Doc Blog

A Conversation about "Schindlers Houses" as featured in Wavelengths

Marc Ries: What was your first encounter with Schindler like?

Heinz Emigholz: In 1975, I happened to pass the Lovell  House in Newport Beach. At first sight, the building struck me as simultaneously  strange and well-conceived.  But at that time, as a filmmaker I was working on extremely  time-analytical compositions with no ideas on architecture outside the medium of time. Only later did my film work expand to issues and depictions of space. And I had  forgotten my encounter with the house until I saw it again on our shooting trip in May 2006. Not until the end of the  1980s did I consciously notice a house or two by him in  Los Angeles. A few years later, I developed the plan for the film series "Photography and beyond". After Louis Sullivan and Robert Maillart, Rudolph Schindler, together with Adolf Loos, Bruce Goff, and Frederick Kiesler, were the missing links to  the present – at least as far as my feeling for space is  concerned. The International Style and its expressionistic High-Tech sections never interested me.

Ries: How do you prepare for a shooting like this one  – from the catalog to field research?

Emigholz: I don’t work on commission, so I am independent and can pursue what interests me. The decision to “encyclopedically” explore the work of a specific architect always  began with an intimate experience of space. At least one room he built has to trigger an intense fondness in me; otherwise I can’t do any research. A certain kinship in  spirit in regard to grasping, designing, and experiencing  space is the starting point. From there, I research and extrapolate until I decide to open myself to the work of a  specific person. Then we seek contacts and try to find allies  for the project and to raise production money. In the end we plan a travel route that covers the accessible constructions. It all takes years.

Ries: Does your first on-site visit suffice to find “the” image?

Emigholz: I believe in first impressions and the analytical power  of the first encounter. It just depends on how concentratedly you work. And with me, shootings are the time when my brain is 100 percent present in the real world. And the point isn’t “the” image – some single, representative image – but a cinematic context, a sequence of individual  images that the editing and the viewer’s memory turn into  a spatial situation.

Ries: Can it be that the Schindler houses display a kind of inner montage that meets the films halfway? The interior space is not divided into separate units, but is usually a larger, convoluted room that presents a wide range of perspectives and thus accommodates the cinematic way of seeing in montage.

Emigholz: It so happened that last spring, around the time of the Schindler shooting, that I filmed almost all still-existing constructions by Adolf Loos. The film is titled LOOS ORNAMENTAL and will be finished soon, 74 minutes long. Of course, the idea  of his “spatial plan” is also evident in Schindler. The floor  plan no longer plays a big role. What counts is the sphere in which our head moves freely in the space. Planned was  a complex spatiality that interlocks on various levels and  that really can’t be conceived and carried out except on  site. That presupposes an extreme culture of craftsmanship, on which Loos, Schindler, and Goff could still count  in their life-times. Incidentally, Loos’ "Villa Müller" in Prague, which is the most elaborated project in this regard, is stuated on a steep slope – like most of Schindler’s houses, as well.  Views and perspectives of and from the house are built on the foundation of a complex natural situation. This is the opposite of formula architecture. The two films together will show how Schindler could carry out and further develop in freedom what Loos had conceived so consistently and the degree to which Loos had to land in a dead end here in Europe.  Of course, with both I’m fascinated by the complex spatial  situations, which open up countless perspectives. I work in  this same direction as a cameraman – away from the falsely postulated clarity of space.

Ries: Was it difficult to film all the houses you found?  Do you gain access everywhere?

Emigholz: There are good and different reasons not to let film teams into your home. Especially in Hollywood, where everyone knows that film teams destroy every place they enter. Or the residents are ill or on a long trip. Or a star doesn’t want people to know where he lives. Or a punk band doesn’t want it to be known how luxuriously their members live. And for many people in show biz,  social contacts carry the risk that one might end up with  the “wrong”, rather than the “right” people. House-hopping and up-scale mobility on the real estate market are  primary activities there. I respect that. A home is something very private. When we filmed, there were only three of us. May Rigler spent months in Los Angeles building  relationships of trust with the people living in the houses.  Where we shot, we were received with a warmth that is  probably possible only in America. But I must say, with Schindler I  reached a limit in an area that I don’t want to expose myself to anymore: in connection with shooting permissions and the idiosyncrasies of those who decide whether  you can film or not. The reaction of certain architecture theorists was interesting. They acted as if our filming and documenting the houses was stealing their academic life theme.  Faculty wars in the real 3-D world – it was almost funny. The deplorable custom in these circles of trying to make  “representative” views mandatory had not, however, spread to the residents we got to know. Almost all the original owners were part of the artistic or scientific bohemia of Los Angeles. They wanted affordable, but still highly individualistically designed houses. Fortunately, that made  these houses – though they are meanwhile legendary – too  small to be interesting for a certain exclusive clientele. John Lautner is there for them. And fortunately, I have meanwhile filmed almost everything I ever wanted to of the so-called famous architects. And no one yet pays any attention to the anonymous architectonic sites that don’t  have any name and that now interest me much more.

Ries:  Today we have two ways to receive “auteur architecture”. First, via high-quality depictions in catalogs,  in which objects are dissected from their contexts and celebrated as unique items. The other way is by encountering them on-site, which is in part promoted by an excessive  architecture tourism. But between the two modes of reception a gap in experience often opens up that may imply an aesthetic gap, as well: the model in the catalog is “overshadowed” by its lived existence in an environment and in  a history that leaves traces on the architecture, bringing  something else out of it, maybe what you describe as the “originality of an authorship of the whole society”.

Emigholz: The aporias of architectural photography are well known. Limited space in the publication media leads to intensely staged condensations and limitations to the supposedly essential – and to much use of wide-angle lenses,  so that everything is captured in one picture. A human  scale is thereby often lost. What is good for the architect’s  sales brochures need not have anything to do with what one can experience in or through these rooms. I find architecture tourism interesting because one’s own physical experience of a constructed space relativizes its media representation, even casting it into doubt and opening it to criticism. The prologue of my film proclaims the crime that I then commit: the relative isolation of an auteur architecture from the context of a whole society. Many films about architecture try to quote this context into being by providing essayistic commentary. For me, that’s the wrong path, because it avoids the basic experience with an object. It would be much better to depict this context itself, as in the first take of SCHINDLER’S HOUSES. Incidentally, some  of those who have seen the film say they constantly had the feeling of moving in a story or in rudiments of tales. And indeed, certain landscapes of the city of Los Angeles extend into the  images, and many of the houses the film shows are seen in other films shot in Los Angeles. But what is evident in SCHINDLER’S HOUSES is more the Los Angeles of Maya Deren, Thom Andersen, and David Lynch than that  of Alan Rudolph and Wes Anderson.

Ries: Is the “aesthetic gap” a constituting one, perhaps an a priori component of your architecture-film work, or is it the result of what happens on site? It seems to me as if the milieu were less intensely present in SULLIVAN'S BANKS than in the other works.

The gap you describe is more fundamental to film  than to photography. The sound alone brings much into  the film that is not in the picture. And film images are  constantly “turned around” and set in new relationships in the sequence of takes. Attributions of significance logically  cannot be as clear-cut in film as they can in photography, even if the director wanted to try. But I don’t have the aim  of isolating and presenting ideal states. In these films, I  don’t use historical footage, because I’m interested in the  current existence of the buildings shown; that is, at a very specific time. I thereby also document the respective present day. That was already the case with SULLIVAN'S BANKS.

Ries: The proliferation of green, of nature, is actually  also a “subject” of the film. I had the impression that  SCHINDLER’S HOUSES is also a film about nature reconquering civilization – through a strange affiliation of culture  and nature that the houses have.

Emigholz: But that is no opposition. Schindler had very realistic  visions of the effect the houses would have in an environment that would not grow back until later. With many houses, the landscape around them was part of the design. So he was also a landscape architect. He built in extreme places,  in the wild, almost inaccessible mountain landscape that separates the Los Angeles Basin from the San Fernando  Valley. Nature and its extreme conditions were always immediately a theme of his work. Many “results” of his work he never experienced, because nature did not play its part  until decades after construction was completed. For example the "Elliot House" in Los Feliz: in the photos shot shortly after its completion in 1930, it stands visible from afar, like an abstract sculpture on a barren hill. Today it disappears in a bamboo forest, and only parts of the garage are still visible  from the street. But in its structures, the house takes up the forms of the bamboo forest – which didn’t even exist at  the time of construction. The "Kings Road House", which was once way out in the sticks and now, unfortunately, is surrounded by block-like apartment buildings, was conceived  from the start as part of a large garden area. Schindler was downright obsessed with nature. He designed “sleeping porches” for his houses, where one could sleep outside.  Nature was part of his thing.

Ries: How would you describe the state of (im)balance  between the two levels of experience that is important to  you: here the object, there history and society?

Emigholz: From the level of the viewer. We are damned to view only surfaces. Most media surfaces unfortunately try to copy the politics of words and to take part in their  supposed authority. But it is part of the logic of the threedimensional world that the greatest number of images or pictorial contexts possible in it have never been shown or arisen in consciousness. At any rate, I am aware of a class  of images that are yet to be made and that show the society and its respective “nature” without clinging to words.

Marc Ries works as a media theorist in Leipzig and Vienna. More information on the films by Heinz Emigholz at:
Picture: Kings Road House (1922) in West Hollywood
Comments are locked for this post.

Check the Archives for older postings.