A Film by Heinz Emigholz

Loos Ornamentale


”Loos ornamental“. Heinz Emigholz, Marc Ries – a dialogue.

Loos ornamental is a film about buildings by Adolf Loos. As a summary that is perhaps enough, though it is by no means sufficient in describing what actually happens namely, the translation of Loos’ architectural forms into the language of film. Loos architecture is now in the cinema and following the »formal criteria« of cinemamatography that finds its final destiny in being projected in a room specially constructed for the purpose. Now everything we see is different because, as constructed reality, the houses, the objects are all-inclusive in their filmic size, they are concentrated in frames in various kinds of shot, stable as a typography that is itself at rest; we don’t move, the camera doesn’t move, a time for quiet, thoughtful contemplation.

I want a specially designed room to be able to be mentally experienced as perfectly as possible
using sequences of filmic images which have been created. Only cinema offers the technical
possibilities for that. »Bigger« and »smaller« are relative terms in the projection arts, Living room and cinema two very differing dispositifs. On a television screen the framing of the film is trivialised, from the outset the furniture in the room is »bigger« than any events in the world. And certainly there has been research as to how an IKEA environment affects the perception of a film
compared to a room in Gelsenkirchen baroque. Perfect cinemas, those that were built for »real«
films, exclude everything in the visible surroundings except the projected filmic images.

During the film the fascades and superstructures of the houses appear noticeably more blocky,
heavy, awkward, they are almost fortress-like casings that demonstrate both resistance and adaptation to the exterior world at one and the same time. Then one discovers Loos as an architect of beautiful and complex interior worlds. The houses are conceived and build from the inside. They are overfilled with material signs and offer an abundance of material and spatial scenarios. Owing to its formal predisposition, cinema is possibly the only medium that is in the position of being able to show this abundance, this dense interior world, precisely because its »image« is so expanded, the filmic space so extremely rich in details and depth of focus.

And also because the viewers’ thought processes in the cinema are trained to receive an accumulation of different viewpoints that come together as an imaginary overall picture as the film progresses. The denser the composition and the more detailed the depiction by the film material, the more the architectural complexity can build up over time. Up till now that has only been possible in the cinema.

Loos is usually associated with simple formulas— such as the subordination of form to function — that are not from him at all but were invented by Sullivan. However, what the film demonstrates in an extremely clear manner with its countless detailed shots is that »form« for Loos was an unbelievably important design medium especially in the “decoration” of his interiors. Functions really do disappear behind sumptuous, often massive, rich formal designs in materials e.g. the wall panelling or marble elements.

These misunderstandings are based on one’s understanding of ‘ornamental’. Ornamental in the
sense of a floral border is not his thing though. However if you enter an interior designed by Loos one sees nothing other than ornament, formed by the structures of natural materials – wood, stone, metal and fabric. Wood grain, veined marble, shown to their best advantage by masterful arrangements of surfaces. Used ‘against the grain’ the mutually related natural materials appear as ornamental within the overall composition of the room. And, in its nested structure, the room as an architectural construct forms a three dimensional ornament. I’m interested in complexity, a complex spatial grid through which reality can be perceived.That’s what he offers me and my camera.

When Walter Benjamin talked of »decent sobriety« in relation to the Loos house in Michaelerplatz, his eye was on, above all else, the upper living area of the house and not the entrance hall that was
very imposing. Emigholz’s camera now seems to point up the true »indecency« of Loos’ architecture
and at the same time it wants to demonstrate that from the very beginning modernity also produced
a playfulness and functional aesthetic that ran contrary to the moral imperative of »pure form« as
articulated in the “international style”. Amoral architecture and amoral pictures, then?

If someone as upright as Adolf Loos is concerned with the facticity of space and the possibilities of natural materials the question of morality can be put at most in the negative demarcation regarding an insufficiently considered relationship. My camera can only show what is really there to be seen. But there is much more to be seen and known than some theories would like to acknowledge. Historically the “international style” begins later — after the Bauhaus ideals had been implanted in the Harvard University Graduate School of Design by Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer at the end of the 1930’s—and is uninhibitedly concerned with the globalisation of tenets of design that will be then enforced by the style police. Individual buildings in very special surroundings play almost no role anymore, the worldwide application of a formula or »pure form« is simply cheaper.

. . . what is really there to be seen: once again time comes into play here because what is really in front of us is not only in a room but is stored in a chronological structure too. The former becomes
clear in the takes in which the urban surroundings from various historical epochs and, naturally, the present, are situated in relation to Loos architecture. In the second place this becomes visible in the time-lapse interiors with the shimmering wall panels reflecting the changes of light and shadow of the outside world or when people flash by in reflections or detailed shots of windows as if they were the schematic embodiment of passing time while inside a certain resistance to time was underway. Reversing Benjamin one might say »the image of the present flashes by« - times past remains timeless.

Most buildings made by architects that interest me could not be conceived of as being independent
of the site on which they stand. They function only in relation to a very particular place. And the environment of this location also impresses itself on the scale, creates relationships that can no longer be arbitrary. Building according to this guiding principle is, naturally, something fundamental, perhaps moral, but it is not an applied formula that in the next instant has once again taken on a form. Here one should listen to the civil engineers who say that the expression “form follows function” is complete nonsense if one interprets it to mean that for every function there is but a single perfect form. On the contrary, one function can be fulfilled by millions of forms. And that’s where full-spectrum design can also start off. With that we are back to the term beauty.

The takes seem to celebrate living in the interiors once again, the perspectives on room situations
change repeatedly, the room-defining elements are re-examined as if the camera was trying to become consciously aware of the uniqueness of living there, as if the form in its purest aspect should be reconsidered, relived together with the filmic aspect. In fact, one quickly forgets the purpose, the externally defined cause, for many of the elements; forgets their materiality and their general nature in order to be seduced by the autonomy of forms, by the idea of their »freedom of appearance« (Schiller’s definition of beauty). Thus, for instance, the frequently used marble which is relieved of any function: »in a work of art form is only appearance i.e. the marble looks like a person [in that it makes the nature of flesh and its veins visible] but it remains marble in reality«. It is, above all, the luminance of things that justifies their autonomy and the camera knows about this luminance, this freedom of a former inwardness, and, in viewing filmic forms, it succeeds in offering a form of joint habitation. »Reality loses itself in appearances for the second time«.

(Marc Ries works as a media theorist at the HGB Leipzig and in Vienna.
The passages in italics are excerpts from two interviews given by Heinz Emigholz to Stefanie Schulte Strathaus and Marc Ries. The quotation in the final paragraph is taken from the Kallias letters by Schiller.)