Screening at Open City Docs Fest at 16:00, Sunday 22nd June at the ICA, London. Click here for more details.

sharch_hfarocki_21For those interested in the architectural profession and are sensitive to grievances caused by the state of architectural discourse, Sauerbruck Hutton Architects, a film directed by celebrated artist–filmmaker Harun Faroki, is worth the effort.

Insecurity, or is it bravado (elective affinities, no doubt), is a customary feature in most films depicting architects. However, rather than striving to expose the absurdity of architectural dialogue, as The Competition by Spanish architect Angel Borrego Cubero does, Sauerbruck Hutton Architects skilfully expounds the thin line that architects straddle between pretension and rhetorical mastery. Architects have long stretched verbs to the end of good sense. But we can forgive them for this; the process whereby discourse is realised as three-dimensional form is complex. Farocki, through his choice of subject, questions this relationship between words and matter (as one blurb put it), and shows that the amount of time spent talking about a design is never relative to its final form. A telling moment is captured when Matthias Sauerbruch – co-founder of the eponymous Sauerbruch Hutton architecture practice – changes his mind just before the submittal of documents for a competition, suggesting a design plan entirely different from the one that had been decided upon previously. But, as we know, it’s good to change one’s mind:

Jonas Mekas on changing one's mind

Jonas Mekas on changing one’s mind

As one of his “direct cinema” films, Farocki never asks the protagonists to do or say anything and there are strict rules regarding time: “Anything seen or heard was done or said in that order. Nothing appears in one scene that has happened or was spoken elsewhere, before or after, perhaps in a similar scene”. He perforates the film with modest inter-titles to provide structure. Serving to give context to the section of film that follows, the project, its location and the stage it is currently at is displayed. They do become laboured as we grow familiar with the projects and their proponents, which are periodically revisited throughout the film, but they keep a steady cadence throughout that corresponds to the slow, repeated process of critiquing designs.

It’s a pity that Farocki is so didactic in the film’s construction. The result of such reserved, detached observation is a lack of depth. The scenes, which were shot over a period of three months in 2012 between July and October, are recorded and then chosen retrospectively according to the insights they reveal. Although the effort to be honest in its depiction of the eponymous architects and the situations they find themselves in is to be commended, the film is aware it’s contrived toward an objectivity that doesn’t exist. The measured distance of this sort of documentation, usually reserved for sardonic, irreverent swipes at modern culture and its professionals – found in films like the excellent Work Hard – Play Hard by Carmen Losmann – belies the reverence shown to its subjects. It feels like a rare thing in documentary: fair.

Colour is a theme carried through the film as an imperative element to the firm’s designs. They are well known for their successful use of salient colour in their buildings. The GSW high-rise building in Kreuzberg, Berlin – a concave cuboid with 18 floors – has hundreds of windows, each with a slightly different coloured blind. The effect produced is that of a living composition that changes continually as the users of the building raise or lower the swatches of colour. Throughout the film we are treated to many deliberations concerning hues, tints, tones and such; the architects are shown to be quick, discursive and occasionally indiscriminate in their choices. In contrast, the minimal studios and offices, located in a renovated barracks in Berlin’s Moabit district, offer a muted gallery-like backdrop in a palette of off-white and grey. The larger spaces feel conducive to creation, as they sit as empty boxes ready to be filled with ideas: inevitably this is where proposals are hung and models proffered.

I need to highlight the fact that Matthias Sauerbruch and Louisa Hutton come across as affable characters. Louisa is involved and professional, and doesn’t bite when challenged by a pair of feisty contractors on her choice of colour for the façade of a university building in Potsdam. Matthias is clear in his methodology for design; the team have to believe in the design for it to pass muster. Decisions cannot be made on the basis of budgetary constraints or because a client asked for it. It is a matter of integrity for Matthias.

Not quite an exposé nor traditional monograph, Sauerbruck Hutton Architects offers a window onto the award-winning Berlin-based architecture firm that, being master manipulators of form through diction, feels very much coloured by the architects themselves.

Farocki’s commentators note that the topics he favours involve situations in “flux or movement, liable to (sudden, dialectical) reversals” – so an architecture practice seems an obvious choice. He certainly captures its vacillations with a restrained dexterity and pervasive clarity: a quality in sharp contrast to the profession it depicts – and for that it deserves praise.

– Arthur Thompson

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