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Folio: Typologies by the Bechers

Why must a water tower look like a UFO, or a coal bunker like a castle on legs?


Coal bunkers by the Bechers, 1947

Coal bunkers by the Bechers, 1947

Source: Tate Images

Why must a water tower look like a UFO, or a coal bunker like a castle on legs? The Bechers’ typologies often evoke puzzlement, even incredulity, as the tension between similarity and difference – which makes it so tempting to think of architecture as a language – throws up some bizarre solutions to similar problems. Who were the designers behind these ‘anonymous sculptures’, to borrow the title of the Bechers’ first book, and what on earth were they thinking? On the whole, though, we’re confronted with a roughly similar silhouette, which raises another line of questions: did design spring immediately from function, or did ideas spread from one country to another? Where do local traditions in gas tank design come from and do they say anything about the cultures that incubated them? (Is there something particularly German about the compulsion to put half-timbering all over water towers, for instance?)

By honing in on these abject and excluded objects, the Bechers make them emblems for the ‘big questions’ of architectural history. Here, buildings from Britain, France and Germany are brought together in a grid of nine, most of them hulking ribbed boxes lifted up on tiptoes to reveal their concrete ovipositors. Beneath here ran the trains that took their cargo to fuel the furnaces of the Ruhr. The latter are extinguished now, and the buildings that fed them left to rot. The Bechers’ work is not just a record of a vanished era, but also a reminder of its architectural afterlife in the work of Modernist designers: Torre Velasca bears a striking similarity to these particular structures. And though they have all since been demolished, the ghosts recorded in these post-industrial pattern books are waiting – perhaps for resurrection.

Hilla Becher portrait by Alice Moloney