Nicolas Grospierre's Modern Forms series is an "atlas" of decaying Modernism


Photo essay: Swiss photographer Nicolas Grospierre has spent the last 15 years meticulously documenting Modernist architecture across five continents, a process that has turned him into an "obsessive collector" (+ slideshow).

Modern Forms photography series by Nicolas Grospierre
Space Museum and Heliport, International Fairgrounds, Tripoli, Lebanon, 2010

For Grospierre, Modernism embodied one of the "most beautiful ideals of mankind: progress". But in this exclusive essay for Dezeen, the Warsaw-based photographer discusses how his images of the movement's now dilapidated concrete-formed churches, Soviet housing estates and various saucer-shaped structures show its failure.

Grospierre has whittled down his collection to create the book Modern Forms: A Subjective Atlas of 20th Century Architecture, an encyclopaedic volume of closely cropped architectural images arranged by form rather than location.

Modern Forms photography series by Nicolas Grospierre
Sanctuary of the Divine Mercy, Kalisz, Poland, 2012

Its launch coincides with an exhibition at the Architectural Association in London between 30 April and 28 May 2016.

Modern Forms is the synthesis of 15 years of my photographing Modernist architecture. However, the origin of this set of photographs was quite tortuous.

When I started to photograph architecture, I would focus on one particular building to try to document it extensively and make closed series of photographs dedicated to these particular buildings – some of which are found in Modern Forms.

I made a few series on some Soviet Modernist structures, which seemed to me extraordinary on many levels, and socialist Modernism constitutes perhaps the core of my architectural photography.

Modern Forms photography series by Nicolas Grospierre
Balneological Hospital Water Tower, Druskininkai, Lithuania, 2004

Later, I moved on to a different type of photography, using the photographic medium in more conceptual and spatial works. But I continued, in parallel, to photograph Modernist buildings on a regular basis, although I did not consider these photographs to be specific series and they would usually end up in my drawer.

Looking back at this practice, it looks as if I have been photographing Modernist architecture intensively, sometimes even obsessively, in the manner of a collector feeling the unrestrainable urge to add yet another piece to his collection.

I realised a couple of years ago that, in this manner, I had constituted a huge photographic archive, spanning five continents and which I estimate to contain the photographs of about 500 structures.

I thought therefore I should try to give sense to this archive. The problem was that the buildings photographed were all different: different styles, different architects, different functions, different countries. Even the format of the pictures was different: sometimes square, sometimes landscape, sometimes portrait.

Modern Forms photography series by Nicolas Grospierre
Residential Tower, Saint Petersburg, Russia, 2007

It came thus to me that the key to this archive should come from what makes the buildings different, i.e. their shapes. I therefore imagined that a good way to organise the archive would be to create a gradient of forms, starting from one, arbitrary form, and gradually moving on to the next, until all the shapes have been exhausted and one comes back to the form which started the cycle.

Since the subtitle of the book is that of an atlas, I felt it necessary to make the series come back to its starting point, the loop in this context being the adequate metaphor of the cyclicality of any atlas.

Modern Forms photography series by Nicolas Grospierre
Yellow Housing Estate, Warsaw, Poland, 2005

The gradient is a visual device which I like particularly, as it gives order to things which would otherwise look chaotic in their profusion, and also enables to perceive the varied ways visual phenomena develop.

In this particular case, it had the advantage of showing something that perhaps is sometimes overlooked: the universality of Modernist architecture, and how this architecture used a language which can be found in practically any country, in spite of the erroneous opinion to consider one style of architecture absolutely typical of one country.

In this perspective, the pride stemming from the fact that one building is found in one country is simply absurd, because a very similar building could be located anywhere else. This aspect is, among other things, one of the reasons why I feel so attracted to Modernist architecture.

But apart from this Modernist cosmopolitanism, I feel, first and foremost, that Modernism in architecture was the physical embodiment of one of the most beautiful ideals of mankind: progress.

In architecture, it meant to create buildings that would make a better life for the common man. We know, of course, that this ideal failed.

Modern Forms photography series by Nicolas Grospierre
House of Soviets, Kaliningrad, Russia, 2011

And not only did it fail in its political or ideological dimension, but it even failed practically, as many of these buildings proved to be utopian and sometimes alienating, in their everyday use. This is perhaps especially true in the architecture of the former socialist camp.

But to my eyes, this does not disqualify progress, on a philosophical level. It is perhaps because progress was an erroneous ideal from the very start, that makes it even more beautiful.

There is great generosity in this ideal, the belief that man can perfect himself, that has been lost and I must say I long for the time when we could still believe in it. Paradoxically, all that remains of this, in architecture, are the Modern forms. For me, their boldness, and expressive shapes, are the reflection of the boldness of this optimism.

Modern Forms, from this perspective, can be read as a fascination for Modernism, bearing in mind its downfall, but definitely also its beauty.

  • spadestick

    There’s good Modernism and then there’s bad Modernism. Please don’t lump it altogether and declare that it has failed.

    • I agree. The West Virginia Culture Center is what I prefer to call “good” Modernism:

      It was constructed in 1976 during the administration of former governor Arch Moore, so it was sometimes jokingly referred to as “Arch’s Bunker.” But most people are still pretty fond of it.

    • Piotr

      It has failed as an idea to build a better living environment for the ordinary citizen, which was the core thought of the movement. It certainly has improved the standard of living, but at a price of displacement, alienation and deterioration of living, vibrant urban structures in favour of the bleak, soul-sucking ‘nothing-ever-happens-here’ settlements.

      It has failed, because many of the best Modernist pieces are luxurious residences and high-rise towers, both aimed at the powerful and wealthy and as far from the ‘ordinary citizen’ as possible.

      It has also failed because it gave the developers a green light to build boring, soulless boxes and label them as ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’, shifting the paradigm from ‘it should at least try to look pleasant’ to ‘meh, whatever, I will still sell it’.

  • Trim

    Poor societies, cities and people that have had to endure most of these structures. A lot of these structures were forced on people and cities by communist and fascist regimes who basically build these buildings in order to strip the country, town, people etc., of their “old” cultural views and beliefs.

    • spadestick

      The usual diatribe well scripted.

    • Eilardus

      The functional alternative, where hundreds of millions of people are forced to live today, is shanty town slums more primitive from a planning or public health perspective than Roman cities from 2000 years ago.

  • Le Corb

    I actually think these buildings are incredible and I’m not sure Modernism did fail in its goal.

  • Kay

    Shame that he did such an incredible job of documenting all this glory but then deduce it has failed. I think we have failed Modernism not the other way around.

    We chose capital and excess over community and modern social living. Societies in the west chose isolationism on some level, the idea that what is mine is mine thus negating the communal aspect. But Modernism is also the embodiment of flexibility. What makes social housing in the Eastern Block any more modern than the beautiful case study houses of Palm Springs and Malibou?

    At the end of the day, Modernism is a complex school of thought that spanned nearly a century. To deem it a failure is nothing but a gross generalisation, which is striking coming from this man who did such an incredible job. I can see Oscar Niemeyer’s gift to my hometown prominently displayed too, beautiful.

    • Piotr

      ‘What makes social housing in the Eastern Block any more modern than the beautiful case study houses of Palm Springs and Malibou?’

      The central idea of Modernism – better life for everyone, not just the wealthy suburbanites.

      • Kay

        This isn’t the central idea of modernism.

        • Piotr

          If you view it as an aesthetic. But aesthetic cannot fail.

  • HeywoodFloyd

    What about these images exactly demonstrates that Modernism didn’t fail? I think the comments here are mostly celebrating and defending interesting form, not capital M Modernism necessarily.

    The churches and the water towers are interesting, possibly even great, but I hope at this point we could all agree that the greatest failure of Modernism was in regards to housing. An nowhere is this failure more evident than in the social housing of the former Soviet bloc countries.

    • scotsims

      The failure was the Government’s treatment of citizens, cramming them into poorly-designed low-quality boxes, not the aesthetics.

    • stourleykracklite

      “Why are you wrong? Because you are wrong” is really not much of a point.

  • karl john

    If Modernism is a failure, the main failure is that it is icy cold, sterile, bleak and grey. It may look lovely as a sketch, but would anyone really want to live in it?

    • Kim Boe

      Yes they would, if it has been cared for and not left to decay. There are a lot of Modernist buildings around the world that thrive.

  • stourleykracklite

    Gorgeous forms, but poorly constructed and even more poorly maintained. Go ahead, blame the architect for those failings. It feels good (as we warm our stinky toes by the fires in our hobbit houses) and costs less than paying for quality construction and maintenance. The ultimate fail of Mairs’ argument here is the appearance of a sidebar story on the Met Breuer, which is long, strong and gettin’ the friction on.