The bold, sculptural buildings carry the futuristic, optimistic zeitgeist of the post-war era, but there is also dirt, decay, and vacancy. My approach reflects the story of many of these megastructures.
Since completing his architecture studies, Clemens Gritl has been exploring urban utopias of the 20th century, focusing on the interaction between space, dimension, monotony, and materiality of urban megastructures. His photorealistic presentations can be aligned with 1960s architecture photography which documents a singular, unbroken optimism and the radical zeitgeist of its era. His current series, “A Future City from The Past” embodies a vision of an aged urban dystopia — an uncompromising design in the brutalist dogma.
INTERVIEW WITH THE ARTIST
Q. Coming from a background in architecture, was there a pivotal moment that made you interested in pursuing a career in the arts?
A. I went to Rome to study architecture as part of an exchange program, and one day, on my way from the airport to the city, I discovered a gigantic apartment building. It was sat on a hill, seemed incredibly long, and formed a strong contrast to its surrounding low-rise suburbs. So I went back there and stood in front of ‘Il Corviale’, a 1,000 meters long building for nearly 10,000 inhabitants.
Even though the estate seemed quite run-down and entering the building felt a bit risky, I could still sense the strong utopian ideas and visions of society that must have been behind that project. This prompted me to do extensive research on the urban utopias of the 20th century and by the end of it, I started to come up with my own ideas.
Q. Do the two remain closely related for you, or do you see them as strictly separate disciplines?
A. All my artworks are based on the usual architectural design process. I start with a sketch, then develop a big-scale urban plan, shape the building structures, even the floorplans and the single sections. Without my background in architecture, I could not make the artwork I make - one leads to the other.
Q. What initiated your interest in the 20th Century brutalist architecture you portray?
A. Brutalism and post-war architecture, in general, were driven by strong social ideas, new technologies, and materials. Suddenly, it was possible to build space shuttles or create organic building structures in an endless variety of shapes. This spirit I still see today in a lot of these buildings and it has a mesmerizing power over me. Maybe part of that is also a subconscious yearning for such an unforced, positive spirit.
Q. You have quoted J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise as an inspiration for your work, which deals with the psychological effects of people’s surroundings on their psyche, does this psychological aspect play a significant role for you, or is it rather about the physical reality that the book describes?
A. The novel is based on a very provoking (and questionable) thesis…the life in a high-rise building itself leads to sinister changes of the inhabitant’s behavior and culminates in a civil war of the upper against the lower floors. I read the book shortly before I started my art project. I was rather inspired by the dark atmosphere than by the psychological aspect of the story. For me, the story is more a parable to societal ills in general.
Q. The futuristic architecture of the 50s/60s was intertwined with a certain sense of optimism as well, does this find its way into your work or does it rather deal with feelings of disillusion and dystopia?
A. I think you can find both aspects in my work. The bold, sculptural buildings carry the futuristic, optimistic zeitgeist of the post-war era, but there is also dirt, decay, and vacancy. My approach reflects the story of many of these megastructures; they turned into stigmatized neighborhoods very quickly.
Q. The idea of “Wohnmaschinen” (living machines) appears to be reflected in your work in the form of repetition, homogeneity and a certain impersonal flair, how do you personally feel about the concept as such?
A. I love the idea of a compact, vertical city, but many mistakes were made
in the past. A lack of social mixture, infrastructure, public transport,
leisure opportunities, and maintenance led to a fast decay of many projects.
I think, instead of demolishing unsuccessful buildings, we should find ways of readjusting them. If you look at radical designs like Pegli 3 near Genova or Habitat 67, it would be a great loss to demolish them. The erasure of Robin Hood Gardens or Vele di Scampia broke my heart.
Q. Where do you find inspiration for the structures you create?
A. My sources of inspiration are broad and endless.
First of all, there are the Brutalist buildings and movements, e.g. the outstanding Japanese Metabolists, then the Futurists like Sant’Elia, Archigram or Superstudio, and of course the cityscapes I get to experience myself, e.g. in cities like Belgrad, London, Paris and in my hometown Berlin. The New Topographic Movement also sharpened my focus on man-altered landscapes.
Q. Could you take us through your creative process – from sketch to finished product?
A. Most of the time, I start with a tiny little sketch before I make more detailed drawings and 3d computer models. I put the better ideas on my studio walls and pick the very best to pursue further. As described earlier, my process follows the classic architectural designing steps. But I think the best way to get a picture is to show you some sketches and early 3d models to get a better idea:
Q. You have also created some video work, based on Le Corbusier’s “Plan Voisin” – what led you to bring his vision to life?
A. I got in touch with Stefan Sagmeister, who prepared his current exhibition on ‘Beauty’ at that time. He invited me to create a work based on Corbusier’s concept for Paris. As the original sketches were all quite vague, there was a lot of room to come up with my own interpretation. I had already learned about this project when I was at university and I always wanted to see a more realistic vision of that concept.
Q. Is there a specific reason the megacities you picture are devoid of inhabitants?
A. The black and white images of Lewis Baltz and the early cityscape photographs by Thomas Struth have had a huge influence on my work. Both show silent environments without motion, without people. Nothing distracts from the captured surfaces, objects, and buildings, but at the same time, I often find something sinister or dramatic in their pictures. I wanted to convey this atmosphere in my own work as well.
Q. Could you describe your work in three words?
A. A friend of mine once described my artwork once as ‘beautiful darkness’.
It’s only 2 words but I somehow could relate to that a lot, as it catches the ambivalence between utopia and dystopia - this is the subject that intrigues me most.