Sochitl Forster and Katja Lässer

The State of Motion

A Talk with Marcel Meili and Christoph Schaub about "Il Girasole".
Marcel Meili, what was your relationship to film before this project?

Meili: I started making films when I was seventeen. The first one was a 16-mm cartoon that unexpectedly got great feedback. After that, we founded a Super-8 group in Zurich that produced mainly political documentaries and experimental films. Of course everyone knew each other in this scene of semi-professional filmmakers and video activists in the mid-1970s, so that’s how I met Christoph Schaub. In 1981, I stopped making films because I had decided to do architecture. Il Girasole came about a lot later.

Christoph Schaub, how did you arrive at architecture?

Schaub: Actually, it was through Marcel. We were roommates when Il Girasole was made. Before that, I didn’t know much at all about architecture. Already as a boy I was more fascinated by construction sites than architecture. But at the time, Marcel came home from an excursion on which he had visited this house, he was really enthusiastic, and he suggested that we make a film. Then we got more involved in the idea and my interest in architecture was instantly aroused. I learned a lot about architecture in a very short time, also because that was the challenge, to film “architecture,” which isn’t so simple. Later I was fortunate to represent the client group building RiffRaff cinema during the design and realization. The office of Meili, Peter together with the office of Staufer, Hasler comprised our architectural team, so I was involved with architecture and with Marcel from this side, too.

What led you to make this film?

Meili:  At first, even specialists weren’t aware of the house back then. I discovered it through an Italian friend and for me, it was a true sensation. I still think that Villa Girasole is a monument to twentieth-century architecture. We just had to make this house a film star. Somehow it seems obvious with a building that moves. Only, it moves so slowly that the movement can’t be perceived by the naked eye. Capturing this movement cinematically, well, that was a fascinating challenge.

Schaub: Through the other background that Marcel brought in as architect and researcher, working out the filmic translation turned into something new and exciting for me. Sometimes our work was more of an experiment, where we explored the issue of how one can depict architecture, at all, cinematically. We posed questions having to do with perception theory, engaged in studies, and worked with models.

Meili:  Through this work we came upon an unexpected problem in making the film. What you can’t sense in any photo is the extraordinary size of this house. The engineer Invernizzi’s poignant, almost naïve treatment of issues of scale produced a house that can barely be grasped in its proportions, not even on film.

What methods did you use in the film to respond to the building’s special concept?

Meili: The most important decision was to bring in the characters. We actually placed “mannequins” in the house, like in de-Chirico paintings. That way we could anchor questions, such as scale, direction, camera movement, speed, etc., entirely differently, from the view of the camera. The story of the couple remains intentionally sketchy; the twenty-four hours simulate an approximate control of the time lapse.

Schaub: The true challenge was the cinematic translation of a sense of the space. The experiencing of a space in film, After all, functions entirely differently than the real experience. When I relate a fictional scene, I am interested solely in the psychological effect of a space, not in its truth, that is, its “substance.” The scenes in Il Girasole, too, are de nitely not free of psychology, but the demand to report something about scale and an understanding of space in the sense of the creator stood clearly at the forefront. Even though we knew that relating the spaces as completely as possible through a cryptic succession of images didn’t make any sense. We wanted to capture the architectural and atmospheric ideas in film. The memories told by the daughter from off screen, as an additional element, generate the emotionality, thus in a certain sense, also the psychology of the story.

Meili: Space itself is something that you can’t film. You also can’t photograph it. In film, space becomes visible through light; it is reflected in the walls, in the objects, but primarily in the people. Real space must be constantly translated into cinematic space, so that it is even perceptible as such. Through that, it becomes an autonomous, parallel construction that is generated quite substantially through the editing or montage.

If we were to look for a connection between film and architecture, we could very well say: the advantage of the one is the drawback of the other. Architecture desires the illusion of motion, where­ as film desires the illusion of the space that can be entered.

Meili:I’m not so sure that’s true because I don’t think that one can speak at all of a drawback, for either the one or the other. Film has cinematic laws; architecture, architectural ones. The two are less similar than is o en claimed, for example, in the meaning of movement and time. A fundamental characteristic of film is that cinematic time sets a rhythm for the movement, drafts a sequence; movement in architecture, on the contrary, is open and unpredictable. Thus anything linear is foreign to architectural time. And vice versa, the perception of an architectural space is not possible without the physical presence of observers, as they always and intuitively relate the spatial impression to their bodies. That doesn’t work in film.

Schaub: There is an affinity of film and architecture at another level in Villa Girasole. The house’s turning is laid out very “cinematically.” The house turns—as its name, the “sunflower,” implies —but in comparison to a carousel, does so very slowly. The movement is thus not perceived continually, but instead, is seen as a sequence of different situations. Thus, the house does not turn in the landscape; it stands at different positions within the landscape. But if one observes the landscape the other way around—from the inside, out—then a succession of different details are seen sequentially in the window frames. The movement is not perceived as a kinetic event, but rather, as a montage. But exactly this is a cinematic principle for recounting movement—a montage of takes in which a person travels a path from A to B. This montage principle is, for its part, very much related to the principle of how people remember “movement.” One cannot remember a movement continually. I was totally fascinated by the way movement is laid out in this house.

Meili:  Over the course of its history, film has developed a huge wealth of methods for evoking ideas of space without one “entering” the cinematic space.

It seems like you were more interested in the character of the house, the atmosphere it transports, than the ground plan.

Schaub: That’s right! It’s impossible to grasp this building in terms of its actual structure, even with a very didactic approach working with plans or other visualizations. And it wouldn’t be very interesting, anyway. One can never experience the space the same as in reality. The cinematic story has to constitute itself differently, as there is no way for the viewers to know what is behind or next to the camera. In actual observation, there is a reminder of that, that is, one surmises it.

Marcel Meili, lifestyle and atmosphere are quite prominent in this film. How do you depict the lifestyles, atmospheres, and emotions that you imagine for your architecture in your plans and drawings

Meili:  Good question! All methods of architectural depiction have precisely the same problem as film: they are translations and not depictions, even models, which feature the most simulative qualities of any method through lighting and three-dimensionality. That’s why we make a concerted effort to cut back on the use of computer images; they often have a devastating authority because of their promise to simulate “reality.” For architects, plans are precise exactly for that reason: the imagination requires that the work of translation goes on in the mind, whereby a much more extensive and general idea of space is created. In Il Girasole, the case of depiction is, once again, different because the house is actually a Gesamtkunst­werk; its architecture is only part of its reality. Every part that appears within was designed by Invernizzi or his artist friends. The depiction thus also applied to many other parts, objects, art, and nature.

How did you realize the third dimension of space in the two­ dimensional medium of film?

Schaub: That was also a very pertinent question for us at the time. As is generally known, it is possible to achieve a depth effect by staggering things behind one another. In the takes of the loggia, we stretched out a white sheet in the background. There were two reasons for this: to allude to a function or a practice, and to generate depth in the image. Another means is, of course, sound, which is also important for depth; or lightfields in the image. These are all methods for shaping the image that help postulate three-dimensionality.

Meili: As already mentioned, the actors were crucial in this game. The setting of the human figure into the picture is an eminent spatial gesture. Every Western offers an exemplary display of it: a belt buckle detail, a Colt in the foreground, and the expanse of the landscape—this immediately evokes unbelievable cinematic depth. If one were to take away the foreground, the landscape would still be just as vast, but we would no longer perceive the depth.

Where do you see the general relation between, or parallels of film and architecture?

Schaub: Spending a lot of money in a short time.

Meili: It’s true! And there is another, unsentimental similarity: directors can realize their ideas only with the help of a large team. For that, you need all kinds of money, which, like in architecture, doesn’t belong to you. (Laughs) These two aspects should not be underestimated. Contrary to the noble image of architecture and film as professions, the realization of artistic will through a large team is a significant challenge for both filmmaker and architect. The high costs are, in fact, not a “burden,” but an inevitable component of the métier, like celluloid or cranes.

Schaub: Architecture and film make a hybrid claim, they are art and use-object, which means, viewed economically, also commodities. Architecture has the advantage that it is actually needed, film is also a use-object, but it is not needed in a genuine sense. So with film, it is easier to shift the artistic aspect to the forefront. With architecture, there is an economic necessity, a functional task: a schoolhouse, a bridge, or a residential building. Adding a formal or artistic quality beyond that, that’s a di cult confrontation in architecture. I view this as being quite similar, since even though the functional aspect is missing in film, the economic success is actually impossible to predict.

Meili: For Il Girasole I think it is much more interesting to begin from the differences between architecture and film rather than the similarities. Naturally, there are also affinities, which is why architects speak so often about it. There are also countless cinematic terms in architecture, such as dramaturgy, montage, sequence, rhythm of movement, and focusing. But these are metaphors that actually cloud the relationship. I learned more from the realizations about differences, than similarities. For example, the complex role of physical presence in spatial awareness only became clear to me when I saw the wealth of means that are used to substitute for this “draw- back” in the cinematic space. Quite concretely, from film I learned about how to deal with light.

Schaub: I find it difficult when one compares spatial and film dramaturgy, After all, every space has more than one dramaturgy; a space can always be crossed in more than one direction, and each person can decide to a certain degree how they want to experience it. A film specifies how the dramaturgy should be experienced. This is, of course, also the authoritarian aspect of a conventional film narrative. The comparison applies better with light dramaturgy, which the architecture also simply specifies regardless of the beholder’s position. This “vague” relationship can also be seen with the acoustics: The acoustic world, whether in film or in spaces, greatly determines the emotional feeling.

Christoph Schaub, how does the shared experience of this film project flow into your feature films?

Schaub: I’ve learned a lot about architecture, about sensing a space, and the cinematic possibilities to depict it. But in a cinematic narrative, explaining architecture isn’t the primary aim. Architecture serves the narrative or the characters. I’ve learned how to understand spaces, their narrative potential, and how to cinematically narrate spaces. Maybe I also have a better understanding of the fact that one can understand and use spaces, in a psychological sense, as expression of the characters. It is not so direct, but I can say that I have a greater sensitivity and awareness with regard to architecture.

Marcel Meili, did the confrontation with film influence your work­ing methods, or do you approach certain spatial situations differ­ently because of this experience?

Meili: Well, directly from Il Girasole? (Laughs) Sure, but I learned that from the building itself, and not from the film. One of our best projects was the revolving restaurant on the Hohe Kasten; that was directly influenced by Villa Girasole. Beyond that, like I said before, realizing the autonomy of the laws of film intensified my sense of the autonomy of architecture, of every form of cultural production, whatsoever. That is quite a significant contribution to my career.

Could you imagine creating a building together rather than a film? What would result from that, and what do you think about it?

Schaub: We already did that. The Kino RiffRaff in Zurich, I was the client representative for Neugass Kino AG and Marcel was the architect. We also rebuilt a factory.

Meili: But for that project you were on the side of the client and for Il Girasole, I was a type of co-director, a genuine parallel situation has yet to occur. For me, it was an unbelievable experience to go back to film After fifteen years. In the 1970s, I made very modest films with extremely small budgets. For Il Gira­sole, on the contrary, we had quite a lot of money, an amazing cameraman and an entire team that solved the technical and organizational problems. I was able to deal solely with the image together with Christoph. That was an exciting week.

Schaub:  In the construction work there was a conventional allocation of roles. On the one side were the clients, who had their interests, and on the other side, the architect, who represented his interests. In that sense, we did, indeed, have our common interests and a similar philosophy, but it certainly also played role that a person is tied to the position that he represents and which he will be thrown back on in the end, which I also found interesting. In terms of function, the role of client is very similar to that of film producer: both make something possible. Without a good producer, there is no good film and without a good client, no good building. Both must be able to formulate their goals intelligently and disburse their money cleverly to achieve profitability in a sensible way. The conflicts between architect and client are, in part, quite similar to the conflicts between director and producer. Not only trivially, when money is the issue, but also in terms of how one deals with diffcult situations and the mentality that’s behind that.  

Sochitl Forster und Katja Lässer

This reworked and shortened interview from the elective work “Berührungspunkte Film & Architektur” at the Department of Architecture was printed with kind permission of the authors Sochitl Forster and Katja Lässer; Copyright © DARCH, ETH Zurich 2009

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