Review: Lost in Transition by Peter Bialobrzeski


Book Reviews, Photobooks

Architecture is a form of art, just like photography or painting, and as such it says something about its time and about us. We, as spectators, often don’t see it as art - and how could we, if we are surrounded by, say, MacMansions? But who thinks of art in a Thomas Kinkade or Anne Geddes store? But then once we are exposed to what rises above the forgettable we just know that we are looking at a work of art, and not just that, we can usually even walk inside. Almost by construction (pun unintentional, but not unwelcome), contemporary architecture also contains an element of transition, an idea of showing us the world of tomorrow, or maybe more precisely what we hope the world of tomorrow might look like. Using architecture, we express our desire for a better future - and maybe that’s the reason why in the US - unlike in Europe - older architecture is often simply neglected and left to decay: Who wants to maintain the old, when they can get something new?

Given an opportunity, cities and often whole countries (occasionally, they’re identical) embrace the chance to erect the most fantastic new buildings. I went to visit Berlin in the early 1990s, and the central part of the city (Potsdamer Platz), formerly a wasteland with land mines and the Wall, had been transformed into a gigantic construction site, where the government and major corporations were trying to outspend each other with ever more fancy buildings. Now, we can witness similar developments in developing nations that have a lot of funny money to spend - see, for example, the oddly absurd Dubai, another Las Vegas in another desert (this one minus the vices), or look at Shanghai or any of the other Chinese cities going for yet another leap forward, this time a capitalist one.

And then there’s always the in-between, where the new meets the old, or where the new meets the unused. These are the areas we usually avoid, because there is not much to be seen there - or so we think. Enters Lost In Transition by Peter Bialobrzeski. Its title, of course, is a play on words that refers to the movie “Lost in Translation”. Lost In Transition contains images taken in 28 cities all over the world, a fact that ultimately will bewilder any reader who looks at these images. Since none of the photos carries a caption, since there are no people in most of the photos, and since all of the architecture is so similar in style, there are very little pointers that give away the locations. Even most of the signs - and the images on advertisements - look the same! It seems we are indeed lost in some sort of transition, or maybe we are witnessing something universal - the desire for a better future? Globalization? The replacement of a long tradition of local architecture with something futuristic?

It is striking how cold many of these places look like - the photos were taken at dusk, which makes for that final, crisp light of the day. Modernity hardly ever tries to look organic, and there always is this aspect of power or force in our attempts to create modernity: It would seem that modernity without awe is simply not modernity at all.

I think Lost In Transition can be read or viewed in many more ways than the ones I alluded to. For those interested in German photography, Lost In Transition has a lot to offer. People interested in architectural photography will find it interesting, and they might enjoy the comparison with, say, Robert Polidori’s work. And I’m even tempted to point out that a comparison with a book that at first glance would appear to be so different, Paris - New York - Shanghai by Hans Eijkelboom, is instructive. Strip away the superficial differences (photos of places versus photos of people), and discover some of the same phenomena at play.