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Architecture and Beyond: Heinz Emigholz’s Canted Vision

How German director Heinz Emigholz complicates the idea of documentary, architecture, and cinematic biography.
The first part of MUBI's retrospective, Heinz Emigholz: Architecture as Autobiography, is showing February 5 - March 16, 2018 in most countries in the world.
Heinz Emigholz’s films in the “Photography and Beyond” series are decidedly not documentaries, or at least that’s not all they are. Although the films certainly convey the facticity of certain spaces that exist in our world, they are primarily “documents” of a particular engagement with space, a highly personal mode of looking and moving-through. Emigholz tends to work in overlapping series, and many of the “Photography and Beyond” films are also subtitled “Architecture as Autobiography.” But what exactly do these terms mean?
First of all, the vast majority of individual shots in Emigholz’s films are static. They are extremely obvious in their composition, often resembling Cubist canvases, demonstrating a highly motivated eye for selection of detail. In other words, Emigholz tends to treat his movie camera the way a still photographer would treat his or her device, looking at the world as a series of immobile set-ups that temporarily frame a world in flux.
But of course, Emigholz is shooting film. This is the “beyond.” We sometimes hear the rustle of the wind, see blowing leaves, or even witness the motion of people or cars within the individual shots. This minor action belies the stillness that Emigholz mimics in his cinema. But even if nothing obviously moves, we are still watching “movies.” Emigholz wants us to realize that we are experiencing stillness across a fragment of time.
And this is one key factor of his analysis of architecture. Even though, by and large, buildings do not move, they are not static entities. They exist across time. Not only do they age and decay. But history shifts around them. Moreover, a building cannot be apprehended all at once. A spectator (or perhaps more properly, an occupant) must traverse a building in order to experience its structure. The action of moving through a building is a temporal experience. Occupying a building for a longer span of time—living in it, working in it, et cetera—is another kind of temporal experience.
Conventionally, architecture is communicated by still photography, organized according to certain conventions: the elevation, the shots of individual rooms, et cetera. But Emigholz’s films focus on buildings that cannot be adequately conveyed through such conventions. He is primarily interested in Modernism, and this means that specific attention must be paid to unexpected forms, new uses of materials, and exploratory configurations of space. In forming his method, Emigholz has taken his cues from the buildings themselves.
Each film in the “Architecture as Autobiography” series is devoted to a single architect’s work. In Sullivan’s Banks (2001), for example, Emigholz travels the Midwest to look at a specific subset of Louis Sullivan’s work, exploring its character and commonalities. Sullivan favored proto-Art Deco fillips and stained glass, dark wood and terra cotta, arches and even the occasional gargoyle. In navigating these banks, Emigholz continually highlights Sullivan’s juxtapositions of unlikely materials, and the “jump cuts” between classical and modern styles. The filmmaker emphasizes these design elements through canted angles, shots of ceiling joints, close-ups of windows and walls, and other visual motifs that fall well outside the standard vocabulary of architectural documentation.
Emigholz is instead choosing to film the building as he sees it, idiosyncratically and with his own research biases. That is, Emigholz has certain ideas about who Louis Sullivan was and what he did, and he depicts those ideas in his unconventional movement through the space. In fact, one might argue that Emigholz is attempting to focus on details that would have been significant to Sullivan himself, to see the building not as an average user but as the architect himself.
This might explain the “Architecture as Autobiography” subtitle. Emigholz is attempting to provide a view of a given set of buildings that will show the development of an architect’s career, focusing on the design elements that seem to reveal the most about that architect’s preoccupations. At the same time, the selection of subjects and the movement through their spaces provides an ongoing autobiography of Emigholz himself.
In the feature length films, we can really see the development of this dynamic. Take, for example, Schindler’s Houses from 2007. In examining the California bungalow homes and storefronts of Austrian architect Rudolf Schindler, Emigholz begins by providing an extending take of a corner in West Hollywood. In an uncharacteristic prologue, the filmmaker explains, “somewhere, hidden in this image is a house by Rudolf Schindler.” He goes on to decry the randomness of urban planning, publicity, contemporary commercial building, and landscape architecture.
He therefore begins Schindler’s Houses with a statement to the effect that the “Architecture as Autobiography” project is inherently false, that it is impossible to separate an “author’s building” from the jumbled environment in which it sits. “A film that still dares to say, ‘here’s something that bears the name of a certain designer,’ is quite simply criminal.” We could, of course, take Emigholz at face value and decide, along with him, that the “Architecture as Autobiography” series is effectively over.
But there is another possibility. This move, which is a kind of Barthes / Foucault-style “death of the author” maneuver, speaks to the particulars of Schindler’s buildings and their situation in Los Angeles. Schindler’s Houses is, above all, about the battle between artistic statement and anonymity. But as the prologue makes evident, it is also another component of Emigholz’s autobiography. Los Angeles has come close to defeating this man, a champion of Modernism, because he has now seen first-hand what happens to Modernism within the ultimate postmodern city. It becomes just another “thing,” a roadside attraction situated between the Panera Bread and “We Fix Flats.”
In films such as Goff in the Desert (2003) or Maillart’s Bridges (2001), Emigholz is still able to observe Modernism in the environments that the designers themselves carved out for it. Bruce Goff tended to work either for well-heeled Chicago patrons or in the American Midwest, where his buildings would sit flat and have plenty of space to assert themselves. And Robert Maillart, Swiss architect and engineer, could be certain that his bridges be surrounded only by natural features, since that was the assignment itself. (However as Emigholz shows us, this didn’t prevent them from being vandalized with swastikas.)
In observing the development of these artists’ styles across time, we can still trace a degree of autobiography, particularly where Goff is concerned. (I suspect that one could claim that his proto-Deconstructivist structures become freer, and his rural buildings more conservative, in tandem with the relative acceptance or rejection of his homosexuality. But it would take a true expert to really formulate such an argument.) We are also witnessing Emigholz’s interaction with the structures, driven by his free curiosity, relative to their preservation or disrepair, or his permission to enter private residences.
It is with Schindler in California that the concepts of “architecture as autobiography” and “photography and beyond” reach a limit point for Emigholz. The “self” of Rudolf Schindler becomes a decentered self, not by dint of the Modernist buildings he designed, but in their engulfment by a broader spatial world that has its own imperatives: goods and services, traffic flow, and real estate. This directly impinges on Emigholz’s autonomy as a filmmaker, his own ability to fashion a spatial autobiography through cinema.
In addressing Schindler, he must also negotiate all the contemporary clutter that surrounds these humble structures, a situation that Emigholz calls “both comic and tragic.” Schindler’s Houses may be Emigholz’s most complex film, even though on the surface it seems quite simple. In it, we see a major artist facing his Waterloo. Almost immediately afterward, he will begin a new series, “Decampment of Modernism,” and ten years later, he will make a film based on therapy sessions in which he explores fundamental crises in his artmaking. Emigholz is finding new spaces to explore.
Louis Sullivan’s idiosyncratic decoration has been much debated but ‘neo Art Deco’ just won’t do. His detailing is far too florid and organic and, in any case ‘neo’ is nonsense because all the buildings in the film predate the great days of Art Deco in the 1920s. (It derives its name from the Paris exhibition of Decorative Arts in 1925). In fact, the buildings in the film are late examples of a style Sullivan had established in earlier much grander buildings and it is poignant to see his vision reduced to relatively modest projects as is emphasised when we see his little bank across the road from a much larger but totally formulaic piece of architecture.
Fair enough. Would you settle for "proto-Art Deco"? I'm guessing not. If you have a better descriptor, please offer it, since I think you know more about the topic than I do. My area of expertise is cinema, and architecture is merely a side-interest.
Yes, proto Art deco would make more sense. The problem is that Sullivan's ornament is so distinctive that any style label is no more than short hand, a bit like describing Cezanne as 'Post Impressionist. Frank Lloyd Wright, never one to understate his role in history, maintained that he had introduced Sullivan to Owen Jones' 'Grammar of Ornament' but this compendium of historic styles was such a widespread source for late 19th century architects an designers that it hardly accounts for Sullivan's originality. I should say that I much enjoyed both the article and the film.

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