New York

Bernd And Hilla Becher

Sonnabend Gallery

I am not sure that the Bechers realize how peculiar plainness looks. August Sander is their model, and Sander understood the force of plainness: its implication of socialization, to the point of rigid conformity. All the buildings the Bechers show are militantly plain. Form does not follow function in them, but overwhelms function with its ordinariness. The Bechers are not so much documenting architecture, whether industrial or domestic, as showing how devastatingly ordinary it can be. At the same time, they show—perhaps without realizing it—how plainness is self-defeating, comes apart at the seams, as it were, and becomes bizarre. They create a typology of buildings, enforced by the groupings of images. Even in the single images shown at the Dia Art Foundation, the structural typology jumps out at once.

In 21 Industrial Facades, France, Belgium, USA and 12 Framework Houses, Southwest Germany, both 1989, what counts is the type of structure, not the function of the building. Indeed, the type of structure is merely a signifier of use: why should domestic structures utilize timber framework, especially in this day and age? Here, the larger, implicit point of the plain-faced photographs emerges: they are about social physiognomy, rather than about architectural physiology. The question they raise is not why a certain use necessitates a certain type of structure, but what the structure means in itself. Their implicit answer is that each building is socially associated with a different attitude to life. The building, in effect, codifies this attitude, just the way a face does. The Bechers are interested in the character implicit in a facade, just the way Sander was in the character implicit in a face. Thus, a framework building implies that the ideal home is rustic in character—that country life is preferable to city life. The blank face of the industrial facade suggests the concealment of an anonymous world, in which one is simply an instrument. Indeed, again and again the Bechers make clear that the buildings are public personae, and that a public persona has only two possible modes of being: false personalization (the framework house) and depersonalization (the industrial structure). Their works ruthlessly demonstrate the logic of this truth.

At the same time, many of the framework houses are coming apart and/or have odd surface flourishes, and many of the factories are obsolete in design and have been abandoned. Efficiency is clearly not the issue in either case. Through pointless details and built-in obsolescence and deterioration, the human touch appears—and it is a perverse touch, a weird little assertion of human value. I cannot help regarding these pictures as macabre monuments to human self-distortion in the name of social reason — all-too-human structures that are ridiculously social.

Donald Kuspit