PRINT January 2003

Matthew Drutt

AT A GLANCE, LUISA LAMBRI’S PHOTOGRAPHS OF architectural interiors might appear to be yet another example of the austere, depopulated spaces found in so much of today’s photo-based work. They are, however, eminently different in both conception and execution, at once deeply personal and ethereal rather than wholly impartial and concrete, suffused with a delicacy and intimacy that is diametrically opposed to the stark realism found in the works of, say, Thomas Ruff or Candida Höfer. Since Lambri initiated what has become a sustained engagement with architecture and photography in 1997, she has endeavored to strike a subtle balance between objectivity and subjectivity, creating interpretations of spaces rather than documents of them, eliciting something minimal, abstract, and nonspecific that is imprinted by memory and desire in the process.

Born in Como, Italy, in 1969, Lambri never attended art school and instead studied languages and literature at universities in Milan and Bologna. Officially she resides in Berlin and Milan, but in fact she lives wherever a project takes her, spending anywhere from several weeks to several months at a given location. She began taking pictures while traveling, first as a means to “escape” from Italy, but soon discovered an affinity for the geometrically simple voids of modernist architecture. In these spare interiors, Lambri developed an infatuation with her own relationship to architecture, memory, and perception, exploring through photographs how these celebrated spaces provoke a broad range of emotional, visceral, and intellectual responses that are often detached from the buildings’ august historical position. Since then, her inventory of projects has grown to include Le Corbusier’s apartment blocks in Chandigarh (1997), Alvar Aalto’s Finlandia Hall in Helsinki (1998), Wittgenstein House in Vienna (1999), Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Czech Republic (1999), his Barcelona Pavilion (2001), and two Richard Neutra houses in Palm Springs, California (2002). But this is only a partial list, and among her current projects she is exploring the work of Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil.

In 2000 Lambri deviated from her almost exclusive concern with buildings of the past when she embarked on a broad investigation of the contemporary works of Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. While she has since photographed other contemporary spaces—like Herzog & de Meuron’s Sammlung Goetz, Munich (2001)—her ongoing dialogue with the Japanese duo’s work is unique. Little-known outside Japan until recently (they are building an addition for the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio), Sejima and Nishizawa design structures that embody all the formal and experiential qualities Lambri celebrates in architecture: reflection and dematerialization, opacity and transparency, intimacy and expansiveness.

Lambri, too, remains relatively unknown outside her native country, where her works have mostly been seen at Studio Guenzani in Milan, but she has in the last few years appeared in group shows at D’Amelio Terras in New York, the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, and the Institute of Visual Arts, Milwaukee, and has mounted solo exhibitions at Marc Foxx in Los Angeles, Gallery Koyanagi in Tokyo, and Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, England. But Lambri’s broadest exposure to date occurred at the 48th Venice Biennale (1999) in the d’APER Tutto section, where she had an installation of still and moving images that took visitors on an abstracted, fragmentary journey through Giuseppe Terragni’s Sant’Elia Kindergarten, which she attended as a child in Como. Characteristic of Lambri’s conviction that her art constitutes a form of self-portraiture—that is, she describes herself through traces of encounters with architecture—the installation also exemplified the sublime, light-saturated serenity found in the hundreds of photographs in her portfolio, which remain as yet largely unpublished. In the meantime, her work can be seen in “Living Inside the Grid,” a group show opening at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art next month.

Matthew Drutt is chief curator of the Menil Collection in Houston. He is currently organizing “Kasimir Malevich: Suprematism,” which opens at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin this month and travels to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in May and to the Menil in October.