Over the past ten years, I have photographed buildings in ordinary and extraordinary contexts in thirty-seven countries on five continents. Displaying the complexity and the irrationality—sometimes madness—and at other times the beauty of architecture, these pictures in their totality seem to me a little daunting but have always been taken with a kind eye. I’m aware that architecture is an expression of desires, hopes, and ambitions as well as myriad practical needs and limitations that shape a structure’s design. I am fascinated by the infinite number of formal and structural solutions, seen en masse and the world over, that human logic found for similar problems.
Book for Architects is not a book design for a video installation, presented as a looped projection of still images on two walls. My interest is not a typological examination but to show a sequence and an arrangement of images that echo what examples of the built environment look and feel like to me. I don’t use wide-angle or shift lenses but a standard lens that most closely approximates the perspective of the human eye. The various elements of architecture appear here at times clearly and cleanly and at other times in a layered and convoluted way. As such, the installation represents, and emulates, the randomness, beauty and imperfection that characterizes the built realty, both past and present.
—Introduction to Book for Architects, by Wolfgang Tillmans
I’m a long time fan of the wide ranging talents of photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. His installation at the Met Museum, Book for Architects, is yet another Tillmansian dive into a particular topic that will permanently change the way you see and perceive that subject going forward.
Probably better known for his cultural documentation and stark portraits, Tillmans states that he has always had an interest in architecture, particularly stemming from his curiosity about the impact of individual decisions in shaping the overall design of a city. “That is my fascination with architecture,” he said. “All these uncoordinated activities that are not part of a master plan, each an expression of lived reality, each extracting itself from control, from design.”
Book for Architects is a curated assemblage of nearly 500 photographs that runs in an hour long loop on two screens. The content is focused on the built environment of our earth from every possible angle, and the images range from street scenes, aerial views, interiors, facades, landscaping, architectural details—every way in which humans have altered the world. Some images appear alone, others are grouped according to subtle themes of intention, texture, color, form. Very few people are captured in these images, just our extremely random and often infuriating footprint. And no soundtrack accompanies this survey, leaving us to sit in the dark silence with nothing but stark, large screen projections of the strange world we have created for ourselves.
And those images are, as Tillmans has stated, daunting. Our built environment is irrational, lacking in coherence and logic, and often horrifically ugly. But Book for Architects is no jeremiad to idiocy and bad design. It has a “here’s the facts” objectivity, whether the image is the tangle of pipes and wires exploding out from a wall or a nightmarish sea of high rise buildings warehousing human beings in a cold, treeless world. Tillmans’ assertion that he took these photographs with a “kind eye” is the essential baseline for viewing this unique cavalcade of images. Working from a detached neutrality, Tillmans invites each of us to see our world differently. In thinking about my upcoming trip to China in a few weeks, I can already feel how my experience of that landscape will be altered thanks to Tillmans’ eye.
Book for Architects is at the Met through July 5.