Wolfgang Tillmans

Wolfgang Tillmans

Unlike typical representations of buildings in photography, which are often carefully composed, idealized, unpopulated, and adjusted for perspective to capture the intentions of the architect, in Book for Architects the Berlin-based artist Wolfgang Tillmans captures a cumulative portrait of contemporary architecture that is familiar in both its beauty and failure.

For Book for Architects, a two-screen video projection on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time since its debut at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, Tillmans photographed in, on, and around buildings in 37 countries on five continents. The videos cycle through still images in pairs and sequences of over 450 buildings, sometimes captured gloriously at sunset, others are decaying, disintegrating, broken. He presents a tangled mess of wires and pipes and patched-up ceilings as thoughtfully as he documents a stream of daylight that transforms three colors on a wall.


The images are composed carefully by Tillmans. Parts of cities, rooms, and streetscapes layer over one another, while series of similarities or connected ideas emerge as beautifully mundane vignettes of bathrooms, staircases, or corridors. There is a chemistry—a sentient meaning and interrelationship between the images that can only be articulated by a sense of honesty and frankness about the built environment.


Original in both content, format, and scale, Tillmans’ presentation of architecture as layered images reflects a notion of the collaged city, the jutting and jarring of buildings and streets, as well as the very composed editing and sequences of time and space. The conceit to present the work on perpendicular walls and to design the seating structure as a staggered series of benches, close to the projection, creating an intense and intimate space, is also a vivid experience in which to view the work. The pace and scale of the images also reflects a contemporary condition of the culture of viewing and seeing images.

The totality and accumulation of the photographs explore everyday experiences of architecture. Some images appear to be taken from a moving train, others were made in airports, stairwells, hotel corridors, and offices. There are moments of strangeness, wit, poetry, and beauty as well as disappointment and occasionally despair. Although the hand of an architect, and even the city or country, is not always apparent, Tillmans presents a personal view of contemporary architecture that is recognizable to everyone.

Book for Architects is on display in gallery 919 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until July 5, 2015.

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