PRINT October 2018

Fallen Angels

IN MOST MOVIES, architecture is simply where things happen: a container for action, a background against which drama unfolds. You can see why cinema has seldom made it an explicit subject: The act of photographing space reduces three dimensions to two, and it seems a doubly perverse exercise to confront the mute, static presence of a building with a movie camera. Discussions of architecture in relation to cinema usually concern films by, say, Michelangelo Antonioni or Jacques Tati, in which the built environment is prominent. But over the past two decades, the German filmmaker Heinz Emigholz, in proposing radical departures from the typical representation of built space, has become the leading exponent of the microgenre that is the architecture film.

In this group of Emigholz’s films, each building is typically introduced with a title card that identifies its name, its location, its year of completion, and the date on which the footage was recorded. Almost all the works are devoid of voice-over commentary. And yet, despite this veneer of standardization, they are deeply idiosyncratic and personal films. Emigholz calls them “hard-core documentaries,” but what they seek to document above all is not an entity so much as an encounter, an engagement on the part of the filmmaker with a specific space, his process of apprehending and moving through it.

Architectural photography has a tendency to present spaces in their idealized form: It relies on all-encompassing shots, at times distorted through wide-angle lenses, that strive to provide something approaching a definitive view. Emigholz’s films, by contrast, consist of partial perspectives. His is a curious, embodied camera, with an eye for detail and a taste for complexity, prone to looking up, around, and off to the side, as we might while orienting ourselves in new surroundings. The hallmark of his style is the canted angle, a frame associated more with Expressionist noir than with documentary. Following his inquisitive gaze into and around a given environment, one never forgets the presence of a guiding consciousness behind the camera, a subject within the space.

Although his camera rarely moves, the relative stillness and silence of Emigholz’s architecture films belies the importance of their temporal dimension. Mindful of the effects of time and human activity, they show these structures within their surroundings, as they exist at the moment of filming. While architectural photography generally produces sets of stand-alone views, Emigholz creates sequences of images that derive their meaning from temporal decisions, like the length of each shot and the order in which they appear. Working with natural light and direct sound, he registers subtle movements within the picture plane—often from shifts in light and weather—and minute variations in ambient noise and room tone, picking up on distant traffic or footfalls. James Benning’s description of landscape as a “function of time” applies here: Seeing a place in time affords a different understanding than seeing a photograph of the same place.

The films are grouped under rubrics like “Architecture as Autobiography” (1993–), “Decampment of Modernism” (2012–14), and “Streetscapes” (2017–), all of which are in turn subsets of the ongoing “Photography and Beyond” series, which Emigholz inaugurated in 1974, and which also includes films on sculpture, writing, and drawing (some, for example, feature collages from his own copious notebooks, and one a multilingual recitation of Mallarmé’s “Demon of Analogy” that cuts to a new shot with each word). The first and most comprehensive of Emigholz’s architecture series, “Architecture as Autobiography,” amounts to a selective history of architectural modernism. Emigholz gravitates to visionaries who specialized in what he calls “complicated spaces” and experimented with unexpected materials or new uses for materials. While not unknown figures, they are also not the pantheon’s usual suspects, and were in some cases sidelined by official movements: Bruce Goff, who took organic architecture to new heights of flamboyance (Goff in the Desert [2003]); Rudolph Schindler, whose Southern California homes are known for their integration of interior and exterior space (Schindler’s Houses [2007]); Auguste Perret, a pioneer of the use of reinforced concrete (Perret in France and Algeria [2012]). The Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, whose work is the subject of the first film in the series, is best known as a father of the modern skyscraper, but Sullivan’s Banks (2000) focuses on a different aspect of his output. In the early years of the twentieth century, his career in decline, Sullivan accepted a series of commissions for banks in small Midwestern towns. Emigholz shows us all eight of these final works, built between 1907 and 1919, most of them compact red-brick fortresses with stained-glass windows and terra-cotta ornaments. It was Sullivan who, in his 1896 article “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” declared that “form ever follows function”—coining the great axiom (and deathless cliché) of modern architecture and design.

Film and architecture each constitute a language, a means of configuring space and of existing in time; from this perspective, Emigholz’s project is essentially one of translation.

As is abundantly clear from his choice of architects, Emigholz’s interpretation of this phrase is that a function can give rise to countless forms. The potential for seemingly infinite variation is reflected in his own films, which have a recognizable, even regimented style, and yet retain their capacity for moment-to-moment surprise, in large part because he is less systematic than intuitive in his navigation of space. Some environments get more attention than others, and the duration of each shot varies, as if Emigholz is looking for as long as his interest is held, for the time it takes to make sense of a space. He mirrors the exploratory approach of these architects, and with each shot creates a spatial composition to match their own.

That these are moving images with sound, often bearing traces of human presence, brings us back to the question of utility—that of architecture as well as of film. By emphasizing the particularities of each, Emigholz’s work points to the little-examined affinity between them. They each constitute a language, a means of configuring space and of existing in time; from this perspective, Emigholz’s project is essentially one of translation. As he himself has put it: “Architecture projects space into this world. Cinematography translates that space into pictures projected in time. Cinema then is used in a completely new way: as a space to meditate on buildings.” Until 2008’s Loos Ornamental, Emigholz shot in 35 mm; he now works with high-definition video. In both cases, the immersive effect of these works has everything to do with our experience of them as cinematic images, blown up to a certain size and capable of high-resolution detail and depth of focus.

IN THE “ARCHITECTURE AS AUTOBIOGRAPHY” STUDIES, buildings are shown chronologically, which allows for a given architect’s evolution to emerge. But there is also an autobiographical aspect to them for the filmmaker himself. The films—while almost always devoid of language—are journal entries of a sort, records of Emigholz’s presence at a certain site on a certain date, and they exist within a body of work with its own fascinating progression. Emigholz’s vast filmography gives the impression of an innately reflexive artist always looking for new ways to manipulate the most fundamental building blocks of the medium: space and time. Wary of narrative tropes and alienated from the then-ascendant New German Cinema, Emigholz got his start in experimental film. He lived in New York for a spell in the 1970s, and his early work has clear affinities with the structuralist-materialist American avant-garde of the period. Many of his formative shorts—Arrowplane (1974), Tide (1974), and Schenec-Tady I–III (1972–75)—dismantle and reconstitute the illusion of movement, that most basic of cinematic tricks. Composed of thousands of single frames taken with a Bolex according to an elaborate compositional system that predetermined the position of the camera and the focal length of the zoom lens, these variations on the landscape film produce a convulsive time-lapse effect, discombobulating our experience of cinematic time in their fragmentation of space.

Emigholz harbors no encyclopedic ambitions and, if anything, is prone to regarding any form he devises with something like suspicion.

Unjustly forgotten now, the best of Emigholz’s subsequent narrative films, The Meadow of Things (1988) and The Holy Bunch (1991), are artifacts of a long-gone aids-era queer bohemia, by turns mournful and prickly. They are also highly unusual formal experiments that—through the unorthodox placement of figures within the frame and off-kilter camera position and movement—seek to disrupt the traditional relationship between foreground and background. The Holy Bunch, in which several artists are prompted to self-examination by the death of a friend, prominently features the Gothic vaults and spires of the Cologne Cathedral and Gaudí’s Sagrada Família, anticipating a shift to films in which actors are dispensed with entirely and architecture assumes the leading role. A financial disaster, The Holy Bunch proved pivotal for Emigholz. He threw himself into researching a project on modernism and began filming several sites of interest, at which point he realized he had too much material for a single documentary.

While the architecture films suggest a taxonomical obsessiveness, Emigholz harbors no encyclopedic ambitions and, if anything, is prone to regarding any form he devises with something like suspicion. Schindler’s Houses, for instance, opens with an uncharacteristic voice-over that appears to undermine the film that follows, as well as the series to which it belongs. Over a fixed shot of a West Hollywood street corner, a narrator notes that “there is no point in trying to separate a building from its environment.” Within this quintessentially haphazard modern urban landscape, any talk of design is “a joke,” he declares, and any discussion of authorship would be “criminal.” What remains unstated is that Emigholz’s approach has always been to capture not just buildings but an entire architectural environment, an impulse that becomes even more overt in the “Streetscapes”series.

In 2013, Emigholz declared—prematurely, as it turns out—that he was wrapping up his series of architecture films, despite their relative success. One reason was the increased difficulty of access: A planned project on the Mexican architect Luis Barragán fell through when the Swiss design company Vitra, which controls the Barragán estate, laid claim to the “picture rights” of the buildings and, according to Emigholz, requested an exorbitant fee. But instead of putting an outright end to the architecture films, Emigholz found subtle ways to complicate their format, moving beyond monographic surveys to more varied—and more analytical—works. Parabeton—Pier Luigi Nervi and Roman Concrete (2012) juxtaposes the large-scale constructions of the Italian civil engineer Nervi with the wonders of ancient Rome. The Airstrip (2014), the most multifarious of the architecture films, takes the form of a global travelogue and an inquiry into the postwar mutations of modernism, its sites ranging from World War II monuments to airport duty-free areas. He has also produced shorter thematic studies, including the medium-length Two Museums (2013), which tours Renzo Piano’s Menil Collection in Houston and Samuel Bickels’s Museum of Art in Ein Harod, Israel; and Two Basilicas (2018), his most recent completed work, which cuts back and forth between a twentieth-century Protestant church (Grundtvig’s Church in Copenhagen, by Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint) and a fourteenth-century Roman Catholic cathedral (the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta in Orvieto, Italy, constructed over three centuries).

The “Streetscapes” series—which so far includes four feature-length films, shot over three years but completed concurrently, all premiering at last year’s Berlinale film festival—moves the focus from architecture to “anonymous architectonic situations,” as Emigholz puts it, a logical progression given his interest in troubling the notion of authorship. The first in the series, 2+2=22 [The Alphabet] (2017), consists of three distinct elements: scenes of the German postrock band Kreidler at work on their 2014 album, ABC, in a recording studio in Tbilisi, Georgia; rapidly leafed-through pages of Emigholz’s densely filled notebooks (also the subject of an earlier trilogy, The Basis of Make-Up I–III [1983–2005]); and shots of unidentified buildings, streets, and intersections in Tbilisi. In part a response to Godard’s One Plus One (1968), which observed the Rolling Stones in the studio, it departs markedly from the brisk yet serene pace of an Emigholz architecture film, achieving a loose rhythmic intricacy that matches both the music that is being created in the wood-paneled studio and the bustle of city life outside. The second and fourth “Streetscapes” films—Bickels [Socialism] (2017) and Dieste [Uruguay] (2017)_—are more familiar in form. These monographic studies, shot largely in Israel and Uruguay, respectively, are devoted to the work of Samuel Bickels, a relatively little-known kibbutz architect, and the structural innovator Eladio Dieste, renowned for his curved, soaring brick forms.

The third film in the series, Streetscapes [Dialogue] (2017), is unmistakably its centerpiece, perhaps even Emigholz’s magnum opus. It is many things at once: a self-portrait, a manifesto, a reenactment that doubles as a making-of documentary, a strikingly literal form of psychodrama. The element of language returns with a vengeance. Over 132 minutes, it chronicles a six-day psychoanalytic marathon, in which a filmmaker who looks to be in his sixties attempts to talk his way out of a creative impasse with the help of a gently probing therapist. The two men are never named, but it’s obvious that the filmmaker is an avatar for Emigholz. Explaining the nature of his psychological block, he brings up his childhood in postwar Germany, his suspicion of language, his compulsion to produce. His description of his practice opens onto larger philosophical questions: To see the world through a viewfinder, after all, is to make a decision about the framing of reality, to take a position on the representation of space and time. Eventually it dawns on the Emigholz character that this all-encompassing exchange could in fact be the basis for a film, one he very much needs to make.

Streetscapes [Dialogue] is, in fact, based on a 260-page transcript of Emigholz’s conversations with Zohar Rubinstein, an Israeli trauma specialist with a shared interest in architecture. Emigholz is played by the American actor John Erdman (who appeared in several of Emigholz’s early works) and Rubinstein by the Argentinean filmmaker Jonathan Perel, whose 2015 documentary Toponimia (Toponymy) is an Emigholzian study of four settlements founded by the Argentinean military regime in the 1970s. Often recalling the eccentric framing of the characters in The Holy Bunch, the actors are positioned inside and outside a series of houses, grain silos, churches, and factories, most of which reappear in Dieste [Uruguay].

A film based on a therapeutic scenario may sound dry, but in effect Streetscapes [Dialogue] is a sensory bombardment.

A film based on a therapeutic scenario may sound dry, but in effect Streetscapes [Dialogue] is a sensory bombardment, and very funny to boot, bringing to the surface the undercurrent of deadpan humor that runs through much of Emigholz’s work. Against an unceasing stream of erudite talk, almost every frame contains an unexpected configuration of human and architectural form. The conversation turns often to earlier breakdowns, bouts of alienation and depression, and Emigholz’s use of the camera as a mediator of reality, a means both of evasion and of registering his presence in the world. As this torrential testimony suggests, the inflection points in Emigholz’s life and work have frequently been experienced as crises; Streetscapes [Dialogue], in so rigorously dramatizing the latest one, becomes a skeleton key, the film that clarifies all the others. One might call it a culminating work, were such a notion not antithetical to the restlessness of its creator. (Emigholz is presently completing a fifth “Streetscapes” film, provisionally titled Berlin [Underground].) At the same time, the breakthrough that Streetscapes [Dialogue] both chronicles and represents is on some level an illusion. For an artist like Emigholz, self-questioning is a necessary step toward self-renewal, and much like psychoanalysis, it’s a process that can never be complete.

Dennis Lim is Director of Programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York and the author of David Lynch: The Man From Another Place (New Harvest, 2015).