Interview met Marcio Kogan, architect en filmmaker

Marcio Kogan is een Braziliaanse architect en oprichter van Studio MK27. Zijn studio staat bekend om ontwerpen van woningen waarin Kogan en zijn team een scherpe blik voor natuurlijke materialen en eenvoud aan de dag legt. Een aantal van deze projecten zijn het onderwerp geworden van korte films. reden voor mij om hem te interviewen voor het programmaboekje van Architecture Film Festival Rotterdam 2015.

Besides your work as an architect, you also make films – often very funny films – in which the buildings of Studio MK27 take center stage. Do you see yourself as a filmmaker as well as an architect, or do you make your films only in the service of your architectural output?

When I was in architecture school, in the 70s, I made 12 Super-8 films and one professional short based on the flap of the book Gone With The Wind, since I didn’t have enough money to make a full version. The first super-8s had a great influence from American underground cinema and a little bit of Ingmar Bergman, who was my idol during my adolescence. None were related to architecture and the last ones had a fair dose of humor. They were all very successful, which made me continue my work as a filmmaker and, in 1988, I had my dream come true with the making of a feature movie Fire and Passion in tandem with my life as an architect. The result was disastrous, the movie was very bad, and I lost all my money and, obviously, all of my architecture clients. I gave up on movies and focused on my architectural life. In 2012 we were invited to represent Brazil in the Venice Biennale and I decided to go back to filming with the video-installation Peep, overcoming the trauma that remained a part of me for 25 years. Since then, me, my son Gabriel (also an architect), Pedro Kok (a super architecture photographer) and Lea Van Steen (commercials director) have joined together to make numerous short movies. This time as a way of telling a story about some of our architecture projects and I am, obviously, loving it.

In one of your films, Casa Redux, the male protagonist tells in a Werner Herzog-like voice-over about the battle he fought with his wife about the design of their new house (designed by your studio). He wanted a classically designed house, with kitschy tympana and columns, his wife wanted a “cold”, modern style. She eventually won the battle and chose your studio to design the house. Do you think your modern style will look just as dated in a couple of hundred years from now, or do you believe 20th and 21h century architectural styles are more future-proof?

Only as a curiosity, the voice-over of that movie was done by a Hollywood actor, Stephane Cornicard, and it was so good that we could never do a Portuguese version – everything was always worse. I believe that “future-proof” doesn’t exist and perhaps this is not a demand for a good project. Looking at movies, all of them end up representing a certain era and the same happens with fashion, art, literature and architecture as well. I like this identification with a time. When I visitBrasilia, I feel as if I am back in the sixties and I love this feeling. It is all done in a masterful manner.

Your cinematic approach is stylized and distant. We, as viewers, are not guided through the buildings as visitors would be. This approach emphasizes textures and atmospheres in separate rooms, but does not emphasize the relationships between spaces. Can you explain your visual approach to these films, and the relationship this approach has to your architectural approach?

I have no purpose of being explicit. I merely want to tell a story with a scenario which, by coincidence, is a project of Studio MK27.

Your films are often very funny. Sometimes the houses (and indirectly also their rich inhabitants) are even mocked. What is your purpose behind these provocations? Is there a rebel inside of you?

I cannot untangle myself from a phantom: Jacques Tati – that explains everything.

What do your clients think of your films? Do they understand the humor?

Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t – they feel jealous about their homes and many times they don’t like seeing them treated with sarcasm. In the end, I believe they like it. In the film “Cat”, the participating family thanked me for this present.

Do your clients have any say in the form and content of your films? Do they ever protest the way you convey their lifestyles? If they would protest, what would you do?

The movie “This is not my dream” and “Modern living” is fictitious and I hope the clients understand this.

In Modern Living you seem to mock modern industrialized society, while your architectural style seems to celebrate the modernist aesthetic. This ironic attitude towards your own work is reminiscent of Rem Koolhaas. He also made (or helped make) ironic promo films of his works, and he also started out as a filmmaker. Do you feel a connection with him?

I like Koolhaas very much and have certain empathy towards him. He is one of the few thinkers about what is happening around him with an urban vision. I found his work as the curator of the Venice Biennial excellent and I truly enjoyed his movie Houselife about the “Maison à Bordeaux” directed by Ila Bêka & Louise Lemoine – marvellous!

Is there an inherent link between architecture and film? How would you describe this link?

I am quite cinematographic during the first moments of a project: I always create a character that has much to do with the client and myself and who will live in the space in question. He has a life story, sometimes a man and sometimes a woman or perhaps some kind of mixture of both. He constantly walks around the project. He feels the proportions, lowers the height of the ceiling, pushes walls, looks through the window or simply removes a window from that place. He doesn’t like doors. He goes up and down the stairs and experiments with numerous alternatives. He hasn’t yet decided if the stairs will be straight-run or spiral. He goes to the garden which as of yet does not exist, looks at the façade and decides to modify everything again. He plants a beautiful tree. It’s nighttime, two moons and some shooting stars can be seen crossing the royal blue sky. Four midget violinists are playing a sad Romanian song, sitting on the stones that will be the surface of the wall that borders the as yet, non- existent garden. A beautiful, very beautiful and elegant young lady stops, stares at nothing and continues to walk I don’t know where. At the end, the character is reasonably content with what he created and falls asleep on an enormous bed which he pushes slightly to the right.

Modern Living is inspired by “Neues Wohnen”, part of a series of Bauhaus films made in the twenties. One of the Bauhaus ideals was to make sure well-designed houses were accessible to everyone. That ideal contrasts starkly to your architectural work, which is primarily intended for very wealthy people. Would you ever want to design a housing project for the poor?

Firstly, not all of our projects are for rich people. We love doing any type of work and as Oscar Niemeyer said: “There are only two types of architecture: good and bad.” When I saw this movie, at a Bauhaus exhibit, I was shocked with its naivety, trying even to explain what a built-in closet was or any other element already deeply incorporated in our vocabulary – this fascinated me.

But if you were asked to design a housing project for the poor, what problem would you try to solve in the design?

Brazilian reality has destroyed any possibility of doing good work and the fight is always enormous, from all of the architecture offices, in doing any type of architecture that brings a minimum of dignity to its inhabitants. The public projects in Brazil, until the beginning of the 50s, were incredible and, after the military took over the government, the word “architecture” for the dictators meant “communism” and, until today, we feel this effect with the total isolation of architects from the spheres of urban and architectural decisions.

If you would be asked to make a film of this social housing project, what would it look like? Would it feature your distinct brand of ironic humor?

It would be a mixture of an Italian neo-realistic movie such as Il Tetto by Vittorio de Sica with Playtime by Jacques Tati.

If you would ever get the chance, of which famous house designed by another architect would you like to make a film?

Good question! I have to stop and think…. Das Canoas House by Niemeyer could be very interesting and the Barcelona Pavilion which I love. I also thought of Xanadu, the house of Citizen Kane, in a long take of 60 minutes.

The opening scene of Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972): pacing and theme

I want to share a great video with you: an analysis of the cinematography and editing of four scenes in Solaris (Russian title: Solyaris), Andrei Tarkovsky’s famous science fiction film released in 1972.

As a filmmaker, Tarkovsky was fascinated by time: our experience of it, the way time gives meaning to life, and the essential role it plays in filmmaking. Read “Sculpting in Time”, his book about filmmaking, and you begin to understand how his thinking about time shaped his ideas as an artist.

Solyaris poster

I guess you could call his films slow. Compared to the frantic pacing of today’s sci-fi films, they certainly are. But calling Tarkovsky’s films slow would suggest they are too slow, that his films aren’t properly paced. That is not the case at all. At the heart of Solaris’ success as film art lies its pacing and rhythm. And the video, by video essayist Antonios Papantoniou, gives us an idea why.

Antonios begins with a short introduction, after which he analyzes the first scene of the film shot by shot. It’s a relatively long scene (4:47), with an average shot length of about 20-30 seconds. The first couple of minutes consist of dream-like shots of nature, a man pensively strolling through it. We hear water and birds and nothing else. No space ships, no suspense, hardly a sliver of a plot.

Why does Tarkovsky kick off his science fiction film – which, by the way, does feature space ships, suspense and heaps of plotting – with nature shots? The video does a great job of pointing our attention to how the scene is broken down, but does not consistently give us an idea why this specific scene is the first scene of the film. After some thinking, I landed on three reasons.

1. The opening scene sets the pace

Solaris doesn’t feel like a slow film to me. That’s because the first scene is slower than most of the rest of the film. A film feels slow if it seems to slow down towards the end or has a sluggish middle, not because the beginning is slow. On the contrary, the slow start of Solaris prepares our minds for what’s to come: we settle in the slow pace at the very beginning of the film, and as a result, later scenes that are only slightly faster than this first one feel zippy and dynamic. Tarkovksy needs us to get accustomed to his pacing immediately, to be able to play with rhythm the way he wants.

2. The opening scene states the themes

For Tarkovsky, making a film was a spiritual and poetic affair. He wanted to express ideas, not entertain. In “Sculpting in Time” he hardly mentions other filmmakers, but he does speak about Dostoyevsky and Dante. In his own words:

“Modern mass culture, aimed at the ‘consumer’, the civilization of prosthetics, is crippling people’s souls, setting up barriers between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being.”

In Solaris, this is evident in his relentless focus on theme. As the video shows, water is an important theme in Solaris, and specifically water as a symbol for memory. So the first shot of the film is a shot of water not because it introduces the location, but because it is the main theme of the film.

3. The opening scene gives meaning to the ending

The reasons for opening the film with slow shots of water may now be clear. But why introduce protagonist Kris Kelvin’s father and his house so deliberately and detailed? Because Tarkovsky wants us to remember the father and his house. Throughout every scene we see in Solaris, he reminds us in small ways of earth, childhood, home, of a place we can never return to. When, finally, after traveling with Kris to the other side of the universe, the film returns to the father and his house, we understand the meaning of the first scene. That’s the emotional pay-off: remembering the first scene while watching the last, we learn how time sculpts our thoughts on home and time itself.

The role of disease in fiction

Why do diseases and disorders play such an important role in modern fiction? Some of the most famous characters in film and literature are famous precisely because they are not well. From borderliner Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard to cancer patient Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars, we seem to enjoy fictional characters on the verge of collapse, either physically or mentally.

Sunset Boulevard
Sunset Boulevard (1950)

I was reminded of the potency of illness in fiction while reading “Hersenschimmen” (translated as “Out of Mind”) by Dutch writer J. Bernlef. The novel, written in 1984, deals with Maarten Klein, an elderly man who suffers from a rapidly developing form of Alzheimer’s disease. The writer adheres strictly to Maarten’s perspective, showing the destruction of the human mind from the point of view of the mind being destructed. The result is a terrifying chronicle of human frailty.

You’d think people would shy away from such an intensely confronting story. But instead, the novel became a perennial Dutch bestseller and was translated into many languages. So why do we enjoy stories like that? Why put ourselves through an ordeal like Maarten’s?

Strong emotions

First of all, there is inherent drama in people falling ill. Sickness makes people weak, insecure, needy, angry, sad and depressed. It makes characters speak their minds, makes them honest and direct. These strong emotions exacerbate conflict, especially when the illness is grave. And conflict is the basis of all drama.

Physical sickness can also provide the narrative with a ticking time-bomb. A protagonist who finds out he has a fatal disease suddenly has only so much time left to solve that decade-old family conflict, reconnect with his long-lost lover, or experience the good things in life before the curtain falls. Every day counts.

Love Story (1970)
Love Story (1970)

But it’s not just the physical diseases that add drama to a story. Mental illnesses can serve that purpose as well. In real life, many psychological ailments are in some way extreme versions of normal human traits. And that’s exactly how a lot of writers use mental disorders: as a form of psychological exaggeration, to heighten conflict and drama.

So illness in fiction is a way to enlarge the drama of every-day life in a way that makes us reflect honestly and directly on ourselves, our choices and actions. Apparently we sometimes need representations of sickness to understand what’s important in life. But there is more to it than that.

Anticipating the inevitable

Illness in fiction can also help us deal with illness in real life. Stories about cancer survivors, AIDS victims and the mentally ill enable us to prepare ourselves for what is practically inevitable: that we will one day become sick ourselves. Fiction helps us anticipate, or, if we are already sick, manage the onslaught of complicated emotions, negative thoughts, and changes in relationships that are the consequences of falling ill.

As with other complex subjects that stories deal with, disease is presented to us at a safe distance. We see a fictional character make those tough decisions any sick person has to make, and witness from afar what the results are. These second-hand experiences equip us to make our own decisions, or more easily accept our fate, when we ourselves become infirm. Our minds are no longer blank slates in the face of disease; our minds are preloaded with stories that help guide us through those difficult times. In this regard, the distance that fiction provides is essential to its potential benefit.

La Bohème (film adaptation 1926)
La Bohème (film adaptation 1926)

Superficially, these two functions disease has in fiction seem contradictory. At the one hand, illness is used as a way to approach touchy subjects in a manner more direct than usually is inappropriate in real life. On the other hand, disease functions as a way of looking at the touchy subject of disease itself from a safe distance. What those two approaches have in common though, is that they both provide us with tools to reflect on life, as the best stories do.

So what does Maarten Klein teach us, the protagonist in “Hersenschimmen” who loses his memory? Well, the most tragic aspect of his ordeal turns out not to be his pending death, but the fact that he loses his ability to express himself, and grasp the words of the people around him. As a result, he loses his connection to the outside world. Gradually, in the minds of others and his own, Maarten becomes something less than human, a breathing object devoid of thought and purpose. In those last minutes we spend with Maarten, we understand that without words, life loses its meaning. Without words, there is only chaos.