BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 20 MAR 13
Featured in
Issue 9

Building Time

For 20 years, filmmaker Heinz Emigholz has been documenting icons of Modernist architecture

BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 20 MAR 13

Parabeton – Pier Luigi Nervi and Roman Concrete, 2012 (courtesy: © Heinz Emigholz & Filmgalerie 451)

The salt warehouses built by Pier Luigi Nervi in the northern Italian town of Tortona in 1950 and 1951 are a typically ambivalent product of Modernism. Their roofs’ bold arcs hint at the sense of boundless possibility inspired by the age of serialized production. But the product they once stored – salt – is hardly emblematic of a Fordist and Taylorist regime. The warehouses have long stood empty; this is how filmmaker Heinz Emigholz filmed them in the spring of 2011 for his project Parabeton – Pier Luigi Nervi and Roman Concrete (2012): as relics of an era of manual labour, one based on specific raw materials. An architect who has always preferred to call himself a civil engineer, Nervi, too, seems to come from a different age.

Parabeton – Pier Luigi Nervi and Roman Concrete, 2012 (courtesy: © Heinz Emigholz & Filmgalerie 451)

Since the early 1990s, Emigholz has been documenting such feats of architecture. For this film, he visited a total of seventeen Nervi buildings con­structed using Roman concrete, as well as a number of ancient buildings that use this same material, resulting in correspondences between the formal ideals of Antiquity and modern principles. Parabeton belongs to a cycle of three films that Emigholz has titled Decampment of Modernism. This cycle also includes Perret in France and Algeria (2012), about the French architect Auguste Perret, and The Airstrip (2013), which is is currently in production.

Parabeton – Pier Luigi Nervi and Roman Concrete, 2012 (courtesy: © Heinz Emigholz & Filmgalerie 451)

The last of the three emerged from a failed project. ‘The third part of Decampment of Modernism was actually supposed to be about the buildings of Luis Barragán, but for the first time we faced financial claims from a foundation that insisted on charging for picture rights’, explains Emigholz. ‘And I wasn’t prepared to agree to that.’ The Airstrip came about, then, after turning away from a film dealing solely with Barragán. By this point, in 2012, Emigholz had already travelled around the world for the project, visiting many buildings that he had ‘always wanted to film’: the Menil Museum in Houston, Texas, considered one of the best works by Renzo Piano; Samuel Bickels’ Museum of Art in Ein Harod, Israel. In San Francisco, he was able to add to this list a church by Nervi, and in Argentina he visited the Boca Juniors football stadium (designed by Viktor Sulcic).

Over two decades, Emigholz has dedicated some 80 films – ‘including shorter ones’ – to architecture. The images and sounds he records usually remain uncommented. His films allow a nuanced look at buildings that are not broken down by montage but reconstructed, as it were, in a series of shots. They become visible in their surroundings (where, as in the case of Perret’s work in France, they are often not immediately noticeable), details are highlighted, and the clever structuring of documented material reveals the buildings’ formal principles.

In 1993, when Emigholz embarked on his Architecture as Autobiography cycle, he assumed that this way of filming buildings had often been used in the past. ‘But the opposite was the case. There was nothing. And I already had a great deal of footage which I thought I had to laboriously transform into a film essay. But I preferred the material just the way it came out of the camera.’ When he realized he was getting on best with an editing style that mainly underscored the photographic qualities of his work, his distinctive method was born: natural sound, uncommented images, discretely shaped capturing of designed reality. The link to photo­graphy is reinforced by the way Emigholz usually only moves the camera between – but not during – shots, creating films that consist of stills in which only the wind, weather and light conditions change.

Over time, this approach has resulted in numerous classic architecture films; Sullivan’s Banks (1993–99), Maillart’s Bridges (1995–99), Goff in the Desert (2002–3), D’Annunzio’s Cave (2002–5), Schindler’s Houses (2006–7) and Loos Ornamental (2008) all belong, like Parabeton, to Architecture as Autobiography. In turn, these also belong to an even larger project entitled Photography and Beyond (originally intended to include just one film) that Emigholz has been adding to since 1974.

_Perret in France and Algeria _, 2012 (courtesy: © Heinz Emigholz & Filmgalerie 451)

For The Airstrip, Emigholz travelled to the Mariana Islands, an area in the Pacific of strategic importance during World War II. There he filmed the concrete trenches from which the atomic bombs for Hiroshima and Nagasaki were loaded into the planes. For a parallel scene, he later visited the beach in Aramanche, Brittany, where two gigantic concrete structures built by the Allies in World War II as a mulberry harbour now lie abandoned to the play of the tides. This ‘concrete culture of war’, as Emigholz calls it, introduces an explicitly historiographical aspect to his work.

After The Airstrip, Emigholz plans to realize a feature film titled A Tale of Five Cities. And then there is an old script based on Hans Henny Jahnn’s trilogy of novels Fluss ohne Ufer (River without Banks, 1949–61), to which he might also return. The growing success of architecture-related films among international critics and at many festivals affords Emigholz new artistic freedoms. He intends to use these routes, if only because the demand for image rights for buildings, as experienced for the first time during his Barragán project, is likely to become more pressing. For this reason, his large-scale documentary project might soon no longer be possible. It might be logical, on this note, for Emigholz to move to feature films. Perhaps the next phase in Emigholz’s cinematic oeuvre ought to have under the working title Tales of Many Cities.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Bert Rebhandl is a journalist, writer and translator who lives in Berlin. He co-founded and co-edits Cargo magazine.