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Irmel Kamp @ Patricia Sweetow

Sportshouse Gosset, Brussels (Belgium), 2004, Architect- Adrien Blomme, built 1934-35, gelatin silver print, 20 x 24”

How many art forms can you name that feel as radical today as they did when they were invented?  Bauhaus, also known as The International Style, is one that immediately springs to mind.  It originated in Germany in the ‘20s, and its global influence has never waned.  Its ideals were summed up in four slogans: ornament is a crime; truth to materials; form follows function; and in Le Corbusier's description of houses as "machines for living."

Most of the early structures built in accordance with these strictures were destroyed during WWII.  Over the past 20 years, the German photographer Irmel Kamp has documented those remaining in Europe, plus a great many in Tel Aviv which, during the war, became a haven for forward-thinking European architects deemed “degenerate” by the Nazis.  Some 4,000 structures from the ‘30s and ‘40s are said to stand in that city alone, and it was Kamp’s photographs of them that helped get the “White City” as it subsequently came to be known, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.

What gives Kamp’s pictures their power?  She operates more like a connoisseur than a cool documentarian.  Her approach has been likened Bernd and Hilla Becher’s, but the comparison is misleading.  Where the Bechers created true typological studies, shooting nearly identical subjects from identical angles, Kamp seeks out singular buildings and photographs them from vantage points that emphasize their eccentricities. Where form may have followed function during the Bauhaus’ heyday, in Kamp’s views, it’s often the other way around: function is subordinate to form, and that’s all to the good.  
Haifa, Architect and date unknown, 1996; gelatin silver print, 24 x 20 inches, 32.5 x 28.5”; Listi Nad Orlici (Czech) Theatre, 2004, Architect- Kamil Roscot 2004, built 1934-5, gelatin silver print, 20 x 24
Take her image of Sportshouse Gosset in Brussels.  Designed by Adrien Blomme in 1934, this circular structure, with it protruding rings, gives off an interplanetary, space-age vibe, not unlike Seattle’s Space Needle.  It could have come from The Jetsons — had that futuristic cartoon series been made 30 years prior.  In 2004, when Kamp made the picture, the Sportshouse was in serious disrepair.  Yet despite graffiti and broken windows, the design feels otherworldly, fresh.  It points to a future that feels as if it’s still unfolding.
Other examples of form flouting function?  Signage for the Cinema Puccini in Florence announces the building’s purpose, but its dominant feature, a slender multi-story tower, seems to have little to do with the business of showing movies.  I also wondered about the glassed-in spire that tops a Dutch gas station and it how might assist the delivery of petrol to motorists. Adolph Loos’ 1910 injunction against ornamentation apparently held no sway with the architects of these buildings.  Another recurring trope highlighted by Kamp is early 20th century architecture’s appropriation of steamships, the primary conveyance for transatlantic voyages.  Kamp shoots these buildings from low angles to emphasize how the “prows” cut into cityscapes and how their monumental length and girth sometimes dwarfed the surroundings. Her photo of the Institut National de Radiodiffusion in Belgium is one good example.  So is her shot of a deteriorating building in Haifa.
House Guiette, Antwerp (Belgium), 2002, Architect- LeCorbusier, built 1926-27; gelatin silver print, 20 x 24”

Kamp also understands the connection that then existed between painting and architecture.  To demonstrate, she places her camera before exterior walls, recording images that reduce three-dimensional volumes to flat planes. Her point-blank shot of a house built by Le Corbusier in 1926, for example, isolates a spare geometric pattern: parallel rectangles at the center of a wall punctuated by a small circle in the upper right-hand corner – a nautical motif that remains in currency to this day.  Likewise, Kamp’s photo of a Czech theater, in which interlocking rectangular and cylindrical shapes are raked by a shadow, describes the classic Bauhaus approach of mixing and matching disparate forms.  Images like these sum up modernist aesthetics and aspirations as well as any painting you’ll see from Mondrian or Malevich. 

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay Kamp is this: When I left the exhibit I started seeing the Bauhaus-influenced architecture everywhere I looked: walking through Yerba Buena Gardens toward SFMOMA; driving east across the Bay Bridge, past that gaggle of high-rise condos that pop into view after you enter from the First St. onramp; and seeing anew, on the Oakland side, that squat brick fireplug of a building that appears on the right, just before the 580 turnoff.  I wasn’t as if I’d never noticed these things.  But seeing Kamp’s pictures gave me a heightened appreciation of treasures that lay “hidden” in plain view — all of them, in some way indebted to innovations that took root nearly a century ago.
Irmel Kamp: “Modern Architecture” @ Patricia Sweetow through July 27, 2013.

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