Our love for architecture goes well beyond its striking appearance, incredible design, mixture of materials and brilliant personalities behind it. We love architecture because it conveys so much more than just a structure. It is a time capsule, social commentary and political tool all at the same time. Enter the new book Modern Forms - A Subjective Atlas of 20th Century Architecture. Photographed and compiled by Nicolas Grospierre, this is a stunning achievement that is much more than just a book of architectural photographs. This is a compendium of some of the most well known and not so well known structures of the 20th century, handpicked by an individual who has traveled the world in search of interesting, innovative and important structures. From monuments to bus stops, we have not seen a collection quite like this before. We reached out to Grospierre to discuss the book, his philosophy and of course Brutalism. Please find our Q&A below.
*All photographs by Nicolas Grospierre
The Brvtalist: For those who don't know, talk about little bit about what makes up Modern Forms. Are these new images or a curated selection of photographs from your vast archives?
Nicolas Grospierre: Modern Forms is, in a sense, the synthesis of 15 years of my photographing modernist architecture. I started documenting this kind of architecture around 2002, and although I have done other photographic works since then, I have kept on photographing late modernist buildings for all these years. Some of the pictures were done as a result of a deliberate travel, while others were done while I was travelling for other reasons. So that, eventually, I have gathered an archive of thousands of images, spanning 4 continents and documenting perhaps around 500 buildings. Thus, Modern Forms is a fairly large selection from this archive, as it features 183 buildings, strictly classified according to their shape – hence the name of the book.
TB: All different kinds of architectural movements are on display here. As you just stated, they are arranged by form rather than location and they range from bus stops to popular monuments. Talk a little bit about some of the criteria you used for selecting the images/structures for the book.
NG: When I started working on the book, I was confronted with buildings from different periods, different styles, different architects, different locations, even the formats of the pictures varied – sometimes square, sometimes landscape, sometimes portrait. The problem was that all these different classification methods gave very uneven results. I realized thus that an interesting criterion might be the shape of the buildings, since this was a tangible key to classify the buildings, being apparent in the pictures.
The book is therefore a visual journey though the shapes of modernism, starting from one simple shape (that of a round bus shelter), and moving on progressively to the next, and going in this way through squares, rectangles, triangles, grids, more complex shapes, and eventually ending on the first shape. As the subtitle of the book is that of a “subjective atlas of 20th century architecture”, I have chosen to loop the image sequence, as yet another metaphor of the atlas, which aims at giving the idea of the globe.
TB: This being The Brvtalist, we have to talk about Brutalism. Much of your work is focused on Eastern Europe and former Soviet countries (in fact I think I read you reside there). What is your relationship with Brutalism and what about it captivates you?
NG: I do indeed live in Warsaw, as I am in fact half-Polish half-French. And most of the pictures were taken in former socialist countries because they were countries where I had the most opportunity to travel – hence the “subjective” in the subtitle of the book, as it does not aim at being exhaustive in its geographical reach. But I would argue that Brutalism had, in the mid 1970’s until the late 1980’s (at least socialist bloc) a sort of universal reach. And this style, that of late modernism, really interests me for at least two reasons. First, formally, its bold shapes and avant-garde architectural solutions appeal to me on the aesthetical level. It is an architecture of no compromise, which does not pretend to be anything else than what it is. It can be sometimes fantastical, agreed, but it never is simulating. Second, I believe that modernism in architecture, reflects in a very dramatic way sometimes the last moment in history when we still believed in progress, that tomorrow shall be better than today. The fact that most of these buildings were that of public use, and done with no commercial purpose in mind – housing estates, administrations, cultural buildings – is quite telling. And even if we look at the architecture in the former socialist countries, which sometimes is quite oppressive, all these buildings were implemented with high ideals in mind. Whether the implementation was up to the ideals, is of course another debate, but it seems to me that Brutalism was the last style which was truly utopian – in the good and bad sense of the word. And this is what makes it so fascinating.
TB: The beauty of architecture is that is can convey so much more than just what appears on the outside of a building. So many of the structures in your book communicate the socio-economic circumstances of their regions and eras. Is it also your goal to focus on things like politics, sociology and other cultural touchstones within these photographs?
NG: I was not trained as a photographer, nor an architect, nor an artist, but I studied in fact political science, and I am happy that this is visible in my pictures. And I could not agree more with you by saying that architecture is beautiful because of the many layers of meaning it can convey. First, is of course the visual, physical aspect of a building – whether or not the shape of the building appeals to our taste. Second, a building is interesting because of the different forces at play that lead to its construction – economic, social, but also political and ideological. This in turn has an effect (again) on the way the building looks like, and eventually on the way it works on its inhabitants/visitors. In this way, a building is never simply an architectural plan put into action – it speaks with the material it is built with, and with the way the walls and roof and the proportions of its different parts work with each other. And finally, a building is also interesting because it registers time. As buildings are usually made to last at least a few decades (hopefully), one can read the history of is users inscribed within its structure. It is sometimes happiness, but it is sometimes pain. I always liked better old buildings to new ones, because I feel human effort and history on its walls. Therefore, while I did in the first place want in my pictures to focus on the exterior aspect of the building, I feel it is quite difficult to escape all these other connotations, and I think this is all for the better.
TB: You've captured so much architecture that spans both decades and continents. Modern Forms is truly a great feat and is a testament to your dedication to the craft. What would you like to do or capture next that you haven't already done?
NG: I think it is Gustave Flaubert who said that everything is interesting if you look at it sufficiently long. I think I want to look at architecture a little bit longer.
We would like to thank Nicolas Grospierre for this excellent conversation and contributing these truly amazing images. Modern Forms breaks new ground in the realm of architectural photography and makes us look at these structures in a whole new way. The book is available now from Prestel Publishing. For more information please visit: http://www.grospierre.art.pl/.
Clockwise from top left:
Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, Austin, TX, USA 2013
Residential Tower, Saint Petersburg, Russia, 2007
A look inside Modern Forms (Prestel Publishing, 2016)
Dead Sea Museum and Visitor Center, Neve Zohar, Israel 2015