Universes for your imagination to inhabit: the architectural photography of Hélène Binet

“It’s like being a musician in front a big audience. You can’t get it wrong. In that instant, you have to be the best of yourself, you bring your mind to a place, not to lose that unique moment.” Hélène Binet is explaining her commitment to working with the venerable techniques of analogue, as opposed to digital, photography, of carrying around heavy equipment, loading it with expensive film, of putting her head under the dark cloth at the back of a large-format camera, of composing the photograph with the upside-down image it offers on its glass screen and then developing and printing the results in a dark room.

It’s striking that she compares her work with dynamic performance, as one of its salient qualities is its stillness, but it’s also revealing: for Binet, who grew up in a family of musicians, her images are also about liveliness and actions. It’s just that these things are implied rather than shown, out of shot or behind the scenes. She takes photographs of life that you can’t see.

Hers is a niche job. Photographers of buildings, although sometimes well known in the architectural profession, tend to be more anonymous and invisible to the wider public. They’re assumed to be bearers of information, performing the practical task of telling us what buildings look like. It’s rare for an institution such as the Royal Academy to give them a solo show. But Hélène Binet is not your average architectural photographer. She has an uncanny genius for finding in mute construction materials something of the souls and desires of the people who assemble them into buildings and of the people – that is to say you and me – who might inhabit and visit those buildings.

She animates the inanimate. She gets stone and concrete to say something about the human condition. You can look at her photographs as information about their subjects, or as beautiful objects in their own right, but also as universes for your imagination to inhabit.

Binet has, through her singular and determined vision, made herself into an influential figure in contemporary architecture, offering to anyone who cares to look powerful insights into the places where we lead our lives, into what makes somewhere special or memorable or strange. Some of the most celebrated architects in the world, such as Zaha Hadid, Peter Zumthor and Daniel Libeskind, have sought her out. Her response is always to discover essential aspects of their architecture, while also allowing her images their own identity. It is very much not PR. She collaborates with these architects as opposed to working for them.

Born to Swiss and French parents and brought up in Rome, Binet has been based for the past 30 years in north London. Her studio is a high-ceilinged, first-floor room in a former steel workshop, an industrial-bucolic enclave reached through a yard where virginia creeper engulfs rusty remnants of metalwork.

On the floor above, she and her husband, Raoul Bunschoten, an architect and teacher of architecture, raised their family. On the floor below, a metalworker, potters and an artist ply their trade – the place is a small community of making. From here, she and her assistant, Jasmine Bruno, laden with suitcases of gear, head off to photograph architecture around the world. Sometimes, architects commission her to shoot their projects; sometimes, she chooses her subjects herself.

Binet’s manner is serious, with flashes of pleasure at things she finds wonderful. She is intellectual and thoughtful, but also immersed in the physical and material properties of her trade. A portrait of her by Bruno, which shows her squatting on top of a table so as to get a better look at some prints, captures this aspect of Binet.

In Rome, she says in her not-quite-perfect English, “it was part of the up-growing to be touched by space and the history of space. Architecture was always important.” She first learned the techniques of her trade in the city’s Istituto Europeo di Design, but her teaching there had an emphasis on fashion and consumer goods – “they wanted me to go to Milano to photograph cars and fashion models” – that she eventually found unsatisfying.

She worked for a while in the opera house in Geneva, shooting rehearsals, performances and back-of-house life. “It was magic. I had the key of this huge house full of costumes and instruments.” But in the end, the work of capturing rapid movement and then processing the results through the night so they could be published as soon as possible was not for her. “I am not a fast person. I am meditative. I like tripods.”

In Milan and Venice, in the mid-1980s, she met Bunschoten and Libeskind. The latter’s first and most significant building, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, was still many years from being realised: he was teaching students and creating conceptual work, such as an installation called The House Without Walls, a constructivist nest of sticks and planes. Bunschoten was working with the American architect John Hejduk to realise a temporary construction, called The Collapse of Time, outside the home of the Architectural Association in London’s Bedford Square. Binet captured both these short-lived works on film.

Hejduk was as interested in writing, drawing and making installations as he was in realising permanent buildings. He was the sort of man who, while never achieving the glory that someone like Hadid found, inspired those who knew him and his work, Binet included. “I barely spoke English,” she recalls, “and I didn’t know anything about architecture. I’m still digesting the experience – he talked about poetry, about narrative, about, you know, that struggle of the human being… as a young person it was absolutely a gift.”

Her images of his installations, often taken at night, have a dream-like quality, conjuring mysterious but precise little constellations of shapes where it’s hard to read scale, depth and the sources of light. When in 1988 Hejduk did complete a building, an apartment block in West Berlin, Binet chose to fill much of one shot with a scruffy car park in front of it, whose trailers and mobile cabins had some affinity with Hejduk’s crate-shaped structures, as if they were all serving some slightly melancholy circus. “Now I love it,” she says. “It’s like a set for a Wim Wenders film. It’s really that time in Berlin.”

She realised, with the help of meeting these architects, “that when you photograph a building you enter a world where you can question who we are and what we do and why”. She also had an introduction to the Architectural Association, which at the time could claim to be the most famous architecture school in the world, a place where the energy and cosmic dust of creative experiment was coalescing to form the superstars who in the coming decades would design defining art museums, opera houses and skyscrapers.

In the UK, Binet started photographing projects for Hadid. Later, she documented Zumthor’s Thermal Baths in Vals, Switzerland, one of the most compelling architectural projects of the 90s, where walls formed of stacked-up, thin-cut quartzite rise to calm but mesmerising effect from the water and vapour of the baths.

The Royal Academy’s show will include the results of Binet’s collaborations with these architects, some of which played out over years and decades. It will also exhibit photographs of works from the past, for example Le Corbusier’s monastery of La Tourette near Lyons, the classical gardens of Suzhou near Shanghai and Nicholas Hawksmoor’s massive baroque churches. There will be the retreat that Jørn Utzon, architect of the Sydney Opera House, enraged by battles over its construction, built for himself in Mallorca. There will be the beautiful landscaping and paving that the architect and painter Dimitris Pikionis created around the Acropolis in the 1950s and the enigmatic geometry of the 18th-century Jantar Mantar observatory in Jaipur, India.

The rooms of the exhibition, says Binet, will convey different moods. One will be “more nocturnal and meditative, about who we are and how do we understand where we are on Earth”, so it will include the observatory and La Tourette, where rhythmic lines of light and shadow are “really guiding you through life”. Another will be more “explosive, about the energy of making”, as seen for example in Hadid’s gravity-defying work. Another will be “somehow more earthy, also more luminous”, with an emphasis on stone and masonry. Here will be the thermal baths, Mediterranean works such as Utzon’s house and the Acropolis paving and the Suzhou gardens.

There’s a fascination in Binet’s photographs with shadows and light and how they fall on materials such as weathered stone or rough concrete. Expanses of them, which are usually in black and white, are often dark, with lit elements emerging from their depths. Your eye is drawn first to the bright spots, before finding that there’s more going on in the shadows. Most of her coloured photographs have such a limited range of hues that they look almost monochrome. When she does burst into bright primaries, as with the yellow, blue and red of some circular La Tourette skylights, the effect is all the more powerful.

There’s a strong sense of geometry and a liking for oblique lines that direct your eye out of the frame of the shot. There are echoes and mirrorings of shapes, as when a damp stain on a Suzhou wall happens to match the shape of a nearby tree trunk or when the curve of a Mallorca umbrella pine complements a semi-circular opening in one of Utzon’s walls. She finds rhymes of similarity and difference and natural and human.

And then there are her images’ powers of suggestion. Figures are rarely shown, but signs of life are: she might focus on steel reinforcement on a building site or on the ways in which jointed pieces of wood are cut with and against the grain, which brings to mind both the natural history of timber and the human hands that worked it. She likes what she calls “the intimacy of making”, the wear on pavements and the marks of construction. Sometimes, you might find cigarette butts or a crack in the masonry or specks of dust in her images of prestigious works of architecture. These imperfections “allow you to get into a building… suddenly a very idyllic landscape becomes very real”.

When she photographs a staircase, says Binet, she would like you to be “transported to other stairs you have seen”, with whatever memories and associations they might have for you. One of her photographs of Can Lis, Utzon’s Mallorca house, focuses on its eroded masonry and a single step down from its terrace, which together evoke both “the energy of this angry old man who wants to live with rough stone” and the descent to the sea down a nearby cliff. So this view of a detail of the house contains something both of the life of its maker and of the place where it stands.

“I am never alone,” says Binet of her seemingly quite solitary profession. She means that she always has for company the unseen makers and users of these buildings.

Binet’s liking for suggestion comes partly from a realisation that it’s impossible to photograph an entire building – better to capture an aspect and let it imply the rest. Her fascination with the secret liveliness of minerals also manifests the love of performance and action that she describes when she is talking about music. A related quality comes from her medium as well as her subjects, from her use of film, working with her hands in a dark room.

“With analogue you feel a life,” she says, whereas digital, which allows you endlessly to correct work on a computer, creates homogeneous perfection. With film, for all her attention to detail, flaws might occur in exposure or focus. “Error is an amazing human value,” says Binet. “It takes you somewhere you didn’t know.”

Her interest in other people’s lives helps explain her appeal to a range of strong-minded individuals in what can be an adversarial-going-on-cantankerous profession. There are some architects who work with her who can’t stand the approaches of others who also work with her. But so long as there is spirit and intent in their work, she gives them all equal respect. Dynamic Zaha Hadid was a long way from contemplative Zumthor, whose attitude was closer to Binet’s, but her photographs honour them both. Hadid told her that her images of a given building revealed aspects that helped to inspire the designs for the next one. Hejduk said that he saw in her images “the first dream he had” when conceiving the project. So, as Binet is pleased to note, her photography includes both the inception of one architect’s creative work and the completion and continuation of another’s.

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