Daisy Alioto is a culture writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Artsy, Modern Magazine, Curbed, Wallpaper* and more.
An interview with the artist behind a 2017 film about the still-operating Fagus shoe factory in Germany that revolutionized industrial architecture.
Fagus Factory in Alfeld, Germany, is one of Walter Gropius’s earliest works and anticipates many of the architectural features that would become integral to the Bauhaus movement. Built between 1911 and 1913, the structure is most known for its curtain wall, a design innovation that came to define Modern architecture around the world. In recognizing the shoe lasts factory as a World Heritage Site, UNESCO calls it, “a concrete expression of the functionality of the industrial complex in the interest of productivity and the humanization of the working environment.”
In 2017, Brooklyn-based artist Ben Thorp Brown debuted a film titled Gropius Memory Palace shot inside and around Fagus Factory, which is still in operation. Narrated by a hypnotherapist, the film takes its name from the mnemonic device that allows a person to attach memories to a visualized piece of architecture—supposedly making it easier to retrieve them later.
Ben Thorp Brown’s 20-minute film also shows the changing nature of work, as evidenced by the Fagus Factory operations that are now automated. Traditional craftsmen work alongside machines. This gives the film a layer of political meaning, as audiences grapple with rapid changes in the nature of work and perhaps even their own work.
Gropius Memory Palace will be screened on April 12th at Harvard University as part of the university’s special exhibition, The Bauhaus and Harvard. (Gropius taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design from 1937 to 1952.) Brown is also opening three museum shows this summer at Jeu de Paume, CAPC Bordeaux, and Museo Amparo with new work filmed in a Richard Neutra building.
CityLab caught up with the artist to discuss Gropius Memory Palace on the occasion of Bauhaus’s 100th anniversary.
What got you interested in the Fagus Factory and what attracted you to this particular building?
I learned about the building a long time ago in art history class, and the thing that people, art historians, tend to talk about with the building is its importance in the development of the curtain wall, which is an architectural feature that we see in almost every city around the world today. The thing that drew me back to this building was learning that it was still a functioning factory. I was fascinated that for 100 years it somehow maintained itself. The Fagus Factory has been making the shoe lasts for a century, but they’ve made them different ways over the course of time. The film was an attempt to consider the relationship between the history of architecture and the history of work as it changes under the forces of capital.
What feedback have you received about the different notions of work that the film depicts? Do people express a spectrum of emotions?
I'd love to hear what you think about that question too, if you have thoughts about the kinds of notions of work that the film depicts. I have a way of explaining that, which is that there's this artisan craft work that these shoemakers do, and they're working largely with hand tools. The hand tools have been basically unchanged for 100 years. Then alongside of that form of work, there's 3-D scanning, digital labor that's taking place on computers. There is also advanced manufacturing using CNC routers that are cutting this same shape out of plastic. That's a kind of industrial work that comes into popularity in the '90s, maybe a little earlier. Then there's office work—and that part has really changed over the past 100 years.
I think while I got this notion of loss, I wasn't that upset by it because the building was still there, and for some reason that was very comforting to me.
Yeah, exactly. There’s a certain kind of emotional state that I was interested in instilling, or cultivating, in a viewer. It's something that's definitely particular to this place, in this building, but it's a sort of state that I wanted to enact in the the present through a hypnotherapist's narration of the film. I wanted viewers to reflect on the current moment and problems facing the workforce. For example, we are seeing more newsrooms and media companies organizing. I’m a member of a union as an employee of the New School.
It happens slowly, but there has been incremental progress, so that's good.
Our grandparents’ generation was in the thick of labor rights advocacy, but their relationship to work was totally destabilized over the past several decades. And now, we're kind of clawing back the labor gains we had in the past. But of course, it’s not ever going to be the same. There's something kind of haunting about that I think. So, to connect it back to hypnotherapy, thinking about these different forms of work, I think in the film I wanted to collaborate with this hypnotherapist to create something that could operate as a therapeutic tool for any person who works anywhere in some capacity, and has experienced the traumas of working under capitalism. The film attempts to address those types of collective traumas, historic and of the present, through this exercise for viewers.
Were there any extreme emotional reactions to the film that you weren't expecting, any outliers? Did anyone cry?
I don't know how it affects people because I’m not always there when it gets shown, although I like to be present as much as possible. It’s funny, because it's this very soothing video, in a way, but it's about these things that often really stress us out. Our work life creates enormous amounts of stress for many of us in this world. It's interesting, a lot of people come out of the film, and they're—similar to you—in a soothed, spaced-out state. There's a whole period of the film where you're just in process of production, and the voice-over has dropped off, and you're just there hopefully being mesmerized by the images of work at some level, and maybe using those spaces to place your own images and ideas about work onto those images.
How did you meet the hypnotherapist that became the narrator for the film?
We have lots of mutual friends. Daniel Ryan has become, to some extent, the artist hypnotherapist. He has a private practice, but he also does a lot of public group events that are happening all around the city regularly. I just started this conversation with him a couple of years ago and it evolved from there.
How about the music, where did the music come from?
The music was made by a friend named Gryphon Rue who's an experimental musician. It was created through a very close collaboration. I've known Gryphon for a few years. One of the things to say about the music is that it is made through instruments and materials that are tied up with the architecture itself. One of the main instruments is this synth-like sound, but it's actually being made through a steel saw that is being bowed like a violin, and then it's being run through processing effects that are creating a certain kind of sound. There are also glass bowls being used in the soundtrack. The concept was that we would use architectural modernism, in the form of steel and glass, as the backbone to the soundtrack.
When you were putting the film together were you conscious of this other layer of meaning, that a society can be hypnotized by progress? I guess this is more of a comment than a question.
I think that's a really fair comment, and it's true. Modernism proposes that we’re always progressing in some way. It's a myth, of course. Progress is in fits and starts, maybe when you look back over a long arc of history, maybe you can make some sort of claim about progress, but it's pretty violent and destructive in the short-term for many. What if architecture was not just the outcome of the design process, but a broader set of interactions that take place between a designer and a whole set of collaborators and laborer processes that get engaged?
I was also kind of laughing to myself about the concept of trying to make a memory palace out of an open office plan. There are no landmarks. You may not even have a cubicle. I also think it's a really good contrast to the architectural features that were important to Gropius that actually made it possible for you to combine these two concepts.
Well, the best memory palace is the that one that already exists in your mind, like your childhood home. But then, the next possible memory palace that is easy to use is one that has really distinctive features in some sense, that allow any given person to walk into a space and remember the different rooms of the overall architecture. With Gropius's Fagus Factory, there are distinctive spaces for sure. There's the workshop space. There were the office spaces. So I structured the film around the different forms of work as the sites for possible memory palace. The whole thing is, to some extent, like a big speculation and an opportunity to reflect on how memory and labor affect each other.
Did you look at any previous architecture films for inspiration?
I do enjoy The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980), which is about the space in front of the Seagram Building. William H. Whyte was very into film as a tool to observe people in their natural habitats, and I think that gave me a strong impression about the range of architectural films that could be made.