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‘An image for me should never be completely defined’: How Hélène Binet's photographs changed the way we look at architecture

Web ben blossom

Winner of the Ada Louise Huxtable Prize 2019, Hélène Binet’s photographs are more than simply representations of the buildings they depict. They are distinct works in their own right

Hélène Binet, winner of this year’s Ada Louise Huxtable Prize, is an artist whose work has changed architectural photography, subtly detaching it from reportage and publicity and reorienting it towards specific experience. Since its public appearance in commissioned ‘essays’ on works of Sigurd Lewerentz, Dimitris Pikionis, John Hejduk, Daniel Libeskind and Raoul Bunschoten towards the end of the 1980s, it was clear that her work represented a new voice in the field, into which she reintroduced an intimate and profoundly artistic approach. Her photographs, then and since, have made the spaces and bodies of architecture – the essence and idea of their subjects – central to the experience of the viewer.

After studies in photography at the Istituto Europeo di Design in Rome, Binet was engaged as a photographer at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, where she photographed dancers on stage. The emergence of bodies from darkness into light and their movement demanded a particular kind of photographic attention, attuned to ever-changing forms and their specific attributes. The photographs made by Robert Hupka of Michelangelo’s Pietà, with their care for the sculpture’s forms and implicit movement, served as inspiration for her own care in composing form and space, which would make, over time and unexpectedly, architecture its focus. 

‘Her intense attention, which is later shared by the viewer, moves towards the idea of the architect’

Binet’s studies in Rome had brought her in contact with Raoul Bunschoten, who later became her partner. He introduced her to Alvin Boyarsky, chairman of the Architectural Association in London, who commissioned her to photograph two churches in Sweden – St Mark’s and St Peter’s designed by Sigurd Lewerentz –for a monograph and exhibition at the AA. In the winter of 1988/89, her pictures of these churches concentrated on their mass, construction, detail and material, resulting in images that were both direct and intimate: the viewer was brought very close to the making and the ideas of these works through compositions that were not only true to the material of their constructions and their absorption of light, but appeared as constructions in their own right. The photographs evoked an order of contact with architecture that had been seen in the work of Frederick Evans in the 19th century, and in that of Lucien Hervé and Eric de Maré in the 20th. 

Web 100 pikionis 07.2

Web 100 pikionis 07.2

Source: Hélène Binet

Dimitris Pikionis’ Acropolis pathways, 1989

The compositions within Binet’s pictures of Lewerentz’s works seemed aligned with the traditions of Constructivism, the Bauhaus and the Neue Sachlichkeit, yet the sensitivity of her images suggested that her concerns resided beyond formal composition and were directed towards a deeper understanding of the specific nature of her architectural subjects. In her photographs from 1989, for another AA commission on Dimitris Pikionis, the surfaces of his pathways around the Acropolis filled their frames. The viewer’s attention was drawn to the ways the pathways’ stones received light and conformed to myriad nuanced patterns, assuming the character of an elaborate and archaic carpet. Binet both pictured Pikionis’s work and created a palpable experience of it for the viewer mentally and physically: one could imagine walking on these paths and feeling them underfoot. 

In these and other series that have followed – exemplary among them Zaha Hadid’s Phaeno Science Centre (2003), Caruso St John’s square at Kalmar (2003), Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals (2006) and Le Corbusier’s La Tourette (2007) – Binet approaches architectural subjects and presents them as spatial, material and corporeal entities. These are made alive to the viewer; available, and somehow, inhabitable. Each series of Binet’s photographs is attuned in relation to the specific qualities of its architectural subject; this may, in part, be due to sympathies between her own sensibilities and those of the architects commissioning her work. Her particular photographic attention – realised within the space of the view camera – directs the viewer’s attention towards the unique aspects of the pictured space, towards the body and the material of its architecture, which both touches and reveals the essence of its subject. Her intense attention, which is later shared by the viewer, moves towards the idea of the architect.The photographs convey telling aspects of the pictured subject and their, perhaps unconsciously embodied, ideas: for example, the uprights of Le Corbusier’s fenêtres ondulatoires at La Tourette appear, in their crude forms, to be made by some elemental, quasi-natural process; the dancing geometry of the diffused and refracted light across the monastery’s floor slabs appears as a miracle; the irregularities within the corrugated teepee-like interior of Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus Field Chapel in Mechernich (2009), evidence of the bound branches used to construct its form, bear testament to the destructive fire at the heart of its making and its deeper idea, tied to the hearth of a primitive hut and architecture’s origins. 

‘The photographs are not paeans to architecture; rather, they are works of art with their own specific attributes’

The photographs are not, however, paeans to architecture; rather, they are works of art with their own specific attributes – in Binet’s words ‘their own world in themselves’. Binet transforms the construction of Zumthor’s Therme Vals into a concatenation of crystalline scenes made of surfaces of stone and water and lines of light, into photographic surfaces. The light filtered through openings of the brick walls on the ground floor of Zumthor’s Kolumba Museum in Cologne (2007) creates patterns that blush the concrete surface of its ceiling and articulate a surface of intense sensuality that is particular to the photograph itself. 

Web 56 zumthor kolumba 01

Web 56 zumthor kolumba 01

Source: Hélène Binet

Peter Zumthor’s Kolumba Museum, Cologne, Germany, 2007

Binet’s works are not only representations or reproductions of their architectural or spatial subjects, but distinct works of constructed space, each of which offers its own particular atmosphere and experience. This can be seen, too, in photographs that reveal the ‘constructions’ of nature, and of buildings made with mindfulness of their relationship with nature. In her series of photographs of the Atacama Desert (2013), the landscape’s forms are regarded as silent agents, which, in tandem with fog formations and human interventions, draw water almost miraculously from otherwise arid conditions. Her photographs of works by Geoffrey Bawa in Sri Lanka (2004) and the Korean shrine of Byeongsan Seowon (2017) also describe propitious confrontations, in these cases the intimate correspondence between architecture and nature. These works touch on essential meetings, in which the mystery of mankind’s relation to the natural world seems to unfold.

Her photographs have seemed to stir – for architects particularly – a profound feeling for the experience of architecture

Hélène Binet has likened her encounter with her subjects and her approach to photography to the experience of a blind person. Her sensitivity to the life of the spaces and surfaces of architecture is rendered, through her sensibility, into new material for the viewer’s eye and mind, and so for the viewer’s body. When the photographs are printed in a book and thereafter held in the viewer’s hands – as Binet prefers her work to be experienced, remembering the impact Jean Petit’s books had on her when she was young – this corporeal experience is complete. ‘The image is made to be seen in a very intimate situation’, Binet explains. ‘You don’t want them to be too big, you want to be somehow very close – and the moment you are close, you have less interference with the rest of the world so you can look, and you can completely enter this world.’ This holds true for the architectural subject and her encounters with landscapes, flora and the surfaces of the earth. 

In the case of Binet’s architecture photographs, this experience is profound, built on many iterations and translations within the architectural subject, from the idea of the architect to the construction of the actual artefact, the photographer’s encounter with that artefact as subject and the fixing of that encounter through the camera, to the making of the photographic artefact and, finally, the viewer’s specific experience of the (reproduced) photograph’s visible facts and allusions. Her photographs’ evocations or re-stagings of fundamental elements and aspects of architecture have seemed to stir – for architects particularly – a profound feeling for the experience of architecture; in so doing, they have resonated in several generations of architects’ imaginations, influencing sensibilities, thoughts and practices. Hélène Binet’s works have spoken, for some 30 years, to viewers who have sought to make architecture that might contain something of their deep and authentic beauty.

The Jane Drew Prize

A spirited advocate for women in a male-dominated profession, Jane Drew graduated from the Architectural Association in 1929 into a profession that was unwelcoming to women at best. She started her own practice after the Second World War, and her work played a substantial role in introducing the Modern Movement into the UK.

The prize recognises an architectural designer who, through their work and commitment to design excellence, has raised the profile of women in architecture. Previous winners include Amanda Levete, Odile Decq, Grafton Architects’ founders Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, Zaha Hadid, Kathryn Findlay of Ushida Findlay and Eva Jiřičná.

The Ada Louise Huxtable Prize

Ada Louise Huxtable made history by being the first full-time architecture critic at a US newspaper when she joined the New York Times, and was later awarded the first Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1970. The prize recognises individuals working in the wider architectural industry who have made a significant contribution to architecture and the built environment. Previous winners include Dutch artist and OMA co-founder Madelon Vriesendorp in 2018, sculptor Rachel Whiteread, former Serpentine Galleries director Julia Peyton-Jones and client and architectural patron Jane Priestman.

This piece is featured in the AR March 2019 issue on Sex + Women in Architecture awards – click here to purchase your copy today