INTERVIEW WITH THE DIRECTOR HEINZ EMIGHOLZ BY
HANNS ZISCHLER

Hanns Zischler: I was enthusiastic about the great arc, the tension between Roman cement or concrete and the work of the civil engineer Nervi. Nervi takes up or perfects something with a long historical tradition, but many people are not aware of its role in the history of construction.

Heinz Emigholz: It is not general knowledge that the Romans invented or experimentally developed concrete or cement. For 2,000 years, the Pantheon in Rome was the largest dome made of poured concrete. It was surpassed only in 1913, by Max Berg’s Centennial Hall in Wrocław. That absolutely astonished me.

Hanns Zischler: What brought you to this topic?

Heinz Emigholz: A monographic film on Nervi’s buildings was on my plan for Photographie und jenseits since 1993. The idea of setting them in relation to ancient large buildings came later. You know I’m interested in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War. To conclude the series, I’ll soon be going to Tinian and Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands to film the concrete airfield from which the atomic bombs were flown to Japan. That is the end of my architecture series. In my research on the Americans’ Saipan landing, I came across the website of the war veteran David Moore, who took part in it. The website has three topics: the landing on Saipan, prostate cancer, and the Pantheon in Rome, which Moore viewed after his career as a construction engineer. He suddenly became aware that its dome has stood undamaged for 2,000 years, and he wondered what wonderful construction material it was made of. Moore analysed the exact composition of the concrete that the Roman construction legionnaires used, how they built, their formulas, etc. In 1995, the University of Guam published his book, The Roman Pantheon: The Triumph of Concrete, on the history of the Romans’ development of concrete. The grandiose dimensions of these buildings – Tivoli, the Caracalla baths, the Pantheon, the Aqua Claudia – show where the great construction engineers inherited the nerve to put such things in the world.

Hanns Zischler: As far as I know, very few engineers have been able to use this material as daringly and precisely as Nervi or Robert Maillart.

Heinz Emigholz: For Nervi, the professional title architect was a dirty word. He was interested in the art of the construction engineer and in uniting science and design in practical work. For each of his constructions, for example for the Pirelli Tower in Milan, Nervi created a large model to experimentally test load-bearing systems.

Hanns Zischler: Maillart experimentally tested the carrying capacity of bridges. Impressive with both of them is their view and knowledge. The working material determines the form in a specific way.

Heinz Emigholz: Maillart and Nervi rapidly developed the grammar of a kind of design suited to the material. Maillart thoroughly analysed which forms result from the lines of force and achieved an extreme elegance in his design. Nervi added the modular form of construction and of scaffolding. Look at the ceilings in the Roman sport palaces or those of the halls in Turin. They were put together on site from prefabricated modules. That is art and science on the highest level.

Hanns Zischler: What interests me about your film is the tempo or rhythm of the editing. For me, it creates a series of afterimages on the retina. There are sometimes relatively rapid sequences of edits. Since one has to process them while seeing, one is still storing or viewing the afterimages while the film continues. The result is a peculiar overlaying, a kind of network of tension among the images, as if you were also building something with the images.

Heinz Emigholz: I always say: camerawork is a quasi-architectonic activity. Its result is a virtual architecture that arises in the mind, independently from how the film is shot and edited. Everything in these films always begins very simply, like an addition of shots. The principle is simple: I make a chronological sequence of the buildings and edit them into something like an imitation of a walk through the building, around it, or back out of it. This is different for each object and isn’t decided on-site. But on every site, I need to feel that I have cinematographically captured the building. Then, on the editing table, I determine the precise sequence. But the way I film, each shot has a connection to the next one. I don’t want to design tableaux that stand on their own. There has to be something in a shot that continues in the next one – from a different angle, smaller, larger, etc. There must be a connection, so that a viewer can reconstruct the space through time.

Hanns Zischler: Metaphorically, this is a construction principle that is also valid for a civil engineer.

Heinz Emigholz: I have little idea how one creates or realizes a three-dimensional design. But I have an almost manic interest in depicting three-dimensional situations and givens on a visual screen. This is a film-photographic act. The individual shot has to be right in its composition and weighting. Architecture photography, i.e., making tableaux – if possible, with a wide-angle lens to capture everything – doesn’t interest me in the least. I want a normal, human way of viewing things, with a normal lens and understandable contexts that show how I get from here to there. You add up shots in your brain, and after a while the result is this complex layering. You go slowly through a building, and then you remember how you entered, how the room initially seemed, and how it changed. You can no longer say that this is a simple addition of shots; rather, something else happens: the building is reconstructed in your mind.

Hanns Zischler: That means – and this is the art of editing: if one follows this principle of image continuities in your construction, then a building arises. And the reverse conclusion is also certainly true: if one doesn’t pay attention to these continuities in the image, then the building will not come about in the mind.

Heinz Emigholz: The sound also helps in constructing the building in the mind. We are very painstaking with it and say: up here on the first raised gallery in the hall in Turin, for example, there is a different sound than down below in the hall. We take the sound from the respective shots and then we put it together. The sound produces the linearity of motion through the building. It would make no sense to have hard sound edits. But we work very precisely to shape these sound modulations. The room modulates the sound in the same way.

Hanns Zischler: The sound in PARABETON is especially beautiful. More than half of it is birdsong with lovely accompanying effects. In addition to the afterimages mentioned before, it has a levitation effect for the ear. That means the voices of the birds lift up the concrete, as well. What’s noticeable with Nervi is that his constructions never seem heavy. What the man does is antigravity.

Heinz Emigholz: In his Palazzetto dello Sport, you hardly see the load-bearing elements. You think the roof is floating, because you don’t see the key pillars and braces from inside at all. The building seems to end above the glass wall. From the outside, as well, it seems like a huge, flying tent.

Hanns Zischler: For me this is enhanced by the sound, which is especially nice in the shifts and in the Palazzo del Lavoro in Turin. That’s an abandoned, dirty pigeon cage, an almost dramatic sequence that is probably somewhat longer than others.

Heinz Emigholz: Every building develops its own time. Certain decisions on length are determined by the building, if one looks closely enough. When asked how long the shots are, I can never answer, because while editing we look for as long as we need to comprehend the picture. That’s also how I proceed when shooting. So there are shorter shots that I think can be understood more quickly than other, more complex ones. That’s what determines the length, not some mathematical principle. The point is always the object filmed, and that’s what’s absolutely satisfying about it. Shooting sessions are the only times when my brain is 100 percent present and capable of deciding.

Hanns Zischler: Ossip Mandelstam once said: building means hypnotising the space. How can you bring the three-dimensionality that’s in front of you into the filmed photography? I presume that 3D is not an option for you.

Heinz Emigholz: No, it’s not. I’d have to think about it completely anew. But up to now I’ve never thought something essential is lacking. I have a right angle; it’s flat. I can create the illusion of 3D without auxiliary means. What’s important for me is the image resolution. I don’t want to work with poor video quality or 16 mm film, with which you can’t at all depict the distance between things that you bring together on a surface and with which you can no longer identify the various materials anymore. One has to be able to grasp the space in all its dimensionality. And then – I produce a very special film photography – the brain has to put this space together again. One has to demand this work from the viewer, and then it becomes 3D.

Hanns Zischler:I never had the desire to see these images in 3D, either. In certain moments, the constructive sequence reminded me more of your drawings, because they also have a very powerful and dense aspect of overlayerings, interpenetration, and fields of tension. All of this in a square field that one grasps completely and where one concentrates on the details. The gaze wanders among the various references or is guided by arrows, dotting, grids, etc.

Heinz Emigholz: Oddly enough, I don’t see the connection. When I shoot a film, my brain is busy in a completely different way from when I draw. I believe in the surfaces that actually narrate the core when making a film, and I don’t need anything behind them. I compose surfaces by bringing them together in the gaze. What doesn’t interest me in film, unlike in drawing, are associative collages, which is constructing something inside the picture. The sequence of images is constructed, of course, and that’s what produces this layering you’ve spoken of. But I would never undertake this montage within one picture. In film, what interests me is the intact photographic surface of the individual shot. The way we go through the world, the way we put it together for ourselves. The brain can only be in one particular place, where no one else can be at the same time. I see a constellation of surfaces from one very specific point. That’s what’s so satisfying about it: that one can find this point and let it pass through light for a certain span of time. One doesn’t shoot at any old time, but chooses a moment when the light is right. I don’t want to use artificial light, either, but to take the site the way the architect determined it – after all, the architect did some thinking about light modulations. I put together something real by pushing together different levels when composing the picture. But I leave intact the view that I have from a specific point, without mixing anything else with it by means of an internal image processing, so to speak. When I draw, I see something transparent; I see lines, and what is between the lines has to be filled with projections. These are then almost medieval perspectives of relative importance.

Hanns Zischler: Back to the question of the working material. In other films, too, for example Loos Ornamental or the American films, you were concerned with the works, the buildings, of architects. Loos is an autobiography. With Nervi, the star of the film is the working material concrete, which he brought to this unfolding. At the beginning, you mentioned that the »Enola Gay« or the runway for Hiroshima and Nagasaki will conclude the series of architecture films for you. Have you drifted from architecture to the working material?

Heinz Emigholz: All the architects were already decided at the beginning of this project, in 1993: Nervi, Barragán, whom I unfortunately can’t do for legal reasons, Schindler, Goff, Loos, Maillart, and Sullivan. Sullivan was the starting point. It was the mode of construction made possible by the steel cage, in which the facades no longer have to bear loads, that freed facade design. A paradigm shift. Completely newly thought-out and designed load-bearing systems developed for concrete. In the Maillart film, I didn’t understand the roof of his train station in Chiasso. I thought that what bore the load was hanging. A construction engineer had to explain what was bearing the load. As a layman, I initially couldn’t understand it, but from the beginning, I was totally fascinated by the construction – and of course, by the construction material that made such unusual constructions possible. The list of people whose work I filmed was clear at an early time. But not everything always fit in a single film as originally planned. With all the short films, the architecture series comprises more than sixty films. PARABETON is the third to the last. There will be another film on Auguste Perret; I’ve already shot it in Algeria and France. The planned concluding film titled »Aufbruch der Moderne« was shot in connection with the project on Luis Barragán, where big obstacles were placed in my way. There will be an essay on why one can’t really make films like PARABETON anymore – it’s prevented in the meantime by so-called picture rights on buildings. Rights to pictures that don’t even exist yet – it’s logical nonsense. The Barragán Foundation, which belongs 100 percent to the Vitra Design company in Switzerland and supposedly acquired the picture rights to the Barragán buildings, forbids me to take picture of them under threat of punishment. In end effect, that basically means that one can’t shoot a documentary film about architecture anywhere anymore. Every nobody who claims to have acquired the picture rights to buildings can prevent it. All we can make anymore is fiction. This is active image censorship by the capitalisation of imaginary rights.

Hanns Zischler: In other words: when it comes to a certain reproduced view – photography or film – of a house or building by an architect, you are told: either you pay X amount, or you may not film it.

Heinz Emigholz: I encountered the problem for the first time when working on the Loos film. There’s a villa he built on Lake Geneva that now houses an ominous Loos Foundation that hasn’t let any photographers onto the grounds for decades. And whom does it belong to? An arms dealer. These foundations are a calamity. On the pretext of protecting an artist’s work, they can save on taxes and provide close relatives with directors’ positions. To return to the subject, I’ve just edited the film on Auguste Perret, and then comes »Aufbruch der Moderne«, in which the Centennial Hall in Wrocław appears, along with many other constructions scattered around the world. The film begins with a bit of grass in Normandy, and a voice says, »No grass will grow over this«. Then the concrete harbour in Normandy that Churchill had towed there during the invasion appears. The military comes into play up to the history of Saipan and Tinian. I don’t know yet exactly know what expression the film will ultimately have. But I made this conclusion my task and I want to tell why such films can no longer be made. In the last fifteen years, I was just lucky to be able to make the films I’ve made.

Hanns Zischler: You are also a teacher. Is there a pedagogical intention in these films – which of course show most of the interested viewers a world that they don’t know in this way, because they don’t normally look at buildings this way and initially have to make an effort to understand this perspective?

Heinz Emigholz: I’ve rejected making my films the foundation of my teaching. In teaching, I start from the respective motivations of the students for their own projects. But it’s also always about establishing a space in a cinematic scene, no matter what the actors do, if there are any in it. The space of a sequence has to be established. And there is a lot to discuss about how one can do this. How do I create a plausibility of a context or the analytical unity of a space and what happens? An assignment that’s not bad at all is: film this room here. It’s a three-dimensional unity, and you have seven billion possibilities to film this room; no foundation can stop you. The core of my teaching is pictorial work and not ideological work. The question is: how are an image and a sequence of images constructed?

Hanns Zischler: The absent story, the absent play is still present in a certain way in your films. As a viewer, I can appear like an actor.

Heinz Emigholz: Antonioni, too, filmed the Pirelli building and other ensembles with Jeanne Moreau or Monica Vitti strolling past. He lets them stroll out of the story and yet remains within it: the actresses go for a walk, and for several minutes, he shows only architecture and negative space. He loses his actors during the action, and you don’t notice it. Quite astonishing. And suddenly these spaces, landscapes, and situations speak for themselves.

Hanns Zischler: Antonioni was really the first who had such a complete esteem for architecture and permitted himself to be overwhelmed by it to this degree.

Heinz Emigholz: It’s of equal value, and for me it’s incredibly modern as a basis for narration. Most directors use architecture only as background, and out of focus at that. To make architecture a protagonist of equal value, that’s to Antonioni’s credit.