Stefanie Schulte Strathaus: After Rudolph Schindler – “Schindler’s Houses” was shown at the Forum 2007 – you have now turned to another Austrian: Adolf Loos. What relation do the two have to each other?
Heinz Emigholz: Adolf Loos was in many ways a role model for Rudolph Schindler. First, in conceiving space to be as complicated as it is or could be and in building as possible; shaping the space of life as a space for thought and not blighting it by putting on pompous airs. Second, there are parallels in their relationship to the United States. Loos received crucial impetus in Chicago in the 1890s. The influence of Louis Sullivan, including in terms of an architecture with allegiance to democracy, was lasting and unmistakable. For Schindler, America and its possibilities became reality in California. He could set off on his own path, if we ignore the obstacles the International Style put in his way. Loos’ fate, by contrast, was to get stuck in Europe’s dead end. My films about them mirror this core: Loos’ great spatial plan idea and what could become of it on two differing continents. The two films leave me with completely different feelings.
Can you briefly explain this spatial plan idea and th e differences you perceive in its implementation in th e U.S.A. and Europe?
Both architects built from the inside outward. Complex rooms interlock on several levels with
different heights, breaking up any simple division of stories. With Schindler, it seems more fragile,
because California’s climate permits designing a more flowing boundary between inside and outside; with Loos, it is more monumental, because he had to seal things off from the outside.
It was said that Adolf Loos hated ornament. Your film is titled “Loos Ornamenta l” – which means
this time the ornamental aspect of architect ure is placed between the th ee-dimensionality
of the spaces and the two-dimensionality of film. What interests you in particular in this series in
comparison with your earlier films?
It’s true that Loos has the journalistic reputation of hating ornament. The misunderstanding is based on what people understand by the term. Ornament in the sense of floral relief really isn’t
his bag. But if you enter the interiors he designed, all you see is ornamentation formed by the structures of the natural materials of wood, stone, metal, and textiles. Artfully arranging cut surfaces brings out the grain of wood and the veining of marble. To be contrarian: the materials he uses in the overall composition of a room appear as ornamentation. In its interlocking character, the constructed space itself is a three-dimensional ornament. Loos didn’t worry about his supposed
contradictions. Unfortunately, his pretentious 1910 essay Ornament and Crime has been completely
distorted and absolutized. He was not a terrible simplifier. What interests me is complexity, a complex spatial grid through which reality can be recognized, and he offers that to me and my camera.
In “Schindler’s Houses”, you used the term “crime” in connection with the atempt to remove the work of an individual architect from its surroundings to make a film about it. Are architects and
filmmakers beholden to the same morality? Are crimes there to be committed?
Most of the buildings by architects who interest me are inconceivable apart from the site where they were constructed. They function only in relation to a very specific place. This spatial environment
shapes the scale and creates relationships that then can no longer be arbitrary. Of course, building and filming in accordance with this guideline entails a certain fundamental or moral stance. Montages of attractions, as with Eisenstein or Vigo, interest me in architecture as little as they do in
film. I want to reproduce the stream of surfaces and not a stupid idea. But in the course of time, the original surroundings of buildings disappear and a general, uncontrollable disorder spreads – inevitably. And that’s called reality and even crime can only stop it for a short time.
The marble in a Loos house, in particular, shows how the inner structure of a material is turned outward. The relationship between inside and outside plays a special role in this film: you had
initially planned to take footage solely of interior spaces, but then decided to film the building from the outside as well.
I couldn’t carry out the plan, because a radical interior affects the exterior as well. Loos always ended up with building exteriors that put him in intense opposition to the buildings of his Central European surroundings and their ways of thinking.
The best-known example of that is surely the Loos House on Michaelerplatz in Vienna. “Schindler’s
Houses” is also a portrait of the city of Los Angeles – the vistas permit a camera perspective that
stages the surroundings. “Maillart’s Brücken” (“Maillart‘s bridges”, 2000) practically demanded
that their environment be brought into the picture, because bridges exist only to make connections in the exterior world. How did you deal cinematically with the contradict ions between Loos’s buildings and their surroundings? To what degree is this film a portrait of Europe or specifically of Vienna?
An old European city is a thicket; nature can hardly find a way into it. A certain dialectic or confrontation between various buildings is more likely than between a building and nature. In our
cities, we are constantly fighting to maintain the way the city looks, as if that were a value in itself.
Whole agencies are devoted to enforcing standardized roof heights. Senseless city palace facades
are rebuilt to intimidate us with the idiocy of past centuries. Nature becomes an accessory and not
the main theme, as it will always be in Los Angeles, because of its ruggedness. So there are two
fundamentally different starting points that are reflected in the films almost by themselves. Maybe
the two films about Loos’ and Schindler’s buildings have such different effects because I use very
similar means of expression. In this way, the different architectures and preconditions are revealed unhindered, rather than being obscured by dramaturgical measures.
As in your other architecture films, the arrangement of the buildings in “Loos Ornamental” is chronological, so that the days when the shooting was done, which are faded in ascaptions, are not chronological. This principle is found in all these films. What relationship is there between your biographical data and the architects ’ biographies?
There are simple facts about a film and its objects, for example how long an object has existed and when the pictures of an object were made. That alone could speak volumes to an attentive viewer. It moves me when I can place the moment of a recording – whether of a picture or of a piece of music – in relation to my own time of life. In this case, I myself am the maker and I know where I was on a particular day. This is a kind of diary assuring me that there are certain bulges in time that are worth living for.
Your exhibition “Die Basis des Make-Up ” has been on show at Hamburger Bahnhof since December. The three films in the series “Photography and Beyond”, “The Basis of Make-Up I–III ”, which can be seen at the exhibition, you call basic films and master tapes for other films. In the framework of the Forum expanded, you show the performance The Basis of Make-Up in a movie theater built especially for the purpose. All of your works are in series, follow interlocking principles of or der, integrate earlier works in newer ones, and have headings and captions. Your work biography thus takes on something sculptural, like that of an architect.
I didn’t plan it out in advance, it just came that way. I do experience films as architectures in time, and groups of films result in proximities. Drawing and writing differ from film in their relationship to surfaces of reality. These activities necessarily produce a thinking contrary to that of the work of a cinematographer, but they would not be possible without precise relations to surfaces and their design. The whole thing results in an open system of unfinished series and constellations, but in which finished films or drawings definitely have a place.
Considering this affinity, how do you choose the architects you make films about?
There are another four architects or construction engineers I plan to make monographic films about: Luis Barragán in Mexico, Auguste Perret in France and Algeria, Pier Luigi Nervi in Italy and
Ulrich Müther in Germany. With the films on Sullivan, Maillart, Loos, Schindler, Kiesler, Goff, and
the buildings of some contemporary Austrians, what emerges is a picture of Modernism for which I can develop affection. All of these architects stepped out of the given framework and at the same time felt committed to human dimensions – without swearing allegiance to any ideologies of canonizing their building block sets or policing people’s taste. All other architectures – or, better, architectonic situations – that I want to film in the future will appear in feature films – nameless, as a mess, as reality commands.
Who funds these projects, and how long does planning and implementation take, respectively?
The last four major projects were financed in Austria, because they were about Austrian architects. I don’t know how things will continue. On the one hand, funding should become easier, because the series now enjoys great international respect and all the films are shown in cinemas and distributed on DVDs. On the other hand, the widespread use of video has ruined prices and led to a situation in which this kind of 35 mm project is hardly possible anymore. But without 35 mm, count me out, because the sense of the series emerges only in high resolution and with the best cinema sound quality. I’ve been planning the individual films of the series Photographie und jenseits for more than ten years. When the funding is secured, a project can be carried out within a year.
Interview: Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, Berlin, January 2008
Stefanie Schulte Strathaus is curator of the sections “Forum” and “Forum Expanded” at the Berlin International Film Festival.