The invisible geometry of our urban lives

by October 13, 2010

Photo of an unnamed prison, by Christoph Gielen

Christoph Gielen’s photographs are simple at first glance, merely aerial shots of built-up areas, the kind of view one gets 30 seconds after take-off in an airplane as it banks over a city. Yet looked at more carefully, they become less familiar. The road networks of suburban housing developments suddenly remind one of the religious scratchings in Chile’s high Atacama desert, or of the patterned torsions of Celtic knots. A high-security prison stands as stark as a moonbase, cooly and scientifically devoid of possibilities for escape. A high school turns into a white citadel, shepherded by trees and surrounded on all sides by the village that depends on it.

As Geoff Manaugh, of the estimable BLDGBLOG, wrote on the New York Times “Opinionator” blog last month:

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 human culture and the unconscious, something only visible from high above?

Visit Christoph’s site and his photos here.