“I believe that everyone perceives space differently and that art and structure arise out of the perception of these nuances. The world reveals itself to us, and we show each other the world—not just different facets, but our different views.”
Heinz Emigholz’s architecture films document practices of devotion—to certain forms, certain materials, certain social ideas. As an ongoing body of work, they also constitute a practice, no less devoted, to a certain way of constructing cinematic space. Anyone who has seen one of these films knows that Emigholz’s way of showing us architecture is highly idiosyncratic. The major feature of his style, the oblique camera angle, defies standards of documentary representation, recalling its use as an expressive device in narrative cinema, used to convey disorientation or anxiety. When Emigholz deploys it in his explorations of architectural spaces, far from the realm of narrative vocabularies, it has a different effect, distancing the image from a ‘realist’ mode of documentary depiction and placing it within the territory of the ‘stylized’—as if realist conventions did not themselves constitute the most dogmatic of styles. That we perceive the angle as artificial is evidence of the strength of those conventions. Indeed, the body of work that Emigholz has elaborated around architecture—an oeuvre which now spans nearly three decades—persistently works to undermine the notion of an ‘objective’ spatial representation. As the filmmaker himself insists, there is no encyclopaedic ambition to his project. Rather, his peculiar manner of reconstructing architectural spaces in cinema re-inserts the subject (rather uncomfortably) into space, while never veering from a (however troubled) documentary mode.
The third film of Emigholz’s new, four-part Streetscapes series, titled Streetscapes [Dialogue], radicalizes this cinematic confrontation between subject and space. In it, we find the filmmaker immersed in his own work, inserted by means of an avatar into a constructivist architectural montage that would otherwise be quite characteristic. As the camera explores buildings designed by Julio Vilamajó, Arno Brandlhuber, and Eladio Dieste, an intensive psychoanalytic dialogue is acted out, edited from the transcript of a real-life therapeutic marathon between Emigholz and trauma specialist Zohar Rubinstein. Over the course of more than two hours, the actors discuss Emigholz’s entire artistic career, in intimate detail, focusing on the crises, breakdowns and breakthroughs that have propelled him from one aesthetic fixation to the next. Listening in on their exchange, we learn that their meeting has been prompted by such a crisis, of which the film we are viewing will act (or has acted) as a kind of pharmakon. Indeed, for a filmmaker with such a strong aversion to narrative, Emigholz’s dialogue with Rubinstein has a distinctly cathartic quality. But more importantly, its insertion into the thoroughly composed cine-architectural space gives substance to the key philosophical proposition that runs through all of the director’s works on architecture, that the experience of space is necessarily mediated by the vicissitudes—including the traumas—of the subject, who always reconstructs it anew, according to a unique set of parameters, through the act of perception.
For Emigholz, this slipperiness of space is not a problem, but a challenge and an opening—a challenge to construct cinematic spaces as authorial as the architectural spaces he is documenting, and an opening onto a new horizon that must be defined against the horizontal itself. In the process, one could argue that the authorship of the spaces that Emigholz documents is undermined, as they become media for another, photographic and cinematic, process of spatial construction. Indeed, the notion of authorship is becoming increasingly problematized in Emigholz’s work. In Streetscapes [Dialogue], though architecture is ever-present (indeed, many of the buildings we see are the same ones shown in another Streetscapes film, Dieste [Uruguay]), gone are the index cards telling us the name of the designer, the building’s name, and date of construction and the date of shooting. With the insertion of the actors, a figure-ground relation is set up, in which the centrality of the architectural space, and the film’s status as document of it, is upset. The dialogue further complicates things, even forcing a re-evaluation of the other architecture films, which appear in retrospect not as architectural documentaries but as a kind of long-form, serial drama in which subject and space are two protagonists engaged in a convergent struggle for recognition against dominant modes of spatial construction and representation—a struggle to assert an authorial view against a backdrop of a hegemonic anonymity.
For Emigholz, as for the architects who fascinate him, the struggle is also one of communication—of translating ideas about space into decipherable forms—which takes on the weight of an existential necessity. In this sense, Streetscapes [Dialogue] can be seen as a kind of supplement, rather than another installment in the series of architecture films (one reason, perhaps, for the new series). It is clearly intended to satisfy a different need—to overcome a psychological blockage preventing that primary, communicative imperative from being satisfied. Though it is possible that the therapeutic exchange might have been enough on its own to work through the artistic crisis and attendant depression, the film serves the important purpose of clarifying what is at stake, and is, on its own, a compelling document of the psychological trials of artistic production, in which personal and aesthetic crises are often indistinguishable.
The third film of the series, Streetscapes [Dialogue] is its obvious centerpiece, fascinating both as a retrospective introduction to Emigholz’s large body of work and as a radical divergence from and development of his practice. It is also, in a sense, a means to an end, insofar as the dialogue is precisely what made the entire series possible. The other three parts are worthy of more attention than I can give them here. Dieste [Uruguay] explores the beautiful, undulating, highly engineered brick structures of an architect who advocated “resistance through form,” while Bickels [Socialism] takes a mournful look at the ideological and physical evacuation of the kibbutzim of Samuel Bickels. 2+2=22 [The Alphabet] represents another radical break from the Emigholz’s monographic architecture films by turning its attention to another kind of creative process, as well as outward, toward the repressed antithesis of authorial structures—the streetscapes which give the series its name.