Refuge: Five Cities by Bas Princen at Storefront

Building Design, June 2010, Review

With globalisation, modern cities are becoming increasingly anonymous. We look at our identikit high streets, the march of McDonald’s across the globe and the decontextualised shopping malls as much at home in Mumbai as Houston, and assume our cities can only be the worse for it.

Dutch photographer Bas Princen sees something quite different. Through his lens, the everywhere yet nowhere places in the developing world become unique, intriguing landscapes.

For his terrific show in New York, Princen has focused on the informal development along the fringes of five Middle Eastern metropolises – Amman, Beirut, Dubai, Cairo and Istanbul.

The project grew out of an interest in refuge camps and gated communities and each of the new fragments of city in these photographs appears as a bounded, distinct and isolated edge world.

In Ring Road, Cairo, a shepherd leads his flock past a cluster of buildings, from low rise to 10 or so storeys, in a near deserted section of city. Although the buildings are clearly of modern construction, with their perfect composition they resemble a single ancient monument in a biblical landscape. It’s hard to be sure whether all are half-finished or some completed, but it looks less like a scene about to be inhabited than one abandoned.

Cooling Plant, Dubai, has a similar mythical quality. A group of migrant workers in blue overalls line the road before a sleek black cube. Although it’s most likely an example of the ubiquitous concrete slab and column construction, the box has the sheen and solidity of a chiselled block of granite and the gravitas of a fortified sanctuary. These men, part of the transient, global workforce, are building their own Kaaba.

In Shopping Mall Parking Lot, Dubai, a single building like a solitary hill town, sits within the barren landscape of a car-less asphalt car park; the white lines demarcating empty parking spaces suggests a multi-lane highway leading towards it.

Princen studied architecture and urban design, and his work contains frequent architectural references, from the Tower of Babel to Malevich’s Architektons. He likes to connect with the work of other architectural photographers too, so Ring Road Cairo has echoes of Albert Renge Patzsch’s photograph of Zeche Bonifacius. The processes that drive urban transformation interest him just as much, and he explores ideas about the interplay of the global and local, of modern and vernacular, particularity and sameness.

There are plenty of clues that this is the Middle East, but all these edge worlds are impossible to locate specifically without the titles. Assembled as a whole though, they become the elements within Princen’s own fantasy city. This is his imagined global met-ropolis patched together along the margins – and there’s more than a hint of science fiction about it. Globalisation, with its merciless inevitability, has fed the imagination of science fiction writers. Like the constructed image of the human face of the future – a morphing of all races into one face – the common sci-fi future city is a replicated everyplace – a fusion of Sao Paulo, Toronto and Hong Kong. The lack of people in Princen’s future fantasy heightens the sci-fi allusion. In his sprawling portrait of a section of Cairo given over to rubbish and recycling, there’s no human presence, just the mountains of waste they’ve left behind.

Princen’s work is exquisitely beautiful with its elegant compositions, warm sandy reds, hazy blue skies and striking colour accents. He doesn’t document the places he visits so much as create otherworldly abstractions of them. He compares them to architectural models, saying the framing and work in post-production are key to the effect.

This exhibition is the latest phase in a larger project that’s leading Princen to explore shifting developments at the peripheries of burgeoning cities in China, America and Russia. In the meantime, if the forces of globalisation carry you to the margins of New York City before June 26, be sure to make your way downtown to Storefront.