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He has been an architect of world class. The Viennese Karl Schwanzer was a visionary, an artist, a university lecturer, even a poet. His BMW high-rise in Munich is still one of the defining architectural designs of the 1970s. With the film “He flew ahead. Karl Schwanzer, Architects’ Poem” (“Er flog voraus. Karl Schwanzer | Architektenpoem”), Max Gruber dedicates a multifaceted portrait to him, in which actor Nicholas Ofczarek plays a special role.

By Thomas Wagner

Karl Schwanzer
Karl Schwanzer was a visionary, artist, university teacher, even poet, © Filmdelights

Karl Schwanzer had something dance-like

A man with thick, rectangular horn-rimmed glasses walks his way – through Belvedere 21 in Vienna. The load-bearing skeleton and the visible profiles, the recognisable openness and variability of the building – all this celebrates an architectural language that unfolds beyond stony monumentality and clearly distinguishes the building from most buildings from the period. You see the actor Nicholas Ofczarek powdered and thus characterised for what he is: an actor. As such, he talks about his role, and that he had oriented himself “a little” on the appearance of Herr Schwanzer. It was very important that he wore black shoes. Karl Schwanzer, Ortner explains, “was, you could say, massive in terms of his figure, but he had something dancelike. He had a form of mobility that is often inscribed in these people.” Immediately, the observation is made comprehensible through documentary recordings. He was restless: “He had this creative urge – and really created so much in 27 years, almost 30 years – unimaginable,” remarks the granddaughter Caroline Schwanzer. And Heinz Neumann, who, like some who comment in the film, worked in Schwanzer’s office for a time, notes: “He had two faces. On the one hand, you could have a sophisticated academic dialogue with him, which was always exciting. But, he was also an original Viennese and could sing Viennese.”

Time does not need architects

Karl Schwanzer
Nicholas Ofczarek plays Karl Schwanzer, © Filmdelights

Ofczarek does not only appear as Karl Schwanzer. He also acts as narrator or conférencier on stage. Schwanzer’s book “Architektur aus Leidenschaft” from 1973 provides the key words. It begins with a finding: “Our time,” Ofczarek quotes, “apparently does not need architects. His activity has fallen into the twilight. The architect, insofar as he develops ambitions to really build, that is, to belong to his work as a personality, is demonised as a subject who makes things more expensive. Building means producing cubic metres of building mass, cheaply, more cheaply and more quickly. It is also more anonymous, more inconspicuous, modest, simple, meaningless. Otherwise people will immediately say: “Where did he, the builder, get this money?” The pictures Gruber shows are no less telling: a multistorey, everyday house is cut up. It is a cake. The cake, in architecture, is literally being distributed. That’s the business.

The text continues: “But does a house only have the function of serving the people inside? And doesn’t it also serve the many people who have to experience and look at it outside? The house as an appearance, as it determines the environment, belongs to all of us. The demand for usability for the beneficiary excludes the general public. It is inconsiderate, egoistic.” The actor no longer speaks the sentence as one who reads aloud on stage, but in his role as Karl Schwanzer in front of the bright glass wall of the 21er-Haus. “But what do we mean by utility? Just the roof over your head?”

Unconventional setting

The setting and structure of the film are unconventional. Gruber succeeds in combining documentary material – quotations, plans and historical film sequences – with the realisation that any attempt at a biographical sketch ends in fiction. In doing so, the director activates various media: intertitles, backed by animated drawings, structure the sequence without coming across as obtrusive or academically dull. The film does not shy away from entering every mirrored cabinet of reception (or post-retirement), right up to the comic strip “Schwanzer. The architect with a passion”. That he strove far beyond Vienna and Austria, was cosmopolitan and not a trace provincial, is proven, among other things, by his trip to America in 1964. In the film, a photograph showing Schwanzer in front of the NY skyline is brought to life by animated drawings. Even the interspersed play scenes always remain recognisable for what they are, even if Schwanzer’s expressions are occasionally a little too pathetic, losing their dynamism and liveliness.

Belvedere 21 was originally planned by Schwanzer as the Austria Pavilion for the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, © Photo: Lukas Schaller / Belvedere, Vienna

A multifaceted oeuvre without a uniform style

The more Karl Schwanzer’s oeuvre is explored, the more vivid and differentiated the portrait becomes – of a master builder as good as the time in which he was active. In any case, one searches in vain for a uniform Schwanzer style. But, according to Andreas Nierhaus of the Wien Museum, which houses Schwanzer’s estate: “The paw of Karl Schwanzer is visible.” In 1958, Karl Schwanzer built the Austria Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Brussels. The steel skeleton construction with glass halls was adapted for museum purposes after the Expo, rebuilt in Vienna’s Schweizergarten and opened as the Museum of the 20th Century in 1962. (Since 2018 it is called Belvedere 21 and gives space to contemporary art).

The BMW high-rise as pop architecture

A few other milestones: in 1961 Schwanzer was responsible for the extension of the Kapuzinergruft; in 1965 he designed the Phillips Building in Vienna, which is constructed like a span bridge. His best-known building, however, is without doubt the BMW high-rise in Munich from 1972/73. The idea of designing the administration building like a cloverleaf, so the story goes, arose from a joke by the design team – and was thrown in the wastepaper basket; Schwanzer took out the paper and had the design followed up. The construction principle with suspended storeys was also a challenge. To get the job, the architect spared neither effort nor expense: He had a storey built in a film studio in Geiselgasteig, including furnishings and a typing secretary. He wanted to demonstrate the emotional impact of the rooms, to show that a different working atmosphere was created in the round pulpits: a “humanisation of the workspace in team groups.” Despite its technical appearance, Schwanzer’s cloverleaf (or four-cylinder) design placed him in the era of pop: The BMW Tower, Peter Blake is quoted as saying, “is for me a unique piece of realised pop architecture, the biggest and best Claes Oldenburg monument ever realised, certainly since the Statue of Liberty was built. What on earth is he going to do next? – Space flights?” An unrealised design for the Sprengelmuseum in Hanover from the same year also points in this direction. Thus the film also bears witness to the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s, full of sparkling energies and forward-looking ideas.

BMW Hochhaus
Schwanzer’s best-known building: the BMW high-rise in Munich, 1972/73, © Filmdelights

Fittingly, the dynamic modernist Schwanzer liked to reproach traditionalists for the “total mummification” of Vienna. No one, he said, was thinking about the monuments of tomorrow. Demolition is a crime, new construction is a crime. Where, then, would the impunity actually be? – “Only in mediocrity!” Nothing was further from Schwanzer’s mind: in the mid-1970s, when his office was internationally active and realised buildings in many parts of the world – such as the Austrian Embassy in Brasilia in 1974 – he was also called “Charlemagne” in the office, after Emperor Charles V, in whose empire, as is well known, the sun never set. Karl Schwanzer, born in 1918, determined his own end: On 20 August 1975, he ended his own life. In 28 creative years, he had created around 600 buildings and projects.
At the end of the film, Schwanzer’s actor Ofczarek recites his “Architect’s Poem” on stage. As the poem plays, scenes from Karl Schwanzer’s life and work pass by once again.

Karl Schwanzer Er flog voraus
Er flog voraus © Filmdelights

Er flog voraus (He Flew Ahead)
Karl Schwanzer | Architektenpoem

A film written and directed by Max Gruber

Austria 2022

Length: 73 minutes

The film is currently showing in Austrian cinemas, dates at www.erflogvoraus.at.

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