Emil Adiels is a researcher and lecturer and a part of the Architecture and Engineering Research Group at Chalmers University of Technology of Sweden. His research focus is gravitational structures and masonry with respect to geometry, structural mechanics and production methods. What fewer people know is that Emil is also an amazing movie maker.
Sigrid Adriaenssens: why do you make movies about structures?
Emil Adiels: The reason that I started is due to a project which aim is to describe the historical development of skills and knowledge related to the progression in the design of masonry structures. These skills and knowledges include geometry, structural theory, production methods, material development and design tools. Obviously much inspired by the book Building: 3,000 Years of Design, Engineering, and Construction by Bill Addis. In addition to that we also wanted to describe the architectural aspiration and qualities of these spaces such as materiality, spaciousness and light, which we found hard to communicate fully using still pictures and text. During an Interrail vacation in Spain and France I decided to bring my equipment and try filming instead, and when I looked at the footage, I noticed so many added layers compared to stills. Looking at the footage from the gothic cathedral Saint Denis I could get a glimpse of the described vision of abbot Sugar, where the demand of light in the interior space drove the development of structures resulting in the Gothic cathedrals.
In Valencia I could see the reflected light from the water on the white shell of Felix Candela, and on the inside the pattern of the formwork created this amazing texture. So, it is not structural movies in that sense but examples of architecture where the structure, the production method and the choose of material have a big influence on our experience of the space, I would say.
SA: What is the purpose of the movies and what do you hope people will remember from them?
EA: I hope that it will inspire not only architects and engineers but also craftsmen and craftswoman to learn more about history and remind them that they are carrier of an over thousand-year-old tradition of building culture. Because if we shall succeed in developing and building sustainable architecture, I think we need to learn from the past in all these areas. What is so powerful with bricks is that the basic idea is very simple both from a structural and production point of view. Arches and vaults are structures that you can explain using simple equilibrium, without a more complex theoretical framework, and the construction does not necessarily require any expensive or complex tools meaning it can be implemented anywhere almost.
EA: And the interesting thing with the movies is that we all see different things depending on our background. For instance, my dad who is a bricklayer pointed out that the manual ceramic tile-cutter might not have been invented during the building of Hospital de Sant Pau, which has some amazing tile work. And it seems the first industrial tile-cutter was in fact introduced in the 50’s, twenty years after the hospital was finished making the achievement even more impressive.
Hospital de Sant Pau – Lluís Domènech i Montaner from Emil Adiels on Vimeo.
EA: Then there is also the thing that the performance of masonry is very much related to its geometry, meaning it demands a funicular shape but in doing so becoming very material efficient. Unfortunately, we seem to have forgotten about our history where geometry was our key knowledge and tool in the design and construction of buildings. It enabled intelligent ways to create stiffness and stability through form but also rational strategies in the production and building of these complex shapes. Hopefully some engineers and architects will be inspired to learn how it was possible to build these amazing spaces with little or no knowledge about structural theory and without the computational tools we have today.
SA: What is your favorite movie and why?
EA: It is always difficult to answer that, but I really like the movie from St Patrick’s church in Philadelphia built by the Guastavino Company. It is a really beautiful vaulted space with Guastavino’s trademark herringbone pattern in the ceiling. The pattern in combination with the light and texture created this sacred feeling or atmosphere. It is also not the most known building by Guastavino making it a bit special. It is quite rare to find these spaces where you are basically by yourself and can focus fully on getting the best shots.
EA: The same thing happened at Teatre la Massa near Barcelona, a beautiful theatre designed by Guastavino Sr., where I could work while they were preparing the stage for the night’s performance. That is also a great example where the masonry dome creates a special atmosphere.
SA: What is the most difficult to convey? Why and how do you do that?
EA: One thing is that you really want the viewer to feel that they are present in that space. It means that you try resembling a motion that feels natural while watching the film. Depending on the distance to objects, or if it is a small or large space, one must adjust the speed of the camera movement. You also need to have a smooth horizontal motion, so the camera does not shake or move up and down too much. I use a handheld gimbal for that which helps a bit, but you mainly must work with your body. The other thing is to get the spaciousness of the room which can be quite difficult finding the best angles. There is also an issue of low light which can result in quite grainy footage. For stills you can use a tripod and adjust the shutter speed, but for films you have a certain frame rate and you can primarily work with the aperture of the lens. Unfortunately lenses with wide angles and large apertures are quite expensive and big. The bigger lens also makes you look more professional, which generally is not in your favor.
SA: If you had unlimited budget, which structural movie would you make? What would be different?
EA: With a budget you can obviously buy better equipment and travel to more remote places. Though, what you really want is time, privacy, freedom and granted access to film and move as you want. If you take the City Hall station in New York built by the Guastavino Company for instance, getting access to film down there by yourself would be priceless. It is a hidden jewel that you are not allowed to experience or see. I was very lucky while filming at the Boston Public Library, designed by Mckim and built by Guastavino. In the final shot you’ll see the old newspaper reading room. Fortunate for me the door stood open and I just sneaked in and got time to take some shots before staff caught me and told me I was not allowed to be there. Though, when you say it is for research, they are usually quite friendly letting you wrap things up.
EA: Similarly, as in the case of the City Hall station, it is a shame that many of these beautiful spaces are hidden away or behind locked doors. The staff at The National Museum of Science and Industry of Catalonia on the other hand saw this as an opportunity to use these films as free advertisement on social media, a win-win situation. So, if could get access I would like to film inside City Hall station in New York, and if I had more money, I would probably travel to South America to see the work of Dieste. As a final remark I would like to thank ARQ, White’s research foundation, for supporting me and making these movies possible.