hubert blanz

c-print, diasec on aluminium, Hubert Blanz, 2007

The Photographer as Architect

Florian Rötzer

It’s only been in the last few years that we as Internet users have had the possibility of undertaking virtual trips in the real world – or at least with images of the real world. With Google Earth, all Internet users have been given access to pictures taken with cameras from airplanes and surveillance satellites, and thus a zooming gaze down on the world. Ever since then, what previously could only be seen by the military and intelligence agencies – or to a limited extent by air passengers – has become a new view of the world that also changes our perception of architecture and the city.

The precise descent from great heights down onto a location that is zoomed in ever closer quickly became established as a stock gesture in television news programming and the cinema. In so doing, we learn an orientation away from schematic maps to a flight over locations, immersing ourselves in three-dimensional representations of cities and landscapes. Merely the form of movement in virtual space has captured our fascination, and is also exploited by architectural simulators where one floats through rooms and walls still awaiting construction. We are fascinated by the dream of flying, moving weightlessly, being an angel.

With navigable airplane and satellite images, a new spatial dimension has been opened up to us. For architecture, the “fifth façade,” which aesthetically had been more or less neglected, has taken on a new importance since becoming subject to views from above. If they seek to be inviting and attractive, if they are to represent a brand and want to capture attention, buildings and other constructions will now be forced to design the usually boring landscapes of the fifth façade, just as the other façades. It’s no longer enough to just erect tall buildings: church steeples, minarets, or skyscrapers. With the gaze from above, the vertical dimension shrinks in importance, loses the role of the sublime, and other structures become meaningful. Since people have started more and more to virtually wander about the world, viewing landscapes, settlements, and buildings before they travel – indeed, whether or not they travel at all – they need to be designed for the gaze from above and made interesting, or perhaps in some cases hidden from it.

When we travel or wander in virtual space, the images of our world also change. When exploring real space, the now usually digital camera is still used to create photographs, but in virtual space the photographic gaze is also changing. We still “shoot” pictures – as in “screenshot” – but these pictures are no longer exposed, but pixels are copied with software and pasted into visual programs for which they serve as raw material for further treatment. These programs are virtual cameras without a lens, with which things and scenes are photographed in a virtual visual space, again transformed into pictures.

Already in Digital City and Geospaces, Hubert Blanz has reconstructed the city with circuit boards, making fascinating shots of the foundations of these digital cities, showing that there is a great similarity between digital and urban worlds. The principle of both is to accelerate communication and interaction between buildings or electronic components by creating increasingly narrow and multiple forms of networking and connection,  intensifying communication and interaction among components by grouping them in the smallest area possible. This results in highly complex, artificial architectural landscapes that have a strange beauty all their own. In the next step, with his series Frigolite Elemente Blanz freed the architecture from the urban infrastructure, distributing the elements made out of Styrofoam in a surreal manner across landscapes, abandoning them to the landscapes from which they otherwise isolate themselves as artificial islands.  

This recombination of buildings ultimately reached a new level in Blanz’s Four Elevators. Blanz dissects architectural photographs into distinct components, creating dizzying new constructions that do not exist. Photography thus approaches simulation, but a form of simulation that is captivating in its photographic realism and opens a realm of hyperreality. After working with isolated buildings, Blanz turned to the urban infrastructure, networks of streets and highway bridges, then in the same way bringing the gaze to look upon a hyperreal and sublimely cold seeming world of connections, connections that usually coagulate in empty space to form sculptures.

For his new works, Blanz takes the logical next step, changing the perspective once again, while at the same time assigning photography a new function. Here, he has traveled around the virtual visual world as a digital photograph, and “shot” in real space pictures of intersections and junctions from many countries – but of course without taking a step away from the computer and the realm of technical images. Like a photographer, he needs to choose and frame his picture, but the images are caught by way of “copy and paste,” a basic element of the way digital data is treated. In contrast to photography – digital photography as well – for photographers of the virtual world all settings made before shooting fall by the wayside, so that here the changing of the initial image becomes the actual photographic activity, much more so than in traditional photography.

Blanz thus carries out a whole series of manipulations to generate new, as yet unseen images that are built up layer for layer by copy and paste almost like a painted image, creating confusing, three dimensional labyrinths of networks of streets and bridges at the foundation of urbanity. As in his earlier work, the photographer here becomes an architect of a simultaneously imaginary and documentary space of “real” iconic elements that are represented from above, but are also tipped over, turned, and intersected with one another. The urban circuits on which the bits or bytes still disturbingly seem to circulate in the form of frozen vehicles that at some point actually moved connect nothing, the data highways become urban architecture in which time stands still, we lose our orientation, and the busy transport of information is frozen. Here, photography recalls its original act: killing the living by shooting it, while at the same time attesting that something was there.

Translations: Brian Currid and Wilhelm Werthern, Berlin

The world is at our feet in the digital world

Ruth Horak

"The new view is the view from above" 1) – this not only applies to the media's-eye view of the world (since the night shots of the Gulf War, the monitor images from CCTV and the satellite images in the web,  the view from above has become more familiar to us), but also almost consistently to Hubert Blanz's photographic and film work.

The modern view from above was still clearly connected with the human body – for a view from a skyscraper the body had to be manoeuvred into extreme situations, which is how photographers such as Alexander Rodchenko achieved equally extreme angles. In contrast, our current view from above is steered by the technicisation of the world: a view, aided by image-recording systems and detached from the human body, gives rise to a particular perspective through computer navigation tools and zoom functions.

From this, our vicarious world, through which we can navigate with the help of satellite images and geodata software, Hubert Blanz takes his material which he compresses layer by layer into utopia-like image textures – into conglomerations of runways and motorways, in a density which used to be suggested at best in science fiction films. The almost unlimited visual access to this world entail an enormous spatial expansion, as was perhaps perceived at the time of the invention of photography, when in the 19th century it was suddenly possible to see precisely detailed realistic images of the most remote places in the world.

The fascination with imposing man-made structures – earlier the pyramids, today the gigantic constructions of airports and motorway junctions – persists. More fascinating still is that they exist not only vicariously, but also in individual reality – as evident from the cars on the roads, and especially from the traces left by wind, weather and the general marks of time, which make the runways, for instance, imagic elements at the same time subject to the influences of the real world.

1) Florian Rötzer: The Photographer as Architect in Hubert Blanz Slideshow, p. 58-67, SpringerWienNewYork, 2009.

Translation: Gail Schamberger, Fiona Schamberger