The Norwegian Institute in Rome
Author: Anna Ulrikke Andersen
Format: Essay Film
Published: September 2019
Does this project use film as a method of architectural history? Does the film reflect upon what it means to “come after” the thinkers, architects and people who inhabited buildings and spaces before us? Does the filmmaker address what framing in film and architecture can be, and do?
It’s fine to view it on a computer screen.
When I visited the Norwegian Institute in Rome at Janiculum west of the city in early 2016, I made the following decision: to leave my camera on the roof top terrace. I left it there before meeting with and interviewing Else L’Orange. The daughter of the institute’s co-founder, Hans Petter L’Orange, she partly grew up in the building and knew its history well. With two radio-microphones connected into a Zoom H4n, I recorded our conversation. Starting in the institute’s garden, we made our way through the building, floor by floor.
My interest in the building came from a longstanding interest in the life and work of the Norwegian architect and architectural theorist Christian Norberg-Schulz (1926-2000). He was initially involved in designing a Norwegian Institute in Valle Guilia, next to the Japanese Cultural Institute, close to the British School in Rome, across the valley from the Danish and Swedish institutes. But the plans fell through. L`Orange and Hjalmar Torp at the Norwegian Institute in Rome eventually found a villa at Janiculum, and Norberg-Schulz designed an extension and the refurbishments from 1961-62. I discovered that this was his southern-most design, which also became his last. After 1962, Norberg-Schulz no longer designed, but dedicated his time to the history and theory of architecture.[i]
I wanted to engage with the building, his design and its history through filmmaking, and consider how film could be a method of architectural history.
Later, as I sat down with the footage to edit Istituto di Norvegia, Roma (2016), I made another decision. Within the frame of the editing software, I created two separate sections: to the right, I used the continuous footage from the roof terrace, while the left is dedicated to Norberg-Schulz’s original plans from 1961-62. These still images from the archive are juxtaposed with the slowness of time passing in the one-take shot from the roof-terrace. A third element of the film is the audio of people moving through the building, without seeing a visual image of the people who speak. That is until 13:21 of the film when Else and I walk into the frame. And we do so with strong effect.
Up to this point, the viewer has become accustomed to the disembodied voices and the subtle shifting of architectural plans and the footage of the roof terrace shown in one take. But then at 13:21, the figures carrying those two voices walk through a door that is hidden in Norberg-Schulz’s large panoramic window, and the viewer can connect those voices with two bodies. I hold the door open and let Else out before we both walk over to the edge of the terrace. We face away from both the window and the camera. We stand on the terrace, overlooking the city and its surrounding hills towards the south east. Else tells me how her father used to go hiking in those very hills, before rheumatoid arthritis affected his ability to walk. A typical Norwegian activity, as she describes it, her father’s hiking was a little piece of Norway that he brought with him as he settled in Italy. Through the duration of almost four minutes, Else and I claim the frame with our visible presence, in the film and on the terrace.
With this I wanted to use film to address the framing properties of film and architecture.
I face away from Norberg-Schulz’s large window, leaving my back exposed. It is exposed to the camera that is recording, but also framing my body is that large window designed by Norberg-Schulz. As a viewing device, his architecture overlooks and frames the city, echoing Pauline Gjøsteen’s account of previous designs of his, both in Norway and Italy.[ii]Fortress-like structures is what she describes: overlooking and dominating the landscape, there his buildings lie, as lenses in the landscape.[iii]As such, these carefully constructed windows framed as views, watch and control. As I face away from Norberg-Schulz’s bastille, my exposed back is an easy target only waiting to be watched – branded and marked from behind, perhaps without my even knowing so.
To be branded and controlled from behind, this is what Jacques Derrida refers to in his notion of a pancarte: ‘a billboard that we have on our backs and to which we can never really turn round.’[iv]In his writing, such cards are written and sent by those who came before us. Derrida calls them envois, French for shipment, posts or sending. This is the same word with which he titles the series of short texts that form his book La carte postale: De Socrate à Freud et au-delà (1980),[v]known to most English readers as The Post Cards: from Socrates to Freud and Beyond (1987).[vi]Addressed to an unknown receiver, written and sent between 3 June 1977 and 30 August 1979, a series of envois, texts, or postcards, forms an enigmatic piece of writing and thinking: fragmented and at times difficult to read. This style of writing runs in accord with one of the book’s central themes – the interesting relationship which occurs between thinkers, as they refer to each other’s work, or when their own work is referenced by others. Thought is sent like postcards addressed to unknown receivers. What happens in this process can be unpredictable and what eventually gets delivered might be as fragmented and difficult to encode as Derrida’s cards in the book.
The sender in his book comes across a postcard while conducting research in Oxford. It is a print of Plato and Socrates, from Prognostica Socratis basilei. The Bodleian Library holds the original thirteenth-century work by Matthew Paris, showing Socrates sitting on a chair, dipping his pen in ink to write on a piece of paper. Behind him stands Plato, pointing one finger into Socrates’ back, the other pointing up, past his writing arm. The author underscores how the card depicts the spatial positioning. ‘[Socrates] is in front of Plato, no, Plato is behind him, smaller (why smaller?), but standing up.’[vii]
From this remark we understand the spatial organisation of the two thinkers, depicted on the postcard in question: one before, the other behind. Is the younger thinker before or behind the older? Who is dictating to whom? And this is not just a question that is relevant in the case of Socrates and Plato, but includes the history of intellectual thought: back to Freud and beyond. Derrida does not give a clear idea of how these thinkers relate, who is behind whom, but through his text, instead, complicates the relationships.
The pancarte, then, is part of this generational configuration; one that cannot be avoided. Freud, Plato and Socrates are related to each other over time and through writers, thinkers, archivists and librarians, ‘sent’ from one to the other, as one thinker picks up and engages with the thinking of someone else. As Derrida writes: ‘Plato sticks him with a pancarte and Freud who has it on his back can no longer get rid of it.’[viii]
My back facing his large window, I become an easy target for Norberg-Schulz’s pancarte. I feel his weight following me, as I follow him, and seek to frame his views with my camera, walk onto his roof terrace with my body, or read his letters, plans and sections in the archive, taking notes with my pen. I wander through the archival boxes in the library of the Norwegian Institute, a space dimly lit as my desk is facing a window that no longer exists: as he ordered it to be filled in with plaster years ago.
As I work, examining this material, the building and its architect hover around, over, below, behind and in front of me. Derrida blames our ‘bibliopedic’ culture, and how we have organised our books and boxes on cards and maps. Doing so dictates how we see and think. Placing one before or after the other, in front or behind it, ideas in words placed next to each other: ‘This is how to orient one’s thought, this is the left and this the right, march.’[ix]I think of Norberg-Schulz as I stand on the roof terrace. Speaking with Else, I might not see Norberg-Schulz’s ghost, but as a pancarte, he is there with me.
Eventually, I wanted to open up a discussion regarding what it means to come after.
If Freud was stuck with a pancarte on his back, possibly pondering on his position with regard to his forebears (or may I say forefathers?), his query was not gendered. Nor did Derrida consider what it might mean to a woman, how she might relate to a pancarte created, sent and stuck on you by a man.
Perhaps I must look elsewhere to find someone who did work and establish herself as a woman in a man’s world. Someone like Agnès Varda, as she claimed her space within the French new wave and became the female, feminist filmmaker.[x]And she did so by allowing herself into the frame.
‘I’m not behind the camera. I’m in it,’[xi]Varda claimed, as she, again and again, would allow herself into the films she was making: either as an actor,[xii]or by choosing locations close to her home or history,[xiii]or even by defining her films as self-portraits.[xiv]Her seminal work The Gleaners and I (2000), is no exception. A film about the somewhat forgotten activity of gleaning, Varda traces its history and searches for gleaners in contemporary culture. Through her film, she looks for people who pick things up from the ground, and by doing so, the film opens up a wide range of questions about gender, class and the environmental concerns of consumer culture. And Varda herself becomes a gleaner in the film, either portrayed carrying grains, or with a close up of her hand picking up potatoes, while the other hand holds the recording camcorder. In the film, she is simultaneously the object and subject at hand.
Varda’s tendency to enter her films as subject-maker and subject-matter, and to be both the object of the film and the subject who makes the film, constitutes an act of feminism, according to Kate Ince describes as. As Varda gleans: picking up her camera, potatoes or references to artists, thinkers and filmmakers before her, she is doing so on, behind and in the camera, taking different positions. The consequence, according to Ince, is that Varda’s films resist femininity as a cultural construct.[xv] ‘The Gleaners and I, then, offers plentiful evidence that for Varda, female subjectivity is always “lived”, that is, embodied and actively animated, even when it remains a viewed object’.[xvi]To Ince, Varda’s location behind the camera and in it, addresses this in a poignant way. In The Gleaner’s and I (2000), the light-weight camcorder allows her to pick it up and film her own hand: one hand on the camera, the other framed by that very same camera. I see Varda’s body as engulfing the camera, literally, but also figuratively as she allows her own experiences to affect the subject matter of the film.
In Varda’s use of her own body, the first person pronoun I, Varda draws attention to women and their experiences at large.[xvii][xviii]By discussing Varda’s feminist and filmic I, also I hope to draw attention to my presence as film-maker within the frame of my film, and next to, rather than in front or behind, the woman I am speaking to. I not only speak to Else, and walk through the building with her. Eventually, the bodies of those speaking subjects move into the frame. I set up the camera to capture this moment. I conducted the historical research preceding this film-making moment, prepared for me by the (female) librarian Manuela. My stay organised in collaboration with the (female) administrative staff Anne and Mona. Whereas I have presence in the frame, the presence of female helpers, and their labour is not visible. They are invisible, around its edges and this strikes me as quite poignant.
I become visible in my film, and inspired by Varda’s use of herself in her films, I consider my entrance as an act of feminism. I am following Norberg-Schulz, who was a man and I move confidently into the frame. I allow the experiences of women into that very frame and consider them just as valid as those of the men who came before or currently are present. As I moved into the frame and claimed attention, what exactly was my position following a man: Norberg-Schulz?
Adopting methods of site-visits and archival research, I position myself within the field of art and architectural history. The archival plans showing the different floors of the building are commonly used in the field, but adding to that: the two characters in the film eventually walk into the visual frame. My filmmaking draws upon the genre of the essay film in the way that I utilise experimental methods, such as the separation of sound and image or includes my own subjective experience, as when I allow myself to enter into the frame, to address wider societal concerns: what it means to come after.
The project exposes the uncertainty involved when working as an architectural historian, and depicts both archival material and a site-visit. By editing a conversation between an architectural historian and a woman who lived in the building, the project presents a conversation that could remain ambiguous to the viewer. The supporting statement similarly does not give any clear answers, but poses questions. The moment when we walk into the frame is an example of what framing in film and architecture can do, where I particularly utilise its potential for accentuating positionality. The film is an example of a piece of architectural history aimed at sparking discussion rather than being didactic, unravelling how my own position as a follower of Norberg-Schulz remains undecided.
This film was funded by The Bartlett Doctoral Research Project Fund, SG Arkitekter AS, and through a residency at the Norwegian Institute in Rome.
The film was published online by the Norwegian Institute in Rome / University of Oslo 23 May 2016. https://www.hf.uio.no/dnir/om/aktuelt/aktuelle-saker/2016/Kortfilm.html
After being published online by the University of Oslo, the film has been screened 426 times, including at the Bartlett School of Architecture in a screening titled Time to Linger: the long take in architectural film, 08.12.2016.
By discussing the history of the Norwegian Institute in Rome and Norwegians in Rome more generally, the film contributes to a history of a broader culture of Norwegian’s travelling South.
This project builds on the genre of the essay film, as theorised by scholars such as Timothy Corrigan and Laura Rascaroli (Corrigan, 2011; Rascaroli: 2017). The film is inspired by the work of Agnes Varda, and the way she uses herself in her films as discussed above. In The Gleaners and I (2000) Varda films herself, and allows her own subjective experience to open up a discussion about larger societal concerns. This is one of the defining traits of the essay film, as discussed by Corrigan. My interest in the frame, in architecture and film, builds upon Rascaroli`s claim that the essay film above all is about reframing. But neither Corrigan, Rascaroli nor Varda are architectural historians. I build upon their interest in space and spatialised language, as well as Penelope Haralambidou`s notion of the architectural essay film as a subgenre which can enhance design thinking in architecture (Haralambidou, 2015).
My work uses techniques from the essay film and its form to approach architectural history. This project forms an integral part of my PhD thesis titled “Ten Windows Following Christian Norberg-Schulz: framing, mobility and self-reflection explored through the fenestral essay film”. The thesis consists of 10 essays, corresponding to ten practice-led projects: films, objects, installations, storyboards and translated subtitles. The film is part of the fifth chapter focused on Rome and Norberg-Schulz`s window design for the institute, particularly aimed at discussing how the frame in architecture and cinema could be used as a tool in architectural history.
The supporting statement above does not give any clear answers as to what my position as a follower of Norberg-Schulz might be. The film leaves the question unanswered, opening up for discussion. The film further contributes to an architectural history of the Norwegian Institute in Rome. Although the history of the institute is discussing in two seminal publications, this project fills gaps in literature in the way it focuses on the architecture, and the everyday experience of living in the building.
[i]Anna Ulrikke Andersen, “Fill that Window! Move into that Frame!” in LOBBY Magazine,LOBBY 1961, 2017.
[ii]Pauline Gjøsteen,“Italiesin som utprøvende teori?: Christian Norberg Schulz’ sommerhus i Porto Ercole, Toscana (1959-62)”, Brytninger: norsk arkitektur 1945-65, edited by Espen Johnsen, 172-183 (Oslo: Nasjonalmuseet, 2010); Pauline Gjøsteen, “Weidemanns hus av Norberg-Schulz og Hovig: arkitekturen som optisk ”linse””, in Kunst og Kultur, 97:4, 2014. 230-39.
[iii]Gjøsteen,“Weidemanns hus av Norberg-Schulz og Hovig”230.
[iv]Jacques Derrida, The Postcards: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, translated by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) 28.
[v]Jaques Derrida, La carte postale: De Socrate à Freud et au-delà (Paris: Flammarion, 1980).
[vi]Derrida, The Postcards.
[vii]Derrida, The Postcards, 9
[viii]Derrida, The Postcards, 28.
[ix]Derrida, The Postcards, 20.
[x]Delphine Bénézet. The Cinema of Agnès Varda: resistance and eclectism (London: Wallflower Press, 2014) 5.
[xi]Wera, Françoise, and Agnès Varda, “Interview with Agnès Varda”,in Agnès Varda: Interviews, edited by Kline T. Jefferson, 118-25 (University Press of Mississippi, 2014) 118.
[xii]Lions Love (…and Lies) (dir. Agnès Varda, 1969).
[xiii]Daguerréotypes (dir. Agnès Varda, 1976).
[xiv]The Beaches of Agnès (dir. Agnès Varda, 2008).
[xv]Kate Ince, “Feminist phenomenology and the Film World of Agnès Varda” in Hypatia, vol 28:3, 601-617. 613.
[xvi]Ince, “Feminist phenomenology and the Film World of Agnès Varda”607.
[xvii]Ince, “Feminist phenomenology and the Film World of Agnès Varda”607.
Andersen, Anna Ulrikke. “Ten Windows Following Christian Norberg-Schulz: framing, mobility and self-reflection explored through the fenestral essay film”. PhD Thesis. The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018.
Corrigan, Timothy.The Essay Film : From Montaigne, after Marker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Eriksen, Roy T. and Kristin Bliksrud Aavitsland (eds).På Klassisk Grunn: Det Norske Institutt i Roma gjennom 40år. Oslo: Andresen & Butenschøn Instituttet, 1999.
Haralambidou, Penelope. ”The Architectural Essay Film” in Architectural Research Quarterly, (2015), 19:3, 234-48.
Ostby, Erik (eds). I H.P. L`Oranges fotspor: forskning ved Det Norske Instituttet i Roma. Roma: Det Norske Inst. i Roma, 1996.
Rascaroli, Laura. How the Essay Film Thinks. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Varda, Agnès. The Gleaners and I (2000).
Review 1: Accept work and statement for publication with no alterations.
The ambition is to use film as a method for architectural history. Among its techniques is the use of a single 20 minute take and a locked-off camera positioned and trained on the terrace of a villa in Rome, a villa that is being discussed by two interlocutors who remain unseen for most of the film. This villa housed the Norwegian Institute of Rome after an extension was designed for it by Christian Norberg-Schulz, the architect and theorist who is the author’s point of interest.
Five of Norberg-Schulz’s original architectural plans for the redesign and extension of the villa appear one after another at the left of the live-action shot, each one mapping a different floor of the house. Their appearance corresponds with the unseen journey of the interlocutors — one of whom is the filmmaker, the other the daughter (Else L’Orange) of the Norwegian Institute’s founder, Hans Petter L’Orange— as they ascend the levels of the house. Penultimately, the subjects of the film appear on the terrace upon which the camera is situated and the gap between sound and image is resolved. Finally they go up to the roof and disappear again, a fleetingly glimpsed arm the only visual evidence of their location.
This minimalist use of framing (a key term in the exegesis) combined with a slow convergence of sound and image, provides an engaging and evocative structure for thinking about architecture, but also for the people who occupied that house at that time, including the institute’s founder and his family. Since the submission seeks a dialogue between architecture and film, I suggest that it finds a very nice solution for facilitating that dialogue, if for no other reason than the parameters of the film are creatively ‘in play’, and not taken for granted, much as our understanding of this particular history is up for grabs. Another reason for celebrating this dialogue comes from the fact that space is rendered in such tantalising ways. There is the flat architectural plan to the left of frame, the static shot that conceals so much, to the right (including the spectacular view), and found somewhere in time and space, the floating conversation that sonically traces historical and physical contours through both the film and the villa.
Discussion of the essay film and Agnes Varda’s part in illuminating certain configurations of self and subject in The Gleaners and I, are especially enlivened by discussion of Derrida’s notion of the pancarte, a kind of billboard attached to our backs that represents the debt we owe to the thinking of others who came before us. This allows the author to reflect on the impact of her own precursors, including Varda, but crucially, it gives a spatial form to the notion of influence (before and after is transformed into front and back) which sits wonderfully alongside the previously mentioned treatments of space. All of a sudden the author’s interest in both the designs and writing of Norberg-Schulz, encountered through buildings and archives, has an image (the pancarte), and this plays out in physical space as she shows her back to the camera for much of the time she is on camera. As the author elegantly puts it, “my back facing his large window, I become an easy target for Norberg-Schulz’s pancarte.”
The matrix of concerns at play here — interest, influence, architectural history, the essay form, the architectural essay film, and with sound and image as mutually complicating framing devices — must have posed challenges for this author and filmmaker. Not only is the film a compelling answer to the challenge of how to juggle these concerns, let alone to marry them up via a deep structure that is capable of connecting them along historical, intellectual, spatial and temporal lines, so too is the writing, which is clear and communicative and handles this with apparent ease.
This is an impressive, synthesising realisation of research conducted across multiple media and expressed, also, through multiple media.
Review 2: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
This video offers a very compelling history of the building through one of the (many) prior inhabitants of the space. The structure and visual narrative device used, that of a still frame accompanied by floor plans as the speakers move through the building, offer the viewer an experience much like that of reading a book, which coerces the reader to imagine the spaces being talked about, only part of which is revealed as an image – a partial frame of the open terrace. What this static image does is offer the viewer a space to inhabit and get comfortable. This vantage point for the viewer is a fly-on-the-wall stance that offers the position into which the conversationalists eventual stumble into. Perhaps not as unexpected as supposed by the author of the work.
As the viewer inhabits the image offered to him/her it becomes increasingly evident that this space that he/she is occupying visually is the one being talked about. As the conversation moves towards the terrace it is not wholly unexpected to chance upon the storyteller and the instigator of the narrative as they seem to be making their way through the space in a very orderly fashion. It does, however, come as a poetic attack that disturbs the silent listener of the conversation that was this far as invisible to the conversationalists as they were to the viewer, thereby exposing the fly-on-the-wall as a voyeur of their intimate conversation. The fact that the presence of the camera does not disturb the ladies as they continue their conversation undisturbed bequeaths the camera a neutrality making it fairly objective.
The statement and the theoretical context provided by the author is sound and offers a layered reading into the context of the work. But I shall try and play the devil’s advocate to examine this a bit further afield. The author states that being the subject and object of the film was an act of feminism – in examining Agnes Varda’s work. And at the time that Varda was making films this was indeed a revolutionary perspective. But given that the author is now also in front of me (the viewer) with an envios on her back, might I conceive, if momentarily, that her argument goes further than the feminism of Varda’s time as she came much (arguably) before her. Might I further propose is that what this film offers is a position past the feminist discourse that actually sees that there have been many shifts in patriarchy and of the feminist discourse. That this space allowed to the viewer is a point of view that is omnipresent and is now witness to a story that is as important and valid as those of the men that have been before and that the tellers themselves give due credit to in shaping the architecture of not just the building but of a lived experience that is only made whole by this narrative of the lived experience that was not considered important enough to be heard at that point in time when the architecture of the place was being shaped by men.
And perhaps it is not for the author to claim this objectivity as it would most likely be construed as being narcissistic. But this possibility of objectivity is perhaps the deterritorialisation that could reconfigure the feminist future.