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A state of pure knowing

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In Composing Space, her first major monograph, architectural photographer Hélène Binet records 25 years in pursuit of the sublime action of light on built surfaces, writes Alan Gordon

London-based Swiss photographer Hélène Binet is one of the foremost architectural photographers. Her client list includes, among others, Zaha Hadid, Peter Zumthor, Caruso St John Architects and Daniel Libeskind (who was instrumental in persuading her away from the theatre – she spent two years as photographer of the Grand Théâtre de Genève). Her work has often appeared in the AJ; recently her photographs accompanied Joseph Rykwert’s critique of Witherford Watson Mann Architects’ Stirling Prize-winning Astley Castle rehabilitation (AJ 05.07.12).

But that’s the day job. With Composing Space, her first major monograph, Binet sets out her stall in fine art territory. Few of the images in this selection from 25 years of work involve general massing, views to elevations and so on – the usual illustrative stuff of building studies. Of the Virtues, here venustas reigns: her concern is with emotional, intimate responses to the presence of buildings, the spaces they afford and, latterly, landscapes – a concern exercised, paradoxically, through dispassionate attention to the play of light and shadow, to the minute details of surfaces, materials, boundaries and volumes.

Her concern is with emotional, intimate responses to the presence of buildings

In short, we are dealing with ‘contemplation of light reflected from stone’, the first degree of the aesthetical sublime as described by Arthur Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Representation. Though published nearly 200 years ago, and eight years before a permanent photograph had been fixed, Schopenhauer’s aesthetical theory precisely captures the thrust of this project: ‘Architectural beauty more than any other object is enhanced by favourable light, […] the contemplation of the beautiful effect of the light upon these masses [of stone] lifts us, as does all beauty, into a state of pure knowing.’ For Schopenhauer, this exemplifies the subtlest degree in his hierarchy of the sublime – defined, following Kant et al, as beauty inflected in varying measure by feelings of disquiet, unease, awe, dread and so on. And – for as much as her gaze is calm and her spaces composed – disquiet, unease and dread are surprisingly attendant on a portion of Binet’s photography, both in this monograph and in her back catalogue. These qualities give much of her work a serious, faintly minatory edge. Studies of The House of the Suicide and The House of the Mother of the Suicide by John Hejduk (installations commemorating student Jan Palach, who set fire to himself in 1969 in protest at the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia); of Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial in Berlin; or of Peter Zumthor’s Steilneset witch trial memorial at Vardø in Norway (not represented in this monograph) give a flavour in their titles of this dark conceptual ground.

Interior view of light across walls, St Pierre Church, Firminy, by Le Corbusier

Source: Helene Binet

Interior view of light across walls, St Pierre Church, Firminy, by Le Corbusier

Alternatively, it is the composition which unsettles. Awe is conveyed in her perpendicular interior view to the oculus of Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus Field Chapel at Mechernich in Germany. Light bursts in like an epiphany to this shrine to the patron saint of Switzerland and is reflected blackly from the charred, rebated impressions created by the bonfire logs of its extraordinary making. A crepuscular Interior View of Light Across Walls at Le Corbusier’s St Pierre Church at Firminy, or a view of the undercroft of Hadid’s Phaeno Science Center under construction (complete with ‘ghost’), likewise present somewhat other-worldly, forbidding spaces. An interior view of the living space at Caruso St John Architects’ North London Studio House, dramatically riven by a bright shaft of sunlight, has a touch of the interrogation cell. An intriguing view of a staircase in the fortress at Fortezza in South Tyrol (not in this monograph) leads the viewer on, towards a Piranesi carcere, perhaps.

Her eye is acutely attuned to the specificity of light falling upon surface

I doubt Binet much cares for narrative conjectures of this sort. Her eye is acutely attuned to the specificity of light falling upon surface and this is the predominant motif in her compositional approach. Typically a sunbeam falls at a slenderly slanted angle of incidence from an – mostly unseen – aperture in a building’s envelope to bring to presence the motes, specks and patterns of a constructed surface – ‘grazing’ the walls, as lighting designers say. The level of illuminance is frequently very low, a handful of lux. Perhaps Binet’s experience in the theatre helped hone her command of such conditions. Light sources are rarely seen; a notable exception is her view of an exterior wall at Zumthor’s Kolumba Diocesan Museum in Cologne; yet the dim lamp glimpsed here through a doorway is barely a light source at all, and could just as well be read as a church sanctuary lamp.

Interior detail view, Vitra Fire Station, Well am Rhein, by Zaha Hadid Architects

Source: Helene Binet

Interior detail view, Vitra Fire Station, Well am Rhein, by Zaha Hadid Architects

The focus on detail so often leads to formal abstraction in Binet’s compositions that it becomes a distinct theme. A view of a light well in Le Corbusier’s Monastery of Sainte-Marie de la Tourette at Éveux in France – one of the few full-colour plates in the book – demonstrates this fascination with pure form. Here, what is signified (a top-lit light well punched through a ceiling) slips at first viewing away from the signifier, leaving sculptural shapes in hues of red, yellow and blue. Outstanding in this respect is her interior detail view of Hadid’s Vitra Fire Station at Weil am Rhein, Germany. This monochrome composition of thrusting, angular forms – cropped four-square and practically impossible to interpret as a building detail – is construed in likeness of the Painterly Architectonics series (begun 1916) of works by Lyubov Popova (one of Malevich’s Suprematist circle, disclosing the building’s conceptual design ancestry as interpreted in Hadid’s practice.

One can’t help but speculate whether, if not specifically being Swiss, then being an Alps-dweller contributed to the development of Binet’s discerning eye for the evanescence of light, perceiving from an early age its swiftly changing moods and effects on form.

How fitting it is, anyway, that a native of the Alps should today be exploring with such commitment concepts made possible by the likes of Joseph Addison, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and William Wordsworth, Grand Tourists to that region, theoreticians of the sublime and ground-breakers for present-day notions of the avant-garde.

  • Alan Gordon is the AJ’s news production editor


Composing Space: The Photographs of Hélène Binet, in a limited edition of 1,800 plus 150 artist’s proofs, Phaidon, 224 pages, RRP £100


Hélène Binet – Recent Works, Gabrielle Ammann Gallery, Cologne, Germany, until 29 November




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