- Book for Architects by Wolfgang Tillmans
Book for Architects
Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, January 26 through November 15, 2015.
Enter a darkened room dominated by a large structure with its back to you. Climb a set of stacked benches to see a corner brightly lit by a changing pair of projected images, one on each wall. You see some familiar high-design architectural marvels as well as many ordinary anonymous places. Sometimes there are whole buildings, more often fragments: doorknobs, signs, satellite dishes. Everything is photographed like a snapshot rather than through the perfecting lens of the professional. Most of the sites depicted show their age, their wearing down, and their building up through use. As 450 photos flash by in a forty-one-minute video loop—approximately four pairs of pictures every two minutes—this installation creates its own geography. While an introductory text on the gallery wall states that “there is no soundtrack for this exhibition,” the whispers of the gallerygoers humanize the space.
Wolfgang Tillmans, who came to prominence in the mid-1990s with his riveting portraits of European club kids, has created this Book for Architects. Conceived for the Fourteenth International Architecture Exhibition (commonly called the Architecture Biennale) in Venice in 2014, the project was reinstalled at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in early 2015, where it ran for ten months. Tillmans culled the series from his archive of photographs made over a ten-year period in thirty-seven countries. We see aerial views shot from skyscrapers and airplanes showing the patterns of mass housing: tracts of suburbs and the x’s of high-rises. Streetscapes contrast with everyday objects: sidewalk bollards and the profile of a PlayStation 4 video-game console. There are portions of gleaming office towers, including a sidelong look at Frank Gehry’s IAC building in New York. Just as often, we see generic conference rooms, elevators, and hotel corridors. The tactility of the spaces appears frequently, as in a pairing of four stuccoed interior walls alongside the flat surfaces of a staircase. Close-ups show a mess of infrastructure, awkward attachments, modifications, exposed ducts, and insulation. Elsewhere, we see other kinds of things that we are also not meant to notice: people queuing for toilets and, for that matter, toilets themselves of all kinds. Other more voyeuristic images show homeless encampments and refugee tents. We also have promised environments, in the form of advertisements for buildings under construction. Sometimes, people are important: a woman in her kitchen is next to a view of an unfinished building; in other images the frame cuts them off at the legs.
In its title, Book for Architects confounds. Examples like the IAC building aside, Tillmans’s installation does not feature structures most architects would include in a portfolio—and when it does, the images are not ones they would favor. Many of the places are formulaic in design; many are not professionally designed at all. Even the well-known buildings are more familiar than awe inspiring (the New Yorker in me smiles when I see the Flatiron Building appear). Instead, Tillmans has created a primer on the importance [End Page 142] of buildings that are not architected, perhaps, rather provocatively, to remind professional designers that these are the vast majority we experience or to school them on the challenges of planning for the rigors of use. Indeed, the most poignant element of the project is its documentation of the myriad ways people fix, jury-rig, and modify the built environment to suit their needs, suggesting an inspiring agency as well as indicating ways that people are at the mercy of the spaces built for them.
This exhibition is surely not only for architects, however, since that would be a very small audience, even at the Venice Bienniale. Who else could it be for? It might be for all of us: an admonition to care more about the everyday and to think more critically about the designer’s viewpoint, which too frequently refuses to consider a building beyond its moment of unveiling. Like vernacular architecture and cultural landscape studies...