Brutalism 101

ARCHITECTURE / Exploring the dual character of architectural modernism through the tension between the avant-garde and political propaganda.

Heinz Emigholz has a lifelong obsession: modernist architecture. Since 1983, when he launched his series of documentary films, Photography and Beyond, he has made 35 films that explore in what he calls «vivid sequences of photographic details” aspects of the concrete architecture of the 20th century. Slaughterhouses of Modernity is his latest.

Slaughterhouse of Modernity Heinz Emigholz
Slaughterhouse of Modernity, a film by Heinz Emigholz

The producers’ notes for this film state that «if Slaughterhouses of Modernity does not belong to this series strictly speaking, it draws heavily on the last two episodes, about the works of Francisco Salamone and Freddy Mamani. The first built public buildings, cemeteries and slaughterhouses in the Argentinian pampas during the infamous decade; the second, incredibly flashy buildings in El Alto, Bolivia, which defy all functional austerity by being inspired by indigenous models.»

The blurb set off alarm bells in my head. I’d just started watching the film and had been unpleasantly surprised not by the images but by the staccato, dull, toneless and utterly boring narration. Opening with images of a scruffy street of unrendered brick houses facing onto a wide, dusty street where piles of river rocks were being readied for laying the foundations of a new sidewalk, the scenes were luxuriant in ochre reds and autumnal, dusty hues. The jarring effect of the narration – something like an AI Chatbox attempting to ape a university fresher’s year humanities course in the philosophy of architecture – had me reaching for the mute button on my laptop.

a tribute to a time when uniformity could also mean beauty.

Imaginative solutions

Slaughterhouses of Modernity is not for most audiences. At the very least, you need to have a passing interest in Brutalism to enjoy the images and a tin-ear for the narration. But if you can let the narration in one ear and out the other and simply sink into a series of images that chart the architectural responses to the inhumanity of much of the 20th century, this is a film that will, at the very least will, open your eyes to the wide range of imaginative solutions to modernist architecture that the century’s greatest designers and draughtsmen came up with.

For formal presentation, the producer’s notes cannot be beaten: «Emigholz does not prevent himself from returning to older images of the series, in order to establish a link between the public buildings of Salamone and a post office designed by Angiolo Mazzoni in Mussolini Italy; nor to establish fierce connections, to send, for example, a German palace to be seen in the middle of the Altiplano. The structural program is here totally overthrown by the eclectic and heretical logic of the essay, multiplying polemical positions, manifestations of black humour and eccentric sequences to form a fierce criticism of modernity, caught in a vice between the avant-garde and totalitarian propaganda; between ‘places where modernity commits massacres, and places where it is massacred», they state.

From a more informal position of a lay viewer, the camerawork – and awareness of light and colour grading – of Emigholz and Till Beckmann brings a haunting beauty to many of the chunks of angular concrete modernist architects of the 20th century produced.

True, as the gratingly harsh narrator says of buildings that often do not harmonise with their surroundings: «The buildings represent something new – and that is the construction of a new man.» As the words scrape away over gorgeous images shot in South America at dusk, the cameras glide over the outlines of rusting, discarded buses, piles of rubbish, and traffic belching fumes. There is an awful, austere beauty here that both underlines the tragic mistakes of 20th-century humanity and celebrates the endurance of beauty despite it all. For anyone who has ever rejoiced in the ability of light to extract beauty from the most mundane objects, this film will be solace for the soul.

Slaughterhouse of Modernity Heinz Emigholz
Slaughterhouse of Modernity, a film by Heinz Emigholz

Architectural road trip

The film takes viewers on a road trip through the architecture – the grand, stately and modernist city hall in Pelligrini, Argentina, one of many buildings Salamone built in the vast grasslands of the Pampas between 1936 and 1940, remains splendid if stained after decades of rain and wind. Concrete looks good in sunlight when first built, but unlike marble, it attempts to copy on the cheap, it has no staying power, and its gritty surfaces soon sour. But inside the building, Art Deco furniture, fixtures and fittings remain splendid – a tribute to a time when uniformity could also mean beauty.

There are buildings here – such as another civic building in Coronel Pringles, built in 1938 – similar to structures found in Europe or old colonial outposts, such as Casablanca in Morocco, attesting to the international sensibilities of the form and movement of modernism. The municipal slaughterhouse is so similar to Atlantic Wall defences built by the Nazi Organisation Todt that it takes the breath away: places that deal in death, identical in form and function. The sunken city of Epecuén is a giant quarry of swamped concrete and brick, sitting among groves of long-dead trees.

It is not all bleak and grey. The film finishes with a flourish, examining the bright – almost gaudy – work of Bolivian post-modernist Freddy Mamani Silvestre, who incorporates influences from native art and colour schemes in his bright and engaging buildings in Al Alto, a city more than 2km above sea level.

Tune out the narration and enjoy the images.

‘Slaughterhouse of Modernity’ screens as part pf the 2023 Cinéma du Réel competition.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworthhttp://nickholdsworth.net/
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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