Mies: A Fighter for Film (Second Part)
Mies: A Fighter for Film (First Part)
4. Eggeling and Mies
Certain basic features of Henri Bergson’s philosophy of life, which was of central importance for Eggeling in particular, become clearly visible in G. As a matter of fact, although he himself was not involved in the magazine, the Swedish painter and pioneer of abstract film can be regarded as the leading intellectual figure of the G project. The emphasis on the organic wholeness of lived experience, the significance of the rhythmic body, the central role of the durée and the criticism of a positivist concept of knowledge formed the basis for Eggeling’s experiments with serial role models. He described his film Symphonie Diagonale (1924) as “Eidodynamik,” a term he adopted from Bergson. 4107N01 In L’évolution créatrice, Bergson defined the term eidos as “la vue stable prise sur l’instabilité des choses,” thus adding a temporal dimension to the Aristotelian understanding of eidos in the sense of “form” (as a counter-concept to matter). 4107N02 For Bergson, eidos stood in contrast to the “cinematographic mechanism” of modern thought and knowledge that he criticized, which transforms the continuous movement of life into quantifiable sequences of “snapshots.” In contrast to other artists who used Bergson’s criticism of cinema as a justification for their own rejection of the new medium, 4107N03 Eggeling saw film as a way of overcoming the Cartesian limitations of modern design, thought and representation. Eggeling (just like Deleuze more than sixty years later in his Kino books) discovered in Bergson a new conception of time: in contrast to positivist-Cartesian thought, which understands time as a spatialized sequence of quantifiable individual shots and thus subordinates time to the representation of a certain kind of movement, Bergson understood it as a heterogeneous duration of temporal differences. According to Deleuze in his interpretation of Bergson, metric time is nothing other than “disguised” space. Consequently, both for Eggeling and for Deleuze, the concept of durée opened up the possibility of a new understanding of space. 4107N04 Little is known about the relationship between Eggeling and Mies. However, it can be assumed that there was a personal relationship between the two: on the occasion of the first Eggeling exhibition after the Second World War, Mies wrote a short catalogue article. 4107N05 In Mies’s archive, there is an exchange of letters from the year 1924, which shows that Mies had lent money to Eggeling, who was living in poverty at that time, which he now asked to be repaid. Eggeling replied in writing: “My situation is downright desperate; for the yield of my papers was not enough to free me from NeuBabelsberg. After all, I still own the cinematographic trick table – my only work opportunity – selling it would be a complete lockdown of my work.” 4107N06 It is not exactly clear what Eggeling meant by “papers” and “Neu-Babelsberg.” Possibly he meant the UFA Studios, where he and Richter conducted their film experiments. Nevertheless, this correspondence shows that Mies supported Eggeling financially, possibly to enable the completion of Symphonie Diagonale, which was performed on November 5, 1924 and was part of a screening of abstract films organized by the November Group on May 3, 1925. Moreover, it was Mies who, after Eggeling’s demise, demanded that the Ministry of Science, Art and Education leave Eggeling’s studio to his assistant Erna Niemeyer. 4107N07
What they also had in common was their interest in Bergson. For Eggeling, Bergson’s thinking seemed to have been of central importance, probably ever since his stay in Paris from 1911 to 1915. His notebook is filled with quotations from L’évolution créatrice. 4107N08 Mies also owned the 1921 German edition and two underlines prove that he had at least partially read the book.
Interestingly, the underlines are in the passage in which Bergson described a vortex of dust that is perceived by the human eye as the “persistence of [its] form,” thus appearing more like a “thing” than as “progress.” 4107N09 In fact, every form is nothing more than “the outline of a movement,” a fleeting phenomenon that has less to do with the material reality of the object than with the invisible forces that make it appear as a solid object. As his underlines prove, Mies seemed to have been taken with the idea that “the living being is above all thoroughfare” and that “the essence of life is in the movement by which life is transmitted.” 4107N10 The fact that his book collection includes writings by Dilthey, Driesch and Klages suggests that Mies’s reading of Bergson was accompanied by a general interest in the philosophical critique of abstract rationality and positivist thought. 4107N11
The Light Room in Hellerau
The central role of film in G explains Mies’s later engagement as a “fighter for film.” However, the question remains as to why he was apparently receptive to the approaches developed by Richter and Eggeling. One possible answer leads back to the period between 1910 and 1912. At that time, Mies, who was employed in Peter Behrens’s office, spent a lot of time for personal reasons in Dresden-Hellerau, the reform settlement founded by Wolf Dohrn and Karl Schmidt in 1908, which was modelled after the English Garden City. As we know from the memoirs of the dancer Mary Wigman, Mies regularly went to Hellerau to visit Ada Bruhn, who would later become his wife. 4107N12 Bruhn was among the first group of students enrolled at Émile Jaques-Dalcroze’s Educational Institute for Rhythmic Education. It can be assumed that the young, aspiring architect Mies was interested in the architecture of the model settlement, which was planned by Heinrich Tessenow, Richard Riemerschmid and Hermann Muthesius. The fact that Mies went to London in 1910 to attend the International Town Planning Conference (at which parts of the General Urban Planning Exhibition, organized by Werner Hegemann and previously shown in Berlin and Düsseldorf, were exhibited) proves that he had studied the subject in depth. 4107N13
In Hellerau, it was certainly the Festspielhaus, the heart of the reform settlement designed by Tessenow, that attracted Mies’s attention. In particular, the festival hall, designed in collaboration with the Swiss stage designer Adolphe Appia and the Georgian architect Alexander von Salzmann, should not have escaped Mies’s attention. This empty, completely undecorated space, similar to the interior of a white cube, represented a revolutionary break in the history of stage architecture. The auditorium and the stage were no longer separated from each other by a proscenium, but formed “an indivisible whole.” 4107N14 Instead of an illusionistic stage set including naturalistic props, abstract, flexible stage elements that limited the rhythmic movements of bodies and light were used.
Of particular importance for the festival hall was its active light, which was produced by a lighting system consisting of 3,000 lamps specially patented by Salzmann and built by Siemens-Schuckert. Behind a translucent fabric cladding impregnated with wax, stretched as a permeable membrane over all four walls and the ceiling, there were hidden light elements whose luminous intensity could be adjusted as required. 4107N15 The importance attached to this technical apparatus is evident from the enormous production costs of 70,000 marks. 4107N16 The lighting system transformed the empty white space into a pulsating body of light that produced “a strangely diffuse, immaterializing, shadowless light.” 4107N17 Light no longer appeared in the festival hall as an invisible medium that made visible a world of objects assumed to be lifeless. Rather, the light itself became active, alive and “shaping.” 4107N18
As von Salzmann wrote, the “illuminated room” became a “luminous room.” 4107N19 Indeed, the hall transformed into an animated light body did not miss its mark. Arthur Seidl, with a certain irony, reported that Tessenow’s Festspielhaus was ridiculed as a “cinema festival hall,” writing enthusiastically: “Everything was actually new here, and something indescribably unique had risen and come to life before our eyes and ears.” 4107N20
Appia thus used the means of architecture and modern lighting technology to implement his theoretical demand for moving light, which had already been developed in the late nineteenth century. In contrast to stage painting, this is able “to convey the eternally changing image of the world of appearances fully and vividly, indeed in its most expressive form.” 4107N21 This pulsating light space realized architecturally what Jaques-Dalcroze had proposed to be the general goal of eurythmy education, namely to organize “the relations between space and duration” by means of the body. 4107N22 Interestingly, Jaques-Dalcroze’s method shows clear parallels with the contrapuntal compositional principles later developed by Eggeling and Richter, which formed the basis of their abstract films: the former was about “balancing or contrasting the movements of light, music and the body in space against each other and, in any case, allowing them to converge to create one design.” 4107N23
The recurring discursive patterns from G also seem preconfigured in Hellerau’s holistic reform project: the combination of life-philosophical concepts with an affirmative stance towards technology, the “education to apperception” to a degree of “automatic precision,” the “independent creation of rhythmic and melodic ‘counterpoints’” and the awareness that the festival hall did not yet represent a new theater, but was merely intended as preparation for the theater of the future. 4107N24
There are some indications that Mies knew the festival hall very well. Not only is it probable that Ada Bruhn took part in the performances of Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice in 1912, but in later projects, Mies recurrently used fabric-covered walls or room dividers: for the Café Samt und Seide (1927, with Lilly Reich), fabrics hung from straight and curved steel pipes; in Haus Tugendhat, the graysilver curtains look like canvases on which there appears a kaleidoscopic play of moving shadows from the weeping willow growing in front of the house. Mies had also completely covered the walls of one of the rooms of his office apartment Am Karlsbad with white silk, at least temporarily. According to his former employee Sergius Ruegenberg, Mies insisted on keeping the room empty at all times. 4107N25 It is possible that the walls of his apartment were already clad with fabrics between 1917 and 1919. Friends of the writer Rudolf Borchardt, who was a subtenant of Mies during this time, later reported that “the white and the gathered fabrics were a beautiful background for groups and figures.” 4107N26
The light wall made of opaque milk glass in the Barcelona Pavilion (1929), which Mies intended to be the only light source, also seems to have had a similar effect on visitors as the rhythmic light space in Hellerau. As with Appia and von Salzmann, light loses its function as a means of making the world of objects visible and rather becomes an “expressive element” that stands in contrast to the visually recognizable. 4107N27 The light itself becomes visible as it “spreads out in the room” and helps the visitor to “rediscover their own body.” 4107N28
This desubjectification effect seemed to have been precisely intended in the Barcelona Pavilion. Ruegenberg later described that the light wall had to be turned off shortly after the opening of the exhibition: the visitors, who perceived themselves as “silhouettes,” perceived the light as “psychologically unpleasant.” 4107N29 It is precisely this unease that points to the critical dimension of Mies’s architecture in the late 1920s: unlike the festival hall, which appeared as a “permeable light building” 4107N30 but was in fact a monadic space, the radically open, empty Barcelona Pavilion stood in an indissoluble contrast with the surrounding heterotopic spectacle of the World Fair. And while in the festival hall, the hidden apparatus helps to let the visitor-cum-spectator merge with the rhythm of light, music and dancing bodies, the constant glow of the light wall confronted the visitors not only with the remnants of their own subjectivity, but also its “peculiarly intangible materiality” 4107N31 along with the possibilities of new forms of life.
Te answer to the question of how Mies became a “fighter for film” can thus be found in those attempts to understand cinema as a practice of alternative thinking and creation. His interest in cinema was ultimately an interest in images – and these, according to Deleuze, are less a reflection of the world than the key to understanding subjectivity and our relationship with the world. What Richter and Eggeling’s films and the rhythmic light room in Hellerau have in common with Mies’s architecture is that they did not aim to record and reproduce an image of reality, but instead to unite the collective’s perceptive physis with new technology. This is exactly what Walter Benjamin meant when he cited film as an example of pictorial space [Bildraum] and body space [Leibraum] penetrating each other in such a way that a moment of collective innervation of technology occurs. 4107N32 At this moment, a new “space for play” opens up, which is greatest in film. 4107N33 And it was precisely this space for play, I think, that Mies tried to open up for architecture. This presupposes, however, that we say goodbye to both the essentialist and the phenomenological understanding of architecture and rather understand architecture as an animated, active entity that brings together emotions, concepts, spaces and bodies to form meaningful structures. In 1924, Richter wrote in G that the magazine was aimed at a contemporary who was “armed with all the modern apparatuses of instinct, reception and dispatching that assure his connection to life.” 4107N34 Film and architecture are among those mechanisms that are capable of creating these connections and generating new life.
The first half of this text can be found on Bitácora Arquitectura No.40, and can be accessed by clicking on this link.
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Professor of Architectural Theory