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Honorary Architecture Misfits: Bernd and Hilla Becher

This was the header image for yesterday’s post on lighthouses. It’s from a book Coastwise Lights of China: an illustrated account of the Chinese Maritime Customs Lights Service by T. Roger Banister, published in 1932. You can read more about the book here. This image though, says the same thing I used 1,500 words to describe.

Lighthouses-mosaic_low

Earlier this evening, I saw this tweet that reminded me of the image above.

becher

Bernhard “Bernd” Becher August 20, 1931 – June 22, 2007), and Hilla Becher, (September 2 1934 – October 13, 2015), were German conceptual artists and photographers working as a collaborative duo. They are best known for their extensive series of photographic images, or typologies, of industrial buildings and structures, often organised in grids.

Meeting as students at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1957, Bernd and Hilla Becher first collaborated on photographing and documenting the disappearing German industrial architecture in 1959. The Ruhr Valley, where Becher’s family had worked in the steel and mining industries, was their initial focus. They were fascinated by the similar shapes in which certain buildings were designed. After collating thousands of pictures of individual structures, they noticed that the various edifices – of cooling towers, gas tanks and coal bunkers, for instance – shared many distinctive formal qualities. In addition, they were intrigued by the fact that so many of these industrial buildings seemed to have been built with a great deal of attention toward design.

Together, the Bechers went out with a large 8 x 10-inch view camera and photographed these buildings from a number of different angles, but always with a straightforward “objective” point of view. They shot only on overcast days, so as to avoid shadows, and early in the morning during the seasons of spring and fall. Objects included barns, water towers, coal tipples, cooling towers, grain elevators, coal bunkers, coke ovens, oil refineries, blast furnaces, gas tanks, storage silos, and warehouses.

Two things.

  1. “they noticed that the various edifices – of cooling towers, gas tanks and coal bunkers, for instance – shared many distinctive formal qualities.” We shouldn’t automatically assume something is distinctive because it has some formal quality. It could be distinctive because it has no formal quality. I think this is what they, but not their commentators, may have observed.
  2. “they were intrigued by the fact that so many of these industrial buildings seemed to have been built with a great deal of attention toward design”. Again, and related to the first point, not necessarily. They may have been intrigued by the fact so many of these industrial buildings seemed to have been built with no attention at all paid to design. Nevertheless, something there intrigued them. We’ll never know if it was the absence of pretentious design or the presence of unpretentious design. There’s a world of difference between those two but … some other time.

For now, I’d just like to say that Bernd and Hilla Becher were misfits’ kind of people! They were artists first of all but, through their art, they drew attention to the unpretentious beauty created by others. We need more like them.

 • • •

Bernd and Hilla Becher,

Bernd-and-Hilla-Becher.-Courtesy-of-kunstgebiet

Misfits’ salutes you!

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