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Snapshots of Switzerland

At a turning point in the role of architectural photography, the work of the Swiss is put into focus

For an exhibition of his work at the Lucerne Architecture Gallery in the late 1980s, Peter Zumthor thought hard about who should photograph his buildings and opted for Hans Danuser, whose photographs up until then had only dealt incidentally with architecture. Danuser was given not a brief but carte blanche, and his resulting images were muted, atmospheric and oblique: the Sogn Benedetg Chapel, for instance, appears not in strong sunlight but emerging from fog. ‘He develops a distinct visual language but nevertheless remains with the building and doesn’t defamiliarise it,’ says Zumthor approvingly.

Some of Danuser’s Sogn Benedetg photos feature in Building Images, which accompanied an exhibition this spring at Basel’s Swiss Architecture Museum surveying 40 Swiss buildings from the last 25 years. Its emphasis is not just on the buildings but the way they are depicted, investigating the role of photography in shaping the perception of architecture − especially how the architect wants it to be perceived.

Sogn Benedetg

In a more Pictorialist approach to architectural photography than is usual, Zumthor’s Sogn Benedetg chapel recedes into the mist – trademark obliqueness from photographer Hans Danuser

Although it’s now over 30 years old, a two-part series in The Architects’ Journal called ‘The Craven Image’ (AJ 25.07.79 and 01.08.79) is still a touchstone in considering this question. But of course there has been an enormous change in the intervening years, with the explosion of material on the internet − by no means always sanctioned by the architect − and Building Images comes to terms with this. The meat of the book is in a dozen interviews with architects (including Zumthor, Jacques Herzog and Annette Gigon) and photographers (including Danuser, Hélène Binet and Thomas Ruff), and they are fascinating to read.

Like Zumthor, Herzog & de Meuron looked outside the usual stable of architectural photographers to present their early buildings. ‘Back then, we were concerned with a critical examination of the representation of architecture because the images that we knew were worn out,’ says Herzog. This quest for an alternative led to Thomas Ruff’s emphatically flat and horizontal portrayal of the Ricola warehouse (1992), reminiscent of Bernd and Hilla Becher (Ruff’s teachers) and of Donald Judd. In fact it’s not one photo but two, neither of which was taken by Ruff, who issuedinstructions and then stitched them together: ‘I preferred not having to drive 500km and then possibly being confronted with the wrong weather as well. It was better for someone nearby to do, who only had to drive for five minutes.’

Such involvement of ‘art’ photographers is a pervasive theme of this book, but architect-turned-photographer Georg Aerni confesses his scepticism about ‘artistic’ photographs of buildings. It would be presumptuous, he implies, to think that you could somehow treat artistically a space so well-conceived and realised as, say, an interior of Zumthor’s Kunsthaus Bregenz.

While Danuser and Ruff brought a fresh approach in their photographs, they still adhered to the convention that buildings were shown without people. Perhaps it’s an acceptance of the inevitable as internet images proliferate, but today there seems to be more tolerance of human occupation and signs of use. ‘From a certain point of time onwards, all we wanted was photographers who are able to take photos with people. The functioning of spaces for people is what really interests us today,’ says Herzog, and Annette Gigon echoes these sentiments: ‘For us, it’s about describing everyday life, not just representing the architecture as an elevated iconic object.’

With so many postings on the web, buildings are now bound to appear in ways that their architects don’t anticipate or desire. Gigon recounts the story of a Spanish magazine in the 1990s that photographed her practice’s Kirchner Museum as if it were a Koolhaas project, skewing the perspectives and generally subverting the calm orthogonality. This mismatch clearly irritated her but today it’s a fact of life.


An interior still of Annette Gigon & Mike Guyer’s Kirchner Museum, 1992. Photo by Heinrich Helfenstein

Gigon reappears in the hefty but elegant 440-page catalogue to another Swiss exhibition on this subject − Concrete: Photography and Architecture (Scheidegger & Spiess, £53) which was at the Winterthur Photo Museum earlier this year. That’s ‘concrete’ as opposed to abstract (not the material) − and its curators have ranged widely in time and space to find unfamiliar images that illustrate ‘the intimate relationship between photography and architecture’. There is plenty to enjoy and ponder in it, but apart from the discussion in which Gigon participates, the texts are rather meagre compared with those in Building Images and don’t pursue the implications of the material as far as they might.

The complaint in ‘The Craven Image’ was that architects over-controlled the way their works were presented after they were built. Ironically, Building Images reveals a new kind of tyranny − the power of the image before even the foundations are dug. Digital design produces so convincing an illusion of the finished building that architects risk being hostage to it in reality.

Otherwise, as far as the future is concerned, ‘there are many question marks at the moment’, as one interviewee rather lamely but accurately puts it. Except for one thing: no architects can ever hope again to determine the perception of their buildings in the way they once did. Whether they commission an architectural photographer or an artist to convey their preferred version of a project, alternative views will germinate, whether in the form of naff snapshots or sophisticated sequences shot during an architectural promenade. Wise architects will embrace these diverse views and maybe learn from them.

Building Images: Photography Focusing on Swiss Architecture


With texts by Hubertus Adam and Elena Kossovskaja, Christoph Merian Verlag, £24

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