serene, often featuring remote or vacant structures spanning mountainous vistas and water streams; the sound of rushing water is almost ubiquitous throughout and creates a soothing, hypnotic feel, and the Swiss Alps often provide a stimulating compositional backdrop. But Emigholz isn’t seeking postcard imagery; his compositions contrast the curve of rails over craggy terrain or emphasize the height and distance of each spanning design. One might even note (as I did) the relatively pristine state of the concrete until Emigholz provides a shock cut of a graffitied swastika on the footbridge over the River Toess in Winterthur.

The DVD includes two highly informative extras filmed in 2004, the 53-minute Buildings by Robert Maillart and the 36-minute The Art of Structure Engineering, both of which include casual but highly educated conversations between Emigholz and engineering professor David P. Billington, bridge designer Christian Menn, and structural engineer Jˆrg Schlaich.

Goff in the Desert (2003)

Like Whitman and Sullivan, Bruce Goff (1904-1982) was deeply inspired by nature, and was a major figure in organic architecture; he emphasized circular rooms and unusual materials, such as ashtrays or chunks of glass for windows. Emigholz’s film begins with a brilliant pre-credit image of a flat freeway, with a no man’s land of brown grass in mid-ground behind a wire fence, and assorted corporate signs rising in the background (McDonalds, gas stations, truck stop supermarkets) like industrial conquistadors towering over the landscape: an iconic image for anyone who has every driven through the midwest.

In this metaphorical “desert,” Goff designed unconventional buildings in Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma (where he taught at the state university), with a few more projects scattered between Texas and California, including the sensational Japanese pavilion at LACMA. At 110 minutes, this is Emigholz’s longest film in his architecture series, and the most diverse in its content, tracing over 9,000 miles and 62 buildings, from gas stations to private homes to cathedrals. As with his previous films, so often telephone poles or stop lights obscure initial views of the buildings, creating a teasing ambiguity that emphasizes the designs within their natural locations and calls on the viewer to venture around, behind, closer. (A conical church in Edmond, Oklahoma is compositionally obfuscated by oil drills and road signage.) Writhing trees create a visual contrast to the stately edges of several constructions.

Goff’s organic forms often reminded me of the sets of imaginative science fiction films; the metallic railing, circular design, and rustic, warm tones of the Ford House in Aurora, Illinois could have been an alternative set for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, while the endlessly curvaceous Gryder House in Ocean Springs, Missouri (precipitated in the film by a rare and beautiful pan across a pond) suggests a pavilion that could be (artfully) designed for a futuristic theme park.

Just as he begins Schindler’s Houses with a bit of narration, Emigholz ends this film by describing the ruins of Shin’enKan in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, what many (including the filmmaker) once considered to be Goff’s masterpiece. After a fire in 1998, all that remains now of the home are piles of rocks and glass, the residual testimony to an intensely creative vision.

Impressively, the DVD contains a German and an English audio commentary by Emigholz as well as a breezy “making of” feature shot by the filmmaker and his crew on their trek across the United States in 2002. The film (unsubtitled but featuring a mishmash of German and English) records the filmmakers visiting locations, planning and executing their shoots, interacting with residents–even getting pulled over by the highway patrol–while always remaining fascinated by passing examples of odd Americana.

D’Annunzio’s Cave (2005)

Not all of Emigholz’s films are about architects he admires–Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863-1938) was a fascist writer who (along with his personal architect) designed his ultimate pleasure dome, the Villa Cargnacco on Lake Garda as a monument to his grotesque inner life. Stylistically, it diverges the most from Emigholz’s previous architecture films; it’ s entirely comprised of handheld, constantly moving camerawork twisting and turning–seemingly floating–through the fifteen shadowy, decadent, heavily cluttered rooms of the villa.

Moreover, the soundtrack is comprised of unnerving (and overlapping) computer voices intoning various texts by figures such as d’Annunzio, Mussolini, Joseph Conrad, a raging American film producer, tourist guides, and Emigholz himself, which are mixed with snippets of grating, pulsing electronic sound effects and bursts of atonal music. A subtle, raspy breathing seems to emanate throughout. The end result is one of the most disturbing films I’ve seen, an instant cinematic companion to the terrifying mansions in The Innocents or The Shining, but perhaps more accurately, the kind of claustrophobic, tyrannical worlds seen in Sokurov’s trilogy, Moloch, Taurus, and The Sun. (Emigholz has written, “Considering this spectacle [of the villa], my hate began to recede, covered by my satisfaction at the dust that had settled like acid on everything…I felt as if I were on the inside of an embalmed corpse whose intestines and brain had been shunted away because they had begun to stink.”)

In dark rooms with few windows, porcelain sculptures depict disembodied heads, naked bodies resembling prisoners rather than human ideals, and an unending series of lean, aggressive-looking animals that are interspersed among thousands of books and objects of every kind. Each room conveys a sense of suffocating, intricately arranged mania that overwhelms the viewer like an all-powerful, deranged consciousness. “I have wallpapered the area around my bed with red brocade,” one inhuman voice recites from d’Annunzio’s diaries, “and hid it behind dividers. I have created this alcove to sleep in purple, the beautiful color of blood.”

About twenty minutes into the film, the atonal sounds are replaced by soaring Debussy, and Emigholz shifts the film into a different register, one that emphasizes the perfectionism and lure conveyed by the villa, thus giving the viewer a taste of its twisted, encompassing vision of power; it’s one of the most challenging parts of the film, its flirtation with the villa’s dark majesty is momentarily shocking in its clarity before it once again descends into its haunting phantasmagoria of sounds and images. Unlike Emigholz’s previous films, the individual spaces are not set apart by blank screens and text, the voices merely call out room names from shot to shot, thrusting the viewer from one room to the next like a terrifying fun house.

The DVD includes a 60-minute compilation of the raw footage used by four different cinematographers to create the film, but interested viewers won’t want to miss the film’s excellent website, which includes all of the (sometimes unintelligable) text read in the film, with attributions.

“The stolen collection of every kind of art object, rearranged in layers, becomes an externalized ‘brain’ revealing [d’Annunzio’s] thoughts and associations in the form of fetishes,” the filmmakers says in the film’s press notes. “Things are granted meanings like medals, sense becomes power, meaning becomes kitsch, dialogue a decree.” For a filmmaker like Emigholz, who relishes the ability of art to invite exploration, contemplation, and discernment, d’Annunzio’s aesthetic egoism is an aesthetic nightmare.