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March 5, 2005

Building Heaven, Remembering Earth: Confessions of a Fallen Architect, 1999


Oliver Hockenhull's voluptuous, textural, and thematically (and experientially) dense essay film is an intricately constructed, stream-of-consciousness meditation on architecture, memory, immortality, and transcendence. Evoking the sprawling, trans-continental journals of the faceless, globe-trotting (metaphoric) time traveler and ethnographic filmmaker Sandor Krasna in Chris Marker's Sans soleil, Building Heaven, Remembering Earth: Confessions of a Fallen Architect is similarly infused with a certain wide-eyed curiosity and sense of adventure, thoughtfulness, and self-effacing humor.

From the film's introductory anecdote on the first book of architecture, a ten-volume documentation of buildings, machines, and timepieces, Hockenhull presents an implicit interconnection between architecture and time, both serving as materialized representations of projection, shadows, and geometric space. The analogy is subsequently developed in the filmmaker's exposition on the Pantheon in Rome as he reflects on the ancient structure's innate symmetry through negative projection for which the apparent structural complement - and therefore, its spatial negation - occurs at an intersection on an imaginary axis that is defined by infinity. The realization of imaginary intersections and approaching theoretical limits similarly provides the underlying concept for the Aquatic Pavilion in Neeltje Jans, Holland, an example of media architecture in which undulating, nodal mesh forms characterize the functional construct of the numerical data: the ideal form generated by a human-less, synthetic vision of empirical limits and discrete interpolations.

Hockenhull further correlates the process of architectural construction as an innately human quest for immortality - a mortal bridge to the divine (note the thematic correlation to György's underlying futile search for the harmonies of the gods in Béla Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies) - a rapture. It is this ephemeral state of artificially induced transcendence that is thematically threaded to the juxtaposition of images between a heroin addict and the somber, forbidden architecture of New Metropolis, an asymmetric and aesthetically nondescript behemoth commercial space projecting ominously from the industrial landscape of an Amsterdam harbor town, both representing a depersonalization of the individual: the erasure of the human element (which, in turn, expounds on the idea of architecture as a means of achieving closeness to gods).

In correlating the confluence of structure and time, Hockenhull characterizes architecture as commemorations of history. From a statue immortalizing the commander of the Dresden raid (a personally traumatic episode for Hockenhull's father that the filmmaker revisits in the short film Mother, Father, Son) to an examination of the works of artist and architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Hockenhull illustrates the inevitable bifurcation between the conceptually ideal - the "glowing painting of a reconciled world" - and the ravaged artifacts of human history (most notably, in the bullet-ridden pillars of the New Watch Building and the variegated rubble used to line the perimeter of a summer house in postwar, suburban Berlin). It is this corruption and decay of the ideal that is encapsulated in the utilitarian history of the Prince Albrecht Palais, a stately residence later transformed as a headquarters for intelligence gathering and dissemination of propaganda by the Nazis.

Traveling eastward to Asia, Hockenhull then forgoes the inherent politicization of 20th century European history and returns to the more abstract theme of transcendence through architecture, remarking after a Sergei Eisenstein retrospective in Istanbul of the role of cinema as "time and aspiration of memory", and further concluding that architecture and memory are integrally correlated by the nature of their "pure constructions". This idea of continuity through memory and architecture - the intertwining of the mortal and the immortal, life and death - is perhaps best represented in the Indian city of Kashi, known as the city of light - a cremation grounds where nature and structures represent, not only ancient relics of the past, but also a continuity and an afterlife. In essence, the architecture serves as a place of ceremony and ritual: the human imperative to define the amorphous nature of God and consequently, find a path to transcendence. It is this complex interconnection of functionality and meaning that is inevitably embodied by the egg-shaped stone that punctuates the film, an eternal, indefinable object that curiously encapsulates the genesis, mortality, human imprint, and metaphysical enigma of a greater, and unfathomably more complex, immortal design.

Update: The film is available on DVD through Customflix. (04-09-05)

Posted by acquarello on Mar 05, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes


Your beautifully written review piqued my interest. The list of monuments visited is impressive. I actually visited Mies van der Rohe's pavilion in Barcelona. A grand experience.

I wonder how the video experiments translate visualy on this film essay. Your description is promising however. How the virtual images play out with the actual buildings?

Posted by: Harry Tuttle on Mar 18, 2005 10:14 PM | Permalink

Hey Harry, sounds very cool indeed! One of my hobbies/vices is collecting mid-century and modern furniture (one of my earliest acquisitions is actually the Pavilion chair), and it was the reason that my interest was piqued by the film. From an architectural point of view, Hockenhull does sound a bit negative on modern architecture, and his preference is clearly for ancient and primitive (or highly idiosyncratic like Gaudi).

The integration of video is done in a very whimsical, tongue in cheek way, so it creates a sense of wonder as much as awe when the structures are presented. I should add though that somewhere in the last 1/3 of the film (the eastern countries), the film becomes less of an architectural study and more of a study on rituals of transcendence. This part reminds me more of Gambling, Gods and LSD than those early Charles and Ray Eames films.

Posted by: acquarello on Mar 18, 2005 11:55 PM | Permalink

Good thing, because I'm a great fan of Gaudi! I never bought the cold/bleak "less is more" theory. I prefer Frank Lloyd Wright. Although your chair is a classic in interior design history, congrats! It's not like there are many of them out there. Le Corbusier's long chair is a must from that period too. ;)

Hockenhull doesn't seem to be too conservative as he inserted the aquatic "whale" museum. Anything on Eisenman, Libeskind or Tadao Ando?

Ironically I haven't seen many "architecture films" during my studies. Lecturers prefered to teach art and space with Avant Garde movies and master's classics.

Now if only I could get to see this documentary somewhere. Was it made for TV?

Posted by: Harry Tuttle on Mar 19, 2005 1:06 AM | Permalink

Hmm...I don't remember Eisenman, Libeskind, or Ando popping up; the film travels from West to East, but it "hovers" in architectures of specific countries more than others (budget constraints, I think). This was co-produced though a Canadian TV initiative (if I remember correctly), but I don't know if can still be seen on normal TV schedule rotation.

Posted by: acquarello on Mar 19, 2005 8:33 AM | Permalink

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