Light Lines: The Architectural Photographs of Hélène Binet

Binet’s photographs find beauty in unexpected places

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Sergio Musmeci (1926-1981) is a relatively unheralded engineer-architect in the Italian mode. Like his more famous contemporary Pier Luigi Nervi, who designed the Palazzo dello Sport in Rome, Musmeci’s work carried the torch for a formally exuberant Modernism which began with Le Corbusier. 

Thanks to a pedagogy which insists beautiful solutions are the goal of engineering — and to a construction industry which views concrete as intrinsically Italian, given that the Romans made concrete from volcanic ash, lime and seawater — the Italians kept the flame of grand gestures in concrete alive, even as Miesian uniformity morphed into the corporate modernism of the International Style in 1950s America. 

One of the key pieces in this excellent RA exhibition of achitectural photographer Hélène Binet’s work is a triptych of her pictures of Musmeci’s masterpiece: the bridge over the Basento River near Potenza in Italy. Below the road-deck of the bridge clings an astonishing, undulating armature of concrete which, as if with the splayed fingers of a hand, both supports the deck and rests on the ground. Binet captures the structure, described by Rinaldo Capomolo as a “mutation of a structure in tension, indifferent to the force of gravity”, as it emerges out of the wild greenery: a bridge between two worlds; the natural and the man-made; the real and the imaginary. 

One of the tryptich of pictures of Sergio Musmeci’s Ponte sul Basento, Potenza, Italy, 2015, by Hélène Binet

It’s easy to see why the late Zaha Hadid, the British architect, was so intrigued by this strange bridge. Indeed, the fact that Binet’s pictures of the bridge hang near to those of Musmeci’s is the posthumous rendering of a promise to a friend. Hadid and Binet became close when the latter’s husband Raoul Bunschoten studied at the Architectural Association in the 1980s. They worked together after the encouragement of Alvin Boyarsky, that institution’s singular director and artistic matchmaker. 

Binet found beauty in unexpected places and encouraged the architect to even
greater formal complexity

Hadid, for whom Binet began to work, had always wanted to see her buildings exhibited alongside Musmeci’s. The Italian engineer’s masterpiece suits the architect’s search for form as much as it suits Binet’s photography: a concrete structure defined by an utterly unique space at its heart; an architecture that is seeking to escape homogeneity.

Binet photographed the construction of Hadid’s first building proper: a fire station on the campus of the Swiss furniture manufacturer, Vitra completed in 1993. Binet was pregnant at the time, causing consternation to the Swiss construction team as she clambered over the exposed reinforcing bars, trying to capture the stark contrasts between grey concrete and metal reinforcements. 

Zaha Hadid Architects, Vitra Fire Station, Weil am Rhein, Germany, 1993

Constraining herself to black and white silver gelatin prints and focusing on spaces between structure, her photographs declare their own limitations. This is not the
whole architecture, they say. The pictures informed Hadid’s own understanding of her work. Binet found beauty in unexpected places and encouraged the architect to even
greater formal complexity. 

All photography of architecture is promotion to some degree. Given that Hadid did not build in the United Kingdom for over a decade of practice, the pictures also defined her to a British audience, and importantly, to her peers, particularly those she had studied with at the Architectural Association. 

Mere custodians of carbon expended many years ago

Binet’s pictures are a delicate balancing act. To detractors, her work is either not literal enough or just an interpretation of others’ creations. This exhibition, assiduously curated by Binet and the RA’s architecture curator Vicky Richardson, makes a successful claim for her photography to be considered not just as art but as a powerful critical tool to consider the merits of Modernism — and conversely, and again inadvertently, to highlight what is slowly disappearing from our architecture. 

Binet’s success was founded on her work for architects such as Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid who emerged from the Architectural Association, and others, including John Hejduk and Peter Zumthor who were determined to re-engage with the fertile contradictions of Corbusian Modernism; its urgency and its sophistication; its rawness and its complexity; the promise of artistic freedom and public service in a manner in keeping with the philosophic mode of the times. 

Her pictures of Libeskind’s single outstanding work — the Jewish Museum in Berlin — are the acme of a cultural moment which privileged the fragment over the grand narrative: the philosophy of postmodernism in architecture rather than postmodernist architecture. It’s impossible to think of the building without Binet’s pictures of it, as it is Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus Field Chapel or his Therme Vals. 

The Bruder Klaus Field Chapel in Mechernich, Germany by Peter Zumthor. Background: the Jewish Museum in Berlin by Daniel Libeskind

Binet’s triumph, and the great strength of this exhibition, is the way she used subsequent commissions by museums such as the Deutsches Architekturmuseum to dive into history and explore the interests in light and shadow that she shares with her earlier paymasters. The eighteenth-century Jantar Mantar observatory in Jaipur is a series of 18 structures built by Jain Singh II to observe the movements of astral bodies. For Le Corbusier this site was key in his search for an architecture that could be vast but also humane. 

Her pictures of the Couvent Sainte-Marie de la Tourette explore not just how we achieved this but also show that the primary material of modernism is not concrete, steel or glass but light. The pre-eminent relationship key Modernist buildings tend to have is not to city, history or nation but to the light of the sun. 

Some of these buildings seem extraneous: the final room of three, which explores history and materiality, contains pictures of Hawksmoor’s work which lacks the gorgeous depth and tactility of, say, her details of Dimitris Pikionis’s landscaping at the Acropolis. The latter is an image which might suggest we are still building in a continuum with the Ancient Greeks, but, sadly this is not the case. 

It is a reminder instead that our current generation of architects see themselves not as contributors to the material development of civilisation, but as mere custodians of carbon expended many years ago. The great Finnish theorist Juhani Pallasmaa provides a key wall text in this exhibition. Architecture he says is “an extension of nature into the man-made realm”, which provides “the horizon of experiencing and understanding the world.” 

The sad corollary of this otherwise wonderful exhibition is that architecture is unable any longer to provide this datum and is now overrun by both history and nature.

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