Martin Walder

Space and Rooms Tell a Story

Christoph Schaub’s architecture films

Nothing is self­-evident about the conversion of architecture, of space, into film. Christoph Schaub, who in his documentary œuvre has become an expert in that field over a period of nearly twenty years, has long known that “you always have to take a detour, find an interpretation, to understand what architecture means, three-dimensionally. What I’ve learned is that you can’t narrate orientation in space; instead, you have to create a fic­tion. This has also benefited my feature films.”

The lesson was Il Girasole—A House Near Verona, created in 1995, the portrait of a futuristic villa that, like a sunflower, revolves around its own axis over the course of eight hours, located on the northern border of the Po Valley. The architect Marcel Meili, friend of Schaub’s and his roommate at the time, drew his attention to the building. The fiction that the filmmaker speaks of has to do with people, against whom architecture is always meas­ured (even when it makes a totalitarian appearance, negating them as individuals). In the film Il Girasole, Schaub and Meili placed background actors in the villa to represent a couple, as a kind of “de Chirico” effect, thus creating the impression of in­ habited three­-dimensionality and depth via a rudimentary staged setting meant to encompass 24 hours.

Although Il Girasole hints at a narrative, there is no intentional story line like in a feature film. Schaub’s architecture films are charac­terized by emphatically static camera work. In his œuvre, the camera is rarely a co­protagonist, exploring, sounding out, and striding through the space. If it were, Schaub says, “we would be psychologically and emotionally aware of its use.” And this would raise the question: “Who is it representing? The inquisitive cam­era man? The architects? An on-site visitor? The director? Us as viewers?” Instead, the filmmaker prefers to evoke architecture through a cluster of static images taken from various angles, using sound to add emotional charge. Also used as a “narrative” element is the play of lighting situations during different times of the day and year, which accentuate the building in ever new ways.

An exception is the film about Brazil’s capital, cleverly conjured from thin air (Brasilia—A Utopia of Modernity, 2007), in which Oscar Niemeyer’s feather­light designed urban organism gains dynamic contours in long traveling takes from a car window. This seems to make sense though; Brasilia was conceived as a car city. At Calatrava’s train stations and airports (Santiago Calatrava’s Travels, 2000) and under the platform roofs of Zurich’s main station, protruding openly into the cityscape (The Shift in Meanings—Meili, Peter, 2002), it appears as though it is the passersby and trains that set the buildings in motion and agitation.

The Calatrava film is Schaub’s first feature-­length documentary about architecture. The highly sought-­after Spanish star archi­tect’s visions focus on movements of nature that have been quasi frozen in steel and concrete and on natural structures, such as trees and plants. In an interview, the film illustrates this process from an idea in the mind to a drawing on paper, through to a real­ized, sculptural structure. The internal forces are no longer visible but can most deffnitely be sensed, and the film shows how they secretly correspond with the movement of the people within.

In the harsh nature of the Alpine region, humans are put in their place and at the same time protectively set center stage. Archi­tecture must accommodate that to the same degree as its repre­sentation. After Il Girasole, in the mid 1990s, the director Schaub received a telephone call from a Chur television studio, from former TVR director Peter Eglo , inviting him to do a portrait of the Grisons architects Peter Zumthor and Gion Antoni Caminada (Place, Function and Form—The Architecture of Gion A.Caminada and Peter Zumthor, 1997). This initiated an entire body of architec­ture films from Grisons in which Christoph Schaub played a key role. The films were copied and distributed by the Swiss Broad­ casting Corporation (SRG) throughout the country in the film edition Architec-Tour de Suisse.

Here, it becomes apparent how highly sensitive the topic of con­struction between tradition and modernism turns out to be in the Alpine area: for townscapes, public and private buildings, but also purely functional structures, such as dams, bridges, or even simple retaining walls for roads and railways. And the ques­tion is: how holy should and can tradition be here? Schaub’s films reveal how intensely the engineers—Jürg Conzett in The Art of Justication (2002)—and architects, such as Zumthor and Caminada, grapple with this and how they remain committed to a dynamic functionality paired with astute historical aware­ness.

This is, of course, missing in constructions such as dams that ruth­lessly destroy history and articially regenerate naturalness for later generations. The film White Coal (1997), produced for TVR (now RTR), contemplatively moves back and forth between the aspects of harmless technological feasibility and availability (playfully staged also for people, dolphins, and skateboarders . . .), on the one hand, and Ewigkeitswahn (the mad strive for immor­tality), on the other. It is, significantly, the guardians and control­lers of the dam who seem to have at least a hint of an idea of its inanity . . .

Such issues extend beyond pure architectural depiction, and in the fifty­-minute film The Vrin Project (1999), Schaub was able to ex­pand on this by showing how social aspects, economics, and aesthetics interact in the environment of a barely three­-hundred­-inhabitant­-strong Alpine village dictated by topographical and seasonal contrasts at the far reaches of Val Lumnezia. With Gion A. Caminada as the settled and entrenched spiritus rector, Vrin has become a model village of sorts, in which tradition did not have to encounter all­-weather modernism or solitary architectural ambition—a thankful terrain for the filmmaker with his re­porting spirit.

This experience proved advantageous for Schaub when making his hitherto most demanding film, produced together with co­ author Michael Schindhelm: Bird’s Nest—Herzog & de Meuron in China (2008) is captivating as a construction documentation of the Olympic stadium in Beijing, as an example of applied architectural theory and practice, and proves exciting, even thrilling, as a lesson in intercultural dialogue in the adventurous business of a rapidly modernizing China. The way in which the two archi­tects, with their mediators (Uli Sigg from Switzerland and Ai Weiwei from China), were able to assert themselves in Beijing— while unfortunately failing with a project in a city near Jinhua, south of Shanghai—is a valuable documentation of contempo­rary history.

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