Play It Again, Thom
The MAK Center at the Rudolph Schindler house in West Hollywood is about to complete a three-evening series of rare architecture film screenings. The series is curated by Thom Anderson, director and writer of Los Angeles Plays Itself, which contrasts cinematic depictions of Los Angeles against its architectural and human realities.
The salty Anderson, currently a professor at California Institute of the Arts, was an excellent choice of curator for “Architecture and Cinema: New and Rare Films,” whose final evening of screenings is Nov. 8.
Last month, he paired Maillarts Brücken (Maillart’s Bridges), a documentary on the bridges and structures of Swiss civil engineer Robert Maillart, with Une Ville á Chandigarh (A City at Chandigarh), a social-realist commentary on the modernist capital of the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana, where the influence of Le Corbusier is stronger than any other place in the world.
His wry, rambling and detached observations when introducing the films nevertheless betray a passion for the work. While connecting Le Corbusier’s legacy to several Los Angeles developments such as Park La Brea, Wyvernwood and Village Green, he said of Chandigarh: “I’ve heard the rooms were small…but then, people were shorter then…many architects are famously short, including Frank Lloyd Wright…perhaps we need taller architects for our times…”
The juxtaposition of the films is a contrast in narrative style, more than of architectural style.
In Maillarts Brücken, Heinz Emigholz literally lets the bridges speak for themselves. The 25-minute film has no narration whatsoever. Instead, we spy the graceful arch bridges through arabesques of branches, as in a nature documentary. With only the sounds of babbling brooks and chirping birds, and the occasional automobile to accompany us, the “you are there” feeling of discovery is palpable. The decision to show this film on a flimsy screen in the outdoor courtyard of the Schindler House provided an extra dose of unplanned verisimilitude, as the evening’s Santa Ana winds whipped pine needles down in front of the idyllic Swiss scenes.
The bridges are at once strikingly modern, considering they were all built before 1940, and yet eternal, as they occasionally carry aqueducts with a sculptural strength reminiscent of Roman times. The occasional overgrowth of green moss affirms their permanence and soothes their chiseled lines, endearing us as much to the structures as the discovery of Nazi swastika graffiti on their undersides feels like someone shouting in our ears.
In A City at Chandigarh, the narrative is the focus of the film, and if it’s not shouted, exactly, political commentary is always at our side, gripping us tightly on the arm like a brittle doyenne. Swiss filmmaker Alain Tanner visited Chandigarh in 1966, while it was still under construction, and, through narrator John Berger, best known for the BBC-TV series Ways of Seeing, takes every opportunity to agitate for the social change that he clearly feels has not radicalized the landscape the way the architecture has. He’d get his chance with the student uprisings of France in 1968, which he later fictionalized in a later collaboration with Tanner, Jonah Who Will Be 25 in The Year 2000.
Every opportunity is taken to ponder aloud at the aspirations of Nehru’s India, while contrasting the irony of the starkly modernist forms rising from the muck as they are built by armies of women carrying wet poultice in wicker baskets on their heads, as they have done for 4,000 years.
“Why don’t they ask for more?” Berger asks of the Indian people.
Perhaps in an effort not to appeal condescending, equal skepticism is reserved for the West.
“Why learn French? Why learn mathematics? The Empire is over. Rub your belly and groan, and they will understand.”
Not strictly a condemnation of a rationalist Western imposition on an unruly subcontinent, Tanner and Berger’s commentary also looks approvingly at the adaptations of the locals. The orderly column grid of a building in the central square is festooned with colorful family-run shops offering tailoring, foodstuffs and an array of minor services. It’s certainly more inspiring than the images the world began to associate with Corbu’s “Tower in the Park” visions as applied to public housing in the West, epitomized in the destruction of Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis – the violent intersection of first-world ambitions, second-world resentments and third-world maintenance.
Of course, there are throughlines.
The contrast between chaotic, steamy and shambolic India of Ville and cool, civilized Switzerland in Brücken sets the tone of contrast between the films and their subjects, but other aspects of the films work against the conflict. Maillart and Le Corbusier shared a belief in the expressive power of concrete. The interior of the architecture school at Chandigarh is not so different from Maillart’s water filtration plant in Rorshach, which both take advantage of swooping, board-formed concrete ceilings and curved beams.
There is a notion of progress in the work of both men; in Maillart it was all about solving structural problems with daringly shaped concrete forms; in Le Corbusier, it was largely about using daring concrete forms to set down a new social order. Late in his life, Corbu must have been surprised that India would be the place where the Radiant City came closest to realization). The effort to impose order and conquer nature is evident in both as well. In Maillart’s case, the challenge is to span gorges with graceful structures that somehow look like they’ve always been there. For Le Corbusier, challenges of extreme humidity and intense sunlight drove him to create elaborate shading devices calculated for the precise orientation of each building. But in Tanner and Berger’s telling, the prime effort of Chandigarh is to impose order on, and conquer the mess of humanity, in a place where circumstances demand adaptations Westerners can barely comprehend.
The last part of the series promises to be just as politically charged, if not more so. Anderson will show The Future Will Not Be Capitalist by Sasha Pirker, a portrait of the French Communist Headquarters by Oscar Neimeyer and Our Cities, Our Rights, Jean-Louis Bertucelli and Henri Lefebvre’s 1975 manifesto on the “battle for urban space,” which promises to have an eerie resonance in the age of Occupy. Anderson cryptically suggests that the Schindler House showing of Our Cities, Our Rights, may be the last ever, as the film was never transferred to DVD and one of its last known prints will be running through the projector.
For those who missed the first two sessions at Kings Road, there will be at least one more opportunity to get some Architecture a la Anderson – Reconversão, Anderson’s own chronicle of the work of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, will be shown at REDCAT on Nov. 19.
Architecture and Cinema: New and Rare Films shows at the MAK Center at Schindler House, Kings Road, West Hollywood, CA, Nov. 8
Reconversão shows at REDCAT, Disney Hall, Los Angeles, Nov. 19
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