Of Maas, and Men: Michael Pattison reports from Rotterdam

former grain-silos on the Maas

“Form follows function”
—Louis H. Sullivan, 1896

One of the stronger programming strands at the 43rd edition of International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) was its partial Heinz Emigholz retrospective—held ahead of the world premiere of The Airstrip, a new feature-length work by the German filmmaker at the forthcoming Berlinale. Among the selected works was Two Museums (Zwei Museen), a 20-minute study of two geographically disparate buildings, one of which had a direct influence on the other.

The Mishkan LeOmanut, in northeast Israel’s Kibbutz Ein Harod, was designed by Samuel Bickels and built in 1948. It was the first rural museum in Israel and the first run entirely by a kibbutz. It ranks today among its nation’s most significant art institutions. The Menil Collection, designed by Renzo Piano and built in 1986, is situated in Houston, Texas. Billed as “a museum and a neighbourhood of art,” the Menil Collection is home to a permanent exhibition of artworks collected by founders John and Dominique de Menil.

Two Museums is the 22nd part of Emigholz’s ‘Photography and Beyond’ series. Though it begins on an exhibition inside the Mishkan LeOmanut, the filmmaker’s camera (with assistance from Till Beckmann) quickly moves outward, becoming more fascinated with the architecture of the actual museum. Creating a kind of spatial palindrome, the second part of the film moves from the outside in, beginning with observations of the neighbourhood surrounding the Menil Collection before entering its immediate vicinity.

Two passages came to mind when watching the film—one filmic, the other literary. The first was that disquieting sequence towards the end of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century (2007), in which the director enters the depopulated basement of a hospital, roaming around its immaculate interiors as it is drawn, as if by magnet, to the mysterious opening of a ventilation shaft somewhere deep within the building. The second was the passage that begins the second part of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), in which the author describes at great length the empty interior of a holiday home without its usual inhabitants.

an image from 'Parabeton: Pier Luigi Nervi and Roman Concrete'

an image from ‘Parabeton: Pier Luigi Nervi and Roman Concrete’

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Indeed, both buildings in Two Museums are virtually devoid of human life. Silence is their most distinguishing quality. This seems a strange remark to make for a filmmaker whose work often conjures a vivid sense of place through sound. The field recordings in Emigholz’s Parabeton: Pier Luigi Nervi and Roman Concrete (2012) bring to life visual content that could, at times, be mistaken for still photography, so serenely inanimate are the filmmaker’s compositions.

Parabeton looks at various examples of concrete architecture in Italy. The structural engineer and architect Pier Luigi Nervi (1891-1979) is noted for his innovative use of reinforced concrete. Emigholz visits and photographs various works by Nervi—all in the same commentary-free style. Fiorentina’s football stadium (1931) in Florence; salt warehouses (1953) in Tortona; a tobacco factory (1953) in Bologna; a small sports-complex (1957) in Rome; Pirelli Tower (1958) in Milan. Juxtaposed with these and others are the few remaining Roman concrete structures, dating back to the 1st century BC. An unspoken dialectic appears to emerge, between ancient and modern architectural practices, which speaks of a remarkable cultural continuity of different generations gathering and using the same resources to the same ends.

Parabeton at once evokes agitation and contentment. Though ‘architecture as landscape’ invites comparisons to a filmmaker like James Benning, Emigholz eschews the temptation to linger too long on his exteriors of interest. The film is surprisingly moderate in its pace, which creates on the one hand a spatial fragmentation, whereby a building is never seen from one harmonious vantage point, or indeed from any vantage point for too long, but is instead only an impression—the sum of its details. On the other hand, the film is unflustered; Emigholz’s tripod-fixed camera lends a real sense of ease.

Parabeton

Parabeton

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Again, it’s in the soundtrack. The transportive qualities present in Parabeton have, to my ear, much to do with the way in which Till Beckmann’s sound recordings capture so vividly that evocative, lush, unique ambience of an Italian afternoon. Birdsongs compete with the rattling drone of a generator. The distant hum of road traffic is heard against the sound of a plane making its unseen way through the clouds above.

Such attention to detail lends a romance to these otherwise static images. I’ve been to Rome—I even fell in love there. Its sun-scorched, open roads and the dusty white of its ancient concrete are captured with such cinematographic precision in Parabeton, that the film’s accumulation of geographical and historical data (each segment is preceded by an intertitle denoting the date and location of the building to follow) appears to take on the attributes of another life altogether—some unlived alternative here, or else an ongoing past elsewhere.

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I saw Parabeton on my fifth day proper in Rotterdam. I had up to that point struggled to settle, had struggled to find the routine on which surviving any film festival depends. Part of my trouble was the festival itself, another part was the result of private matters. At any rate, I seemed to drift in and out of the films I saw there—sometimes physically, but more often mentally. But being ‘miles away’ (as the saying goes) is no bad thing for a film like Parabeton, whose contemplative register appears to invite such a ruminative mindset.

Consequently, thinking back to that brief but transformative school trip to Rome, when I was at the height of my impressionable adolescence, magnified the work’s pleasurable rhythm. When an actual orchestra begins a practice session inside the Vatican’s Papal Audience Hall (1971)—the diegetic musical swell provided an oddly stirring climax.

Emigholz’s Sense of Architecture (2009) screened an hour or so after Parabeton. Travelling to Rotterdam’s Het Nieuw Instituut with renewed optimism about my time in the city, however, I was appalled by the screening conditions. Fitting to the extent that the venue is an architecture and design museum, its film-exhibition space was far too bright and far too big for such a small projection too far away. I gave it twenty minutes or so before shooting out. That’s no fault of the film—though its 160-plus running time made me wary of having too much of a good thing so soon after Parabeton. And by that point, Emigholz’s visual style had made me eager to go for a walk.

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Rotterdam is an ugly city. Though its interest to architecture students is obvious, to my amateur’s eye it appears to be too willing a victim of history. Like many cities destroyed in the Second World War, Rotterdam’s regeneration has been relatively overnight. Consequently, its sense of modernity seems bound to the literally upward growth of its buildings. Here, cultural identity becomes synonymous with innovation and enterprise. There are obvious benefits to building upward rather than outward, but I also wonder if there is something compensatory in mind, something intransigently phallic—something smug and self-congratulatory.

Overblaak

The pretension is that in the centre of Rotterdam at least, form precedes function. You can see it in Overblaak, a residential development designed by Piet Blom and built between 1978 and 1984. You can see it in the frankly disastrous design of the Schouwburgplein, on (and just off of) which several IFFR venues are located. These and many other examples upend the epitaph engraved upon the architect Louis H. Sullivan’s gravestone, as seen in Emigholz’s 2005 short Miscellanea III. The deliberately idiosyncratic flourish to customary architectural forms is irritating. They are, before anything else, visual symptoms of excessive wealth.

Venturing outward, it doesn’t take long for the pretensions to fade off. Heading across the Willemsbrug and southward along Rosestraat (towards Rotterdam Zuid metro-station), I was struck by how quickly form began once more to follow function—no doubt designed to house the city’s workers and ethnic minorities. Some way along the Rosestraat is De Peperklip, a housing block built in 1981. From an aerial viewpoint, the building resembles an open paperclip. It was designed by Carel Weeber, born 1937, in opposition to what had become known by the late 1970s as the ‘new frumpishness’. The new frumpishness referred to small-scale Dutch architecture that emphasised intricate homeliness.

De Peperklip

The large-scale planning of De Peperklip was controversial by design. One website dedicated to Dutch architecture notes that “critics described the building as inhospitable, cold and merciless. Others praised the timeless, rational architecture, and saw the building as a liberation from the disastrous small scale. During the first year the building was often in the news, especially because of the many social problems among the residents.”

This last point is revealing. Why timeless, rational architecture must be reserved, apparently, for the comparatively disenfranchised is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it has something to do with imposing some proximity to the earth. It’s no coincidence that the moneymen who rule a city are often to be found, quite literally, elevated away from it. Viewed more optimistically, however, it means that complexes such as De Peperklip express a temporal continuity: their strikingly functional exteriors and unvaried interiors imply some kind of uniformity, some kind of cultural mainstay. That’s important when thinking of political ramifications.

Located to the northwest of Rosestraat, up again by the Nieuwe Mass (the channel upon which Rotterdam is located), are the Maashaven flourmills and now disused grain silos. Maashaven takes its name from the Dutch words for Meuse (Maas), one of the two rivers – the other being the Rhine – from which the Nieuwe Maas is formed, and harbour (haven). The flourmill, still in use, is run by the Dutch company Meneba. According to its website, Meneba “develops, produces and markets raw materials and functional cereal-derived ingredients for bakery products and other foodstuffs”. One section of its webpage is subtitled “Determined by functionality.” Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I found it the most interesting complex to photograph in all of Rotterdam.

disused grain silos on the Maas

To assist the storage of grain, the development of the silo at Maashaven relied upon reinforced concrete structures. These are still visible today. The oldest granary was built in 1910 at the most westerly point of Brielselaan, the road on which the site is located. The silo was built by F.J. Stulemeijer & Co., and later extended in the 1930s by Brinkman and Van der Vlugt (architects of the renowned and now disused Van Nelle Factory, northwest of the city). The granary was designed by the Rotterdam-born architect Jacobus Pieter Stick (1862-1942). Stick had also designed the Hulstkamp building, built in 1888, situated east along the Nieuwe Mass. Many of Stick’s other buildings were destroyed in the war.

smoke on the water

Much of the silo complex at Maashaven is now out of use. Since 2003, parts of it have been used to host raves of up to 5,000 people. On the day I walked by, I noted a banner advertising Madwish. Madwish is a board game app and party game that apparently combines alcoholic consumption with flirting. Today, the site is owned by the City of Rotterdam, whose plans to replace it with luxurious apartments were stalled when it was revealed that such moves would cost €17 million. The site is let out to Creative Factory, a Rotterdam-based hub of 74 predominantly creative businesses.

MadWish: Don't Hate Me, Hate The Game

Creative Factory emphasises collaboration with businesses in order to fund artistic endeavour. It is an offshoot of Culture Fighter, the product of Slovakian film company partizanfilm and the NGO Východné pobrežie. Culture Fighter was devised as a means of investigating, among other things (and with my italics): “the concrete effects cultural initiatives, cultural policies and the creative industries have had on concrete places in Europe.” The initiative’s website is full of videos dedicated to examining the function and nature of cultural practices in an urban landscape. Save for the Emigholz films and a few others, they’re a lot more interesting and insightful than the films I saw as part of this year’s IFFR.

I have bemoaned the number of toothless films in Rotterdam this year already. Though many—if not the majority—of these have their hearts in the right place, their overall weakness stems from a narrow perspective and, I dare say, some confusion about the prevailing situation. Stay around long enough for a Q&A after these kinds of films and such suspicions are likely to be compounded, as the filmmakers retreat further into blandly evasive rhetoric. (There are exceptions. The Q&A Jeremy Saulnier gave after a screening of Blue Ruin is one.)

Urban Planning in Helsinki (CultureFighter)

Urban Planning in Helsinki (CultureFighter)

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Not every film has to evoke a discernibly revolutionary worldview. But on the evidence gathered at IFFR this year, the tension between our so-called ‘democratisation of art’ and the continued cultural and economic enslavement of our working class is, in the final analysis, irreconcilable. More filmmakers need to advance from this thesis. As is, the functionally promotional videos included on CultureFighter’s site—as an example, here’s one on urban planning in Helsinki—compare favourably in comparison. Though I suspect the initiative has its own problems (how much is a quest for regenerating growth doomed to reinforce the self-expanding logic of capital?), its pithily inquisitive audiovisual “bites” start, at the very least, with questions about the world today.

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Michael Pattison
6th February, 2014

the Maas effect

all photographs by the author unless stated otherwise

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