By now most people who are interested in architecture have learned that the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor has been named the 2009 Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate. I was psyched to hear this — I don’t know a whole lot about architecture, but I did do some research on Zumthor awhile back for a project on the Slow movement that never came to pass, and I found his buildings, his ideas, and his focus on locality to be quite compelling. From Zumthor’s book Thinking Architecture:
“I believe that architecture today needs to reflect on the tasks and possibilities which are inherently its own. Architecture is not a vehicle or a symbol for things that do not belong to its essence. In a society that celebrates the inessential, architecture can put up a resistance, counteract the waste of forms and meanings, and speak its own language. I believe that the language of architecture is not a question of a specific style. Every building is built for a specific use in a specific place and for a specific society. My buildings try to answer the questions that emerge from these simple facts as precisely and critically as they can.”
The Pritzger Prize is being amply covered elsewhere, and I won’t pretend to have fresh insight to add other than this small offshoot. While reading through the many well-deserved Zumthor accolades today, I was reminded of a photographer named Helene Binet whose work I have always admired but haven’t thought about in awhile.
Binet is a celebrated architectural photographer. She’s worked repeatedly with Zumthor and Zaha Hadid, Daniel Liebeskind, and Coop Himmelb(l)au among many many others. Interestingly most of the images of Zumthor-designed spaces on the Pritzker website that immediately drew me in were the ones that were photographed by Binet. She has a remarkable ability to capture the emotional and spiritual qualities of a given architectural space — a skill that’s particularly important when it comes to an architect like Zumthor.
Of her own work, Binet has said,
“In the end, what I do is about feeling. Certain buildings, certain architects generate a strong emotion. It is hard to explain, but, if am I lucky, I can find this feeling, these emotions, slowly and quietly in the darkroom when my pictures come to light.” (from Dream Life of Buildings: Helene Binet’s Pictures, The Guardian, April 15, 2002)
In many ways architectural photography is an “invisible” genre because we tend to look right through it, forgetting that someone other than the architect is framing our view of the building. Photographers like Binet play a vital role in communicating architectural meaning, especially to the great unwashed like myself who don’t know how to read a blueprint or schematic and who find scale models boring to look at. I might never get to see a Zumthor building in real life (and god knows could I use a trip to that spa right now), but Binet’s pictures, and those of other equally gifted photographers, make me see what all the fuss is about.
In order to understand a work of architecture, we have to be physically present in the building or space itself. Or do we? Great architectural photography makes you wonder.
For access to (way better-looking than they are on this post) high-res photographic images of Zumthor’s projects by Binet and other architectural photographers, visit this page on the Pritzker Prize website.