Exponential Modernity

[Summer 2003]

by Jacques Doyon

In this issue, we delve into modern and vernacular architecture in countries, regions, and cities on the margins of the industrialized West. Architecture, the landscape, and the city are captured in a distanced way.

No ethnographic inquiry, no deep documentary research, few interior photographs; instead, the emphasis is on façades and overall views of urban or rural landscapes. Architecture and its environment form the image before the eye of the foreign observer.

This observer’s distance has a variety of qualities. For Stéphane Couturier, the façades of buildings literally form a screen: they obliterate the environment in which they are rooted and reflect to the observer an emblem of an omnipresent modernity. For Marik Boudreau, the figure of the watchtower that looms through the series embodies a gaze of domination and control, notably in images of buildings overlooking favelas. Arni Haraldsson invokes tourism by following a group of “blue hats” visiting Jordan and by pointing out how the landscape is arranged and certain old quarters are aestheticized.

In Israel, South Africa, and Jordan, Haraldsson dwells on elements, details, and perspectives that reveal the fractures in the architectural and social environment. He shows the ancient Arab village of Lifta, in ruins, against the background of the modern development of the ultra-Orthodox suburb of Ramot; the various appropriations of the Via Dolorosa as it moves through the quarters of different religious communities; the state of relative dilapidation of many modern buildings in Tel Aviv, the mecca of modernism of the 1930s; the folly of Sun City, in South Africa, built on a Las Vegas model; and more. His photographs operate to reveal the underlying structure of the urban and landscape environment. Jordan Strom’s long interview with Haraldsson on these issues sheds light on a photographic thought process that is attentive to nuances.

The Miradors series by Marik Boudreau is intended to be a “photographic essay on erosion.” It makes manifest the social fault line that marks Brazil, and many other countries. The geologic metaphor is an apt comment on images that are both too familiar and unfamiliar. It is this same figure of erosion that explains the inclusion, in a piece essentially devoted to Brazil, of images of the cuevas, the once-inhabited caves of Andalusia, from where one takes a glimpse, perhaps more defensive, at the environs. These caves, which no longer seem to be inhabited, bespeak a habitat based on inventiveness and necessity, qualities that also characterize many of the slums and the vernacular architecture in Boudreau’s images. The well-written text by André Lamarre captures well the subtlety and sensitivity of this research.

The Villes invisibles series, by Stéphane Couturier, emphasizes buildings as an emblem of a modernity that is spreading across the planet and that replaces local particularities with a homogenization of ways of life integrated into the global network of functionality and exchange. In many of these images, the façade and its rational grid literally fill the frame, while in others the buildings are repetitive in their utter sameness, with variations that have little significance as distinctive marks of a place and its culture. At the same time, Couturier continues to produce images of sites under construction, which he has been making for many years, that capture the moment when the gutting of the soil of the city reveals traces of the site’s history. More recently, Couturier has become interested in landscapes developed with the same utilitarian and functional logic, of which the image of Tijuana is an example.

The relevance of the work of these photographers is in fact to remain at a distance from the many pitfalls of the image, taking a step back when faced with conventional images of realities that are largely foreign to them.