This blog is designed to highlight the diversity of views and news stories on urban energy topics that appear daily in the media. They are intended to provoke discussions on how cultural, geographic, political, and institutional influences shape the way energy markets operate and energy policies are made in cities around the world.
Christoph GielenA Phoenix-area retirement community.
In his novel “The Crying of Lot 49,” Thomas Pynchon describes a suburb that is “less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts — census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway.” The novel’s protagonist, Oedipa Maas, “looks down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth,” Pynchon writes, “and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. The architectural system unfolding in front of her held, according to Pynchon, a “hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning.”
See Christoph Gielen’s images of communities in Arizona and Nevada.
Christoph Gielen, a German-born photographer, has been documenting similarly hieroglyphic settlements from a helicopter — including prisons and suburbs, seen here — for the past five years. His chosen sites are distinguished by their clarity: they are boxes, loops, labyrinths and half-circles, exaggerations of the desert topography around them.
The prison photographs must be made quickly, Gielen points out, snatched during the aerial equivalent of a drive-by: otherwise, identification marks on a lingering helicopter tail might be noted by prison officials and questions would inevitably result. His visits are thus precise and oddly guerrilla, even though they are technically legal, and satellite views of the very same places remain easily available to the public.
Through Gielen’s lens, outdoor exercise yards become nothing more than cages, cramped prostheses on the backs of the prisons proper; whatever freedom or physical excitement such spaces were meant to offer looks appropriately absurd from such high above.
For Gielen’s suburban missions, on the other hand, his method is to start with a satellite search, surveying the landscape county-by-county till the right, optically provocative geometries are found. To zoom in further on these arranged environments, he occasionally visits them by car, dressing up as a potential home buyer and touring the sites with a real estate agent, gaining insight into the neighborhood’s aspirations: how it sees itself, or, at least, how it is portrayed in the marketing pamphlets and sales pitches of local residents. Far from humanizing the subject, this adds a further layer of abstraction; the landscape’s aesthetics, or lack thereof, become economic calculations. Gielen’s interest in keeping these locations anonymous only furthers this alienation.
The Sun Belt suburbs depicted in these photographs are “absolutely self-contained,” Gielen suggests; many of them, he adds, are “not changing anymore.” They are static, crystalline and inorganic. Indeed, some of these streets frame retirement communities: places to move to once you’ve already been what you’ve set out to be. This isn’t sprawl, properly speaking. They are locations in their own right, spatial endpoints of certain journeys.
Looking at Gielen’s work, it’s tempting to propose a new branch of the human sciences: geometric sociology, a study of nothing but the shapes our inhabited spaces make. Its research agenda would ask why these forms, angles and geometries emerge so consistently, from prehistoric settlements to the fringes of exurbia. Are sites like these an aesthetic pursuit, a mathematical accident, a calculated bending of property lines based on glitches in the local planning code or an emergent combination of all these factors? Or are they the expression of something buried deep in the human unconscious, something only a person high above in a helicopter can uncover?
Christoph Gielen, left, is a photographer who specializes in the intersection of art and environmental politics. Geoff Manaugh, the author ofBLDGBLOG and “The BLDGBLOG Book,” is a former senior editor of Dwell magazine and contributing editor at Wired UK.