Grundformen

Yes, Grundformen. That’s the German for ‘basic forms’. For Christmas I was given a marvellous book, the English version of ‘Grundformen’ a book of photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher. Here’s the front cover of the book:Grundformen becher

The foreword (by Gunilla Knape) opens as follows: ‘Bernd and Hilla Becher are two of the most influential visual artists of our time. Since the beginning of the 1960s they have documented industrial buildings whose architecture is totally dictated by their function. The Bechers’ passion for these industrial structures has resulted in photographs that are a priceless treasure of cultural and technological history from a vanishing industrial era…. Their subjects evince an unexpected and controlled beauty…’.

If you put ‘Grundformen Becher’ into Google images search, you’ll find many, if not most, of the images from this book so you’ll be able to see what I’m talking about. I was thrilled to bits to receive it, particularly as it’s completely new to me. Apart from a six-year period in my young adulthood spent in the south of England (mostly London), I’ve spent all my life in the north where, I suppose, I’ve absorbed the architecture of the industrial revolution without much noticing it. Some of these forms were present in the background to my childhood, especially the pithead winding gear, several examples of which are shown in this book. As an adult I moved to Lancashire where I’ve been for many years, and where mills predominate. The first industrial form I scrutinised very closely, however, was the gasometer. When I studied drawing at Blackburn college we’d sometimes draw or paint what we could see from the windows on the upper floors of the Victoria building. What we could see was the steep valley sides covered in mostly terraced houses, a surprising amount of green from trees, the tops of the moors, churches and mosques, and some industrial buildings including old textile mills. The feature that drew my eye, again and again, was the gasometer which, as I looked more and more at it, took on its true form as an artefact of great beauty. How pleased I was, therefore, to discover several examples of gasometers in this book, and to realise that other people, i.e. the Beckers, found them as compelling as I do.

The photographs of these massive forms are all in black and white. Most of the objects photographed are very large indeed, as you can see from the occasional house or tree in the background. They are often strikingly beautiful, minimalist and strictly functional in design. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am drawn to geometry, system and line and so the attraction of these forms for me is unsurprising. The forms in this book are presented with only the briefest of description and no commentary. But there is an underlying human element that is hard to ignore. These are not just a collection of geometric forms; they suggest their own underlying narrative history, and in most cases this is a sad history of human exploitation. What would it be like to work in or near such places with their dirt and dust and in the shadow of the massive architectural forms? Some of my earliest memories are of the pit town in the North East where I was born. The things I remember best about it are the pervasive smell and the polluted air and atmosphere. There were no doubt positive human elements in these places – the camaraderie and the sense of community and purposefulness. But there’s no getting away from the fact that mining coal is a desperately difficult and dangerous business. I appreciate the beauty of the engineered forms, but at the same time I can’t avoid reflecting, rather sadly, on what they represent.

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