Written review by
Photo director of DU magazin, Switzerland
For this review I am looking at the photographic results produced by Vincent Buller, a photographer from Delft in the Netherlands. The images are the result from a 4-day Eyes in progress workshop on the industrial and urban landscape led in Paris by Mark Power at the end of April 2012. Spreading out the photographs of Vincent Buller on my floor I am drawn more and more into this ghost-town presented in the prominent flat and bleak light that creates a palette of almost exclusive grey (concrete and concrete reflected in the mirror-glas of the highrise buildings) and green (shrubs) with some spots of red that represent vestiges of the human need for security and order (street signs, fire alarm buttons, tape for blocking building sites).
One starts to pose questions of whether this place really is real. It would fit as another example of the so frequently quoted study Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1995) by the french anthropologist Marc Augé on non-places as places of transience that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as "places".
In this well composed series by Vincent Buller we encounter different layers of appropriation and reappropriation of and by the landscape, the clash of design and non-design. The lifeless paths and streets structure the image space and create visual arcs that amplify the character of an otherwise hermetic architecture that mirrors both in the literal and philosophical sense. The arc-like forms are contrasted by vertical accents, most obvious in the image of the light-pillar/clothes sculpture that fuses the otherwise separated human/non-human domain.
These are man-made environments yet almost without any human traces (only three images contain human figures at all, one a car). In these images humans are shown as miniature figurines in transit on bridges of which only one is not hatched, i.e. allowing direct contact of humans and nature.
To reflect on the images it is also important to delve into the history and social geography of the commercial area of La Défense. One has to point out the fact that this is also a political landscape and in a sense also an emperor-like gesture by two generations of the french political and business class willing to imprint their statements of political and corporate ambition onto the capital of France, without having to touch the historic center of Paris. The iconic building Grande Arche (we see it behind bars in one of the pictures) serving as the new Arc de Triomphe.
So what we witness in the pictures then is the result of a gigantic urban planning mission that was started in the late 1950’s and that on the ground confronts 310,000 square metres of flagstone and sidewalk with 110,000 square metres of greenery.
According to the official website this district uses the space of 1.6 square kilometers of which 3,500,000 square metres are used by the offices of 1,500 businesses (of which 14 belong to the national top 20 companies) employing approx. 180,000 employees.
On the other hand La Défense has only 20,000 residents but 2,600 hotel rooms, parking spaces for 25.000 cars and 210,000 square metres of shops, including the Quatre Temps Shopping Mall as the largest in Continental Europe.
One can in a positive way feel the influence and inspiration handed on by the artist giving the workshop. With a similar bleakness of the light-situation and the rudimentary human presence in the case of 26 Different Endings and the representation of an icon of architectural megalomania the Millenium Dome in Canary Wharf, London in the case of Superstructure both excellent photo-books realized by Mark Power.
In my view La Défense can be seen as in many respects comparable to Canary Wharf in that both are spaces where the Public/Private dichotomy has been overrun by deregulation of later forms of hyper-capitalism. The photo series by Vincent Buller represents a subtle and convincing visual commentary on this unique constellation of an urban landscape.