from: Georg Aerni – Slopes & Houses, Wien, 2002
Every decision leads [...] to a particular order. It is for this reason that we want to illuminate even the mere possibilities of orders and explain their principles.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
When I was a child in Zurich, a view of Paris drawn from a bird’s-eye perspective hung above my bed. Before I fell asleep, my gaze would sweep from the Opéra to the Sacré-Cœur, swoop through the narrow canyons of the boulevards, and glide along the Seine, past Notre-Dame and the Eiffel Tower. Every row of buildings, every museum, every church, was clearly discernible. Georg Aerni’s photographic Panoramas parisiens reveal the same attention to detail, though they disregard the tourist magnets. They consist entirely of boulevard façades, which the artist has captured with the precision of a surveyor. Hugo von Hofmannsthal spoke of Paris as a «landscape built of pure life», and in a commentary on Proust Walter Benjamin wrote: one «recognizes that the old romantic feeling of landscape is disintegrating and a new romantic view of landscape is unfolding, one which seems more like a cityscape, if it be true that the city is the real sacred ground of flânerie». For a year Aerni strolled without destination through Paris, developing the form of representation that would fit this urban structure.
When Baron Haussmann, prefect under Napoleon III, set out to give the budding cosmopolitan capital a new visage (1853–1870), he was guided primarily by considerations of safety, traffic, and hygiene. Still, he was always careful that the furrows (percées) of the boulevards he carved through the rundown quarters (in a completely random manner, as Le Corbusier commented) also enhanced the aesthetic appeal of the cityscape. Thus, many Parisian streets flanked by unbroken rows of building façades open out onto squares studded with monuments and churches. They seem all the more magnificent through the sense of perspective that draws the viewer in, past the homogeneous rows of buildings. Aerni masked this dynamic of the street space by choosing to focus on frontal views of the façades. He took these shots from the opposite sidewalk during the years 1995 and 1996 in the early morning hours when the streets were still devoid of cars, provided side streets or construction sites didn’t interfere with his work. Moreover, he divided the buildings and blocks, which varied in length, into an even rhythm. In the context of the exhibition he lines the images up, matching the precisely adjusted sky-gray barite prints so that the façades at the same depth in each image insure horizontal continuity. All elements in front and behind, however, suggest absurd breaks and inconsistencies and jar the viewer’s sense of space. Here Aerni’s work method, which involves neutral lighting and uniform format within a series, becomes clearly evident. In Aerni’s Panoramas parisiens the frontal view prevents any kind of hierarchy. Attic and ground floor levels are given equal status. The different heights of buildings and widths of plots are the result of the prevailing building laws, which in turn are the expression of the particular power relations of the time.
While Aerni doesn’t apply the same bird’s-eye perspective as the abovementioned cartographer, the view he shows us is just as omnipotent. No pedestrian, much less a motorized vehicle operator, can register a street segment of up to 1300 feet in length at a single glance. It comes as no surprise that the first «city portrait» to be completed by Aerni, a trained architect who has chosen to settle down in Zurich, was of Paris (a first attempt in Berlin along the former ribbon of wall had to be abandoned because the rapid reconstruction of the city caught up with him). After all, nineteenth-century Paris – a city, that is more fickle than the human heart, as Charles Baudelaire put it – did not become merely the capital of photography – born of the spirit of the panorama and diorama invented by Daguerre and the birth place of documentary photography thanks to Atget. No, Paris was also the very paragon of modernist urban development. «Until one has taken this into consideration, one cannot comprehend the structure of so many modern capitals, such as Berlin, Madrid, Rome, or Barcelona», Aldo Rossi commented. Thus it is hardly surprising that for his next series Georg Aerni traveled to Barcelona regularly (on the Talgo night train) in the winter months from 1996 to 1998.
The Xamfrans series arose out of another search for a concept that would reflect an essential aspect of the existing urban structure. Xamfrà is the Catalan expression for corner house. As opposed to other checkerboard cities, all the corners in the Eixample quarter are beveled, producing a small square at each intersection. Eixample is not just the name of the new quarter that was built after the city walls were razed, but it is also the Catalan term for (urban) expansion, which began in Barcelona in 1860.
On early Sunday mornings while the rest of the city slumbered, Aerni walked the streets, systematically seeking out the approximately 2000 chamfer façades of Barcelona, using his bellows camera to capture a selection of more than 150 xamfrans. Unlike in Paris, where to determine camera position he had to rely on the length of his step – 37 inches – and the chalk marks he left on the ground, here in Barcelona this task was simple, thanks to the inch precision of the
Ildefons Cerdà i Sunyer, initiator of the Eixample, which was designed between 1855 and 1859, and founder of the academic field of «urbanism», wanted «to make something that in practical application would be useful to humanity». Not only did Cerdà elaborate a still valid theory of urban planning that incorporates economy, sociology, politics, and philosophy, but in his campaign to assuage the housing shortage he succeeded in developing a non-hierarchical – albeit later to be revised by others – urban plan that met his democratic demands. Even Aerni’s aesthetic of typology profits from this egalitarian principle. Like the Panoramas parisiens the Xamfrans suddenly juxtapose the most diverse quarters, enabling us to make comparisons we never could have done on our own.
In correspondence with the urban features of each city, the artist develops a specific presentation form for each «city portrait», a form which incorporates the features of the respective exhibition spaces as well. He is interested in more than just the documentary rendering of reality. Rather, with this installative presentation Aerni seeks to discover the abstract order of the city that the eye otherwise registers only fleetingly. He might not come close to matching the positivist Cerdà’s claim of performing something that in practical application would be useful to humanity, but Georg Aerni opens our eyes to our quotidian surroundings, to those we tend to ignore most, and above all he does so in a way hitherto utterly unknown to us. – What more can we expect from Art?