Sunday, January 27, 2008

Complicated Modernisms

This past Friday, I attended the fabulous Return Emigrations conference at Columbia University. Featuring a distinguished group of German and American architecture historians, the morning and afternoon sessions provided a much-needed assessment of architectural modernism's travails in the United States and in Germany. The conference website alludes to a familiar narrative: we customarily think of modernism as a West- and Central European import. From MoMA's 1932 Modern Architecture show, to the influence of Bauhaus mandarins like Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Josef Albers in American universities, modernism was a one-way current. There is plenty of scholarship and historiographic materials that contradict this claim (Gwendolyn Wright's brand-new USA is, for example, that looks at the development of architectural modernism in America in its own terms).

The conference, however, focused on a specific theme: the relations between "German emigre architects in the US and their German counterparts." The sessions outlined two basic themes. The morning session, featuring papers about Paul Bonatz and Rudolf Schwarz, considered a different narrative about modernism. The works of Bonatz and Schwarz thus showed modernism's inherent eclecticism, a rubric that included everything from Heimat wood construction to eschatological theories about the earth and built forms. The afternoon session considered, in the words of attendee Juliet Koss, the "after life of modernism." These papers focused on the return of people like Gropius, Martin Wagner, Mies, and Konrad Wachsmann to Germany in the 1950s and 60s. Whereas Richard Anderson's paper considered Martin Wagner's fall from grace as a symptom of his turn to "urban management", Lynette Widder's and Claire Zimmerman's papers focused on the reception given to Gropius and Mies upon their brief return to Germany. Widder's paper analyzed how Gropius was immediately embroiled in a dispute regarding the historical and ideological significance of the Bauhaus. Zimmerman's paper, on the other hand, considered the rehabilitation of Mies' career after World War II in the context of a flurry of published photographs of his buildings. Konrad Wachsmann's maniacal writings and designs became the focus of Jeffrey Harwood's presentation. Here, Wachsmann was presented as a design thinker who, in trying his hardest to find an architectural solution to his own ideas, pushed the limits of some as-yet-undetermined epistemological boundary.

An enlightening panel discussion at the end of the sessions pointed out that understanding the development of modernism in terms of pre- and postwar is unhelpful and counter-productive. As Jean-Louis Cohen, Joan Ockman, Rosemarie Haag Bletter and others indicated, the war was a "porous" event. The years 1939-1945 created a new and varied network of channels and communications that paint architectural modernism in a newly profound, complex (and welcome) light.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Unseen Sun (or, Ten Notes on Chris Marker's Sans Soleil)

Digitized Footage from Sans Soleil (1983) (Source: DVD Beaver)

1. During the opening moments of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), three Icelandic children are walking along an ashen road. There is a moment of pause as they slow down and stare intently at the camera. The viewer only has a moment to look at their elfin features and white hair before everything turns to black. While all this is happening, a female narrator (whose name is Alexandra Stewart) begins reading a fictional letter from a mysterious Eastern European cinematographer named Sandor Krasna:

The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me: one day I'll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don't see happiness in the picture, at least they'll see the black.

From the footage of the ethereal children, the film moves deftly to show an A4 Skyhawk descending into the inner sanctum of an aircraft carrier, and finally to passengers sleeping on a ferry returning from the Japanese island of Hokkaido. One critic remarks that the whole world of the film resides in this juxtaposition of images. From light, to dark, and back to light.

2. Marker’s film consists of footage from Japan, Iceland, and Africa. The images match Krasnor’s letters. One gets the sense that they are watching footage taking by Krasnor. This mysterious cinematographer is Chris Marker’s alter ego. Some of the footage is from San Francisco.

3. The two chief frames of reference are Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker. The former is especially poignant. At one point, Sandor Krasna goes to those very same places that Jimmy Stewart's character visits in Vertigo. It is a pilgrimage of sorts. Strange how many of the sites from 1958 San Francisco (the year Hitchcock made Vertigo) still exist in 1982 San Francisco. The latter film becomes more important towards the end of Sans Soleil.

4. Most of the footage is unmistakably urban. Some of it is familiar. We see a high-traffic street crossing bearing a distinct similarity to Shibuya, for example. In others, the rusty spans of the Golden Gate bridge rise from a bank of mist. In another image, an Icelandic village is buried under meters of volcanic soot.

5. A note on sound. Modest Mussorgorsky's Sans Soleil is played on different instruments. Sometimes it is a Moog. On others, it is a theremin. One can also hear curious, bubbly, reverb-saturated synth effects in the background. They give the film a science-fiction feel.

6. The name Unseen Sun may immediately recall the similarly-titled track, "Invisible Sun", from the Police's 1982 album The Ghost in the Machine. It is also the translated German title for Chris Marker's 1983 film, Sans Soleil (Sunless). That these two works -- an album and a film -- were released within a year of each other is coincidental. And to add to the coincidences, I only remind the reader that only three years later, in 1986, German media theorist Friedrich Kittler published his influential Grammophon, Film, Typewriter (Brinkmann & Bose Verlag, 1986). The introduction to this book, translated into English for the summer 1987 issue of October was one of the first English crossovers of Kittler's writings. It also features Kittler's famous "derivation" of the Lacanian real, imaginary, and symbolic "from the data channels of phonograph, cinema, and typewriter."

7. This is heady stuff, to be sure, but consider Kittler's invocation of one of Sans Soleil's many poignant moments. It is a scene where two dogs are seen playing in the sand. Kittler quotes the narrator:

Lost at the end of the world, on my island Sal, in the company of my dogs strutting around, I remember January in Tokyo, or rather I remember the images that I filmed in January in Tokyo. They have put themselves in the place of my memory, they are my memory. I ask myself how people remember if they do not make movies, or photographs, or tapes, how mankind used to go about remembering.
8. Sans Soleil features many images of television and urban screens. In a series of stills, celluloid images of television screens are depicted as lantern slides. These images feature ghostly circles of light radiating from within. The juxtaposition of media technologies is striking.

Lantern-Slide Deer, from Sans Soleil (source: DVD Beaver)

9. More on Kittler. What if Sans Soleil can be thought of in terms of data storage? Film footage becomes a repository of Sandor Krasna's memories about the various cities he visited (see #7 above). In another part, Krasna's letter reads:
I've spent the day in front of my TV set—that memory box. I was in Nara with the sacred deers. I was taking a picture without knowing that in the 15th century Basho had written: “The willow sees the heron's image... upside down.”
10. Why Sans Soleil? Think of the last couple of moments. Think of when Krasna's friend Hayao, a video game designer, begins digitizing the footage from Sans Soleil, and when that last digital footage becomes the film's coda (see above). Within the space of a 103-minute film, Krasna's memories suddenly become code. Stalker becomes the frame of reference:
He showed me the clashes of the sixties treated by his synthesizer: pictures that are less deceptive he says—with the conviction of a fanatic—than those you see on television. At least they proclaim themselves to be what they are: images, not the portable and compact form of an already inaccessible reality. Hayao calls his machine's world the 'zone,' an homage to Tarkovsky.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Franco's Monument

El Valle de Los Caidos (Source: El País)

An interesting article (via the estimable New York Times) regarding Pedro Muguruza's infamous El Valle de los Caídos. Hewn into the side of a mountain, the building is comprised of an amphitheater-style entrance leading into a gigantic nave. Inside are a series of crypts and ossuaries containing the remains of Nationalist soldiers. Late last year, Spanish historian Julián Casanova made a much publicized visit to the site. In a trip that was near-comic, Casanova was routed and rerouted from various librarians and staff members throughout the site. His purpose was to find ledgerbooks containing the names of the Nationalist dead. This was, of course, motivated by Casanova's own suspicion. The site is rumored to contain the remains of murdered Republican soldiers, victims who were also used to build the site from 1940 until 1949.

General Francisco Franco visiting the construction site at El Valle de los Caídos

The article is a nod to what has been a tumultuous decade in Spanish attitudes towards the Spanish Civil War. With the formation of the ARMH (Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica) in 2000, and the passage of the Law of Historical Memory late last year, the recuperation of "Republican Memory" -- via the exhumation of mass graves, the publication of new histories, and through various other expressions -- will come at the price of negating the existence of the Franco regime.

The architecture of the period, however, will stand. Whether it's El Valle de los Caidos, or other public buildings, at least future generations will have physical evidence of a scarifyingly repressive regime that lasted well past Hitler's or Mussolini's. The Franco regime needs to be understood before it is forgotten, and perhaps its architecture can aid in this process.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Thursday, January 03, 2008


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