Roland Fischer’s Façades: Architecture’s Closed Language


Lyle Rexer




To perceive the distance between the divine and the human, it is enough to compare these crude wavering symbols which my fallible hand scrawls on the cover of a book, with the organic letters inside: punctual, delicate, perfectly black, inimitably symmetrical.

Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel




Many years ago in New York there was a restaurant whose walls were papered with large black-and-white aerial photographs of many of the major cities of the world: New York, Paris, London, Buenos Aires, Rio, Mexico City, Caracas, Chicago, Los Angeles. Every time I visited I would examine this topography of urban expansion with intense fascination and growing despair, for the cities inspired in me a sense of grandeur but also a more unsettling recognition that they were all the same, that the forms of experience they embodied were fundamentally similar, shaped by identical developments and permitting none of the variations that language, climate, history, and physical geography once promoted. The modern city was the herald of global capitalism, radically homogenizing desire and marginalizing difference.

The phenomenon has expanded and intensified in a world burdened by its own growth. The survival of human beings has become unimaginable under any other system, but also, probably, impossible under this one. Hong Kong, Beijing, Guangzhou, Dubai represent additions to the global map of modern architecture without its originating myths. The contemporary city is forged not as the members of the Bauhaus imagined it could be, as a design challenge adumbrating social renovation, but as the expression of economic rules, relations, and technological applications. The result is the same in all places: rather than the designed entities of Chandigarh and Brasilia, the entrepreneurial expansion of Shanghai, a different form of rationalization, the chance outcome of local but universally consistent decisions. In practice, the contemporary city has proven to be less unitary in form due to levels of economic inequality unimaginable to the progressive imagination: Luanda, Mexico City, New Orleans, the transborder megalopolis of the Bight of Benin.

Architecture is implicated as the form-giving process of this hyper-rationalized but unpurposed urbanism, imposing a global visual Esperanto. In this description, the efforts of individual architects, however radical their dissents or visionary their gestures, appear as centrifugal events that mark the periphery of much larger constellations, the way poetic expressions mark the border between the vast instrumental uses of language and idiosyncratic nonutilitarian ones. As he has with the genre of the portrait, photographer Roland Fischer has brought the analysis of a formal “language,” in this case of modern architecture, to a terminal point.

Historically photography grew up with the appearance of modern architecture, that is, the replacement of imperial styles (and vernacular practices) by reproducible, scalable, decontextualized industrial formats. Photography’s initial role was twofold: to memorialize and archive the obsolete past and to promote if not celebrate the forms and activities of the emergent metropolitan world. Photography was the only possible mode for both roles. First and foremost, its reductive two-dimensionality and black-and-white tonality emphasized the formal regularities and repetitions of the new forms. Second, its reproducibility guaranteed the proliferation of archives for a variety of administrative uses. Finally, as many critics have pointed out, its monocular perspective emphasized (or reinscribed) the rationalized geometry of utilitarian control that would make possible more efficient and productive urban settings.

Beginning in the 1970s, photographers, artists, theorists, and architects themselves began to analyze these developments and subject them to sophisticated visual and linguistic critiques. From Bernd and Hilla Becher’s formal catalogues of defunct industrial structures through the “New Topographics” of American photographers, the neutrality and large-format detail of work by graduates of the Düsseldorf Art Academy, up through the digital dystopias of Beate Gütschow, a host of contemporary works have highlighted the connection between formal language and architecture as an ideological instrument. Fischer has explored this connection at its root.

His strategy is simple but its implications are far-reaching. The broad question Fischer appears to be asking is: in what sense do the generalized forms of architecture encountered repeatedly in urban settings around the world constitute a language, that is, a system of communication that operates according to rules subscribed to by its users but is independent of any specific content or situation and not subject to interventions by individual agents? To frame this investigation, Fischer has followed a basic insight of Surrealism (and of American photographers of the 1920s to 1960s) in decontextualizing his subjects, radically cropping the in-camera view to emphasize formal properties and reduce anecdotal information. A photographer such as Aaron Siskind or Minor White would have pursued such an approach in order to open up psychological, linguistic/poetic, and spiritual associations for the viewer. The photograph would form a bridge between subjectivities, a bridge whose traffic was initiated and largely controlled by the artist.

Fischer, on the other hand, emphasizes graphic form and pattern in order to reduce associations. He does not seek to fashion a sign-less, nondenotative concrete photography, along the lines of Gottfried Jäger’s work (and that of many younger photographers). He has no interest in purifying his images or returning to a prelinguistic, prereferential Garden of Eden. Instead he seeks to focus undivided attention on the visual subject. Only slight temporal traces appear in the telltale shadows that mark some façades, and evidence of artistic subjectivity is limited to a few slightly angled points of view. Otherwise the views are direct and rigorously flat, isolated from any background information. Because pattern dominates, it is impossible to place the façades materially, historically or geographically. They have no authors, periods or locations (except as indicated by titles). Fischer’s subject is not the building or the structure but the surface appearance only, and not the entire surface but a part, enough to identify a motif. The images give no indication of the size of the façades, and the photos themselves further obfuscate any original scale by the flexibility of their presentation: they could be printed literally any size (just as the buildings themselves could be any size). Freed (nearly) from any responsibility to account for their subjects, the images hover at the point of pure abstraction, displaying phoneme-like elements in systems of organized repetition.

The path Fischer has pursued in portraiture sheds light on the goals of his façades. In that genre he has experimented with both large-format single images and massive grids called “collective portraits.” More important, however, has been the photographic treatment of the subjects themselves. In choosing monks and nuns for a series from the 1980s, he renewed discussion of the idea that photographic portraits could provide access to the interiority of the sitter or for that matter lead to any conclusions about anything beyond appearances, on the other side of the picture. The photographs had a remarkable impact, especially on critics such as the American Michael Fried, precisely because they refused to decide the question one way or another. His mostly elderly figures in their religious habits bear the lines of age on their faces, the topography of apparent experience, but no life events or mental states can be inferred from the surfaces. Viewers can speculate on the individual decisions that led these people to join their orders; but sealed by their vocation their lives are enigmas that hide in plain sight.

Begun a decade later, the series of pool portraits shot in Los Angeles and later in China offered far less of their subjects, less even than the deadpan portraits of Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth. Fischer immersed the subjects in water up to their shoulders and posed them devoid of emotion and shorn of identifying accoutrements. If one intention of the Düsseldorf School was to grant the subjects autonomy from the photographer’s (and the audience’s) projections, Fischer pushed past that political position to liberate their appearances from any pre-existing conditions of reality. Especially with the Chinese pool portraits, there is so little about which to speculate that we are thrown back on the elements of the face, or rather the elements of faciality, of photographic facial appearance already minimized (to Western eyes at least) by the selection of young, unblemished Asian “façades.” The slight variations in pose seemed to constitute a kind of lexicon or inventory of attitudes without corresponding emotions.

The overall effect of Fischer’s portraits is to revise the concept of the photographic sign and to reconstitute the viewer’s relation to the object. As Julia Kristeva suggests about abstract painting, Fischer’s portraits elaborate a signifying process that analyzes the components of what was originally given as the foundation of representation. Or, put another way, the portraits thematize aspects of photography that conventions of the image had made invisible. They pave the way for the rigor of the façades.

Buildings as actualities can only be inferred from their façades, which function as synecdoches, parts that hint at the larger wholes. But the larger wholes are simple multiplications of design elements and demand our attention not merely as formal objects but as elements of communication. A strict linguistic approach is less useful here than a semiotic one. What and how do the façades communicate in these photographs? First of all they present a code, but strictly limited. They indicate industrial forms of construction based on precise and consistent repetition, and these forms can be applied across a wide range of cultural and geographic settings—Le Corbusier’s Modulor. The patterns are individual but not in any sense local or vernacular. Closely related to the idea of repetition is their non-organic, geometric structure. There is no way to measure them against a human scale through the evidence of handwork or spontaneity, or for that matter through gestures of individual architectural style or material (“that’s a Gehry ”; “that’s a Hadid”). Nor do they recall the patterning of medieval Christian and Muslim decoration, whose goal was to lead the eye toward infinity. If infinity is celebrated in today’s forms, it is the infinity of an expanding network of financial institutions capable of raising such structures almost overnight. Fischer’s achievement here is to show us in essence the dominance and continuity of modern architectural practice. At the same time, the reduction of the façades to their design properties reveals once again the cognate visual practices of concrete art from diverse positions over the last eight decades, from the Constructivism of Mondrian to the fisicromia of Carlos Cruz-Diez, the Neo-Concretism of Lygia Clark, and the Op art of Bridget Riley, to the typographic paintings of Tauba Auerbach, among others. Taken together they seem mere illustrations of Johannes Itten’s Basic Course in design at the Bauhaus. Fischer’s images echo them all.

Modern architecture—corporate commercial and civic architecture—has absorbed and recycled these positions to produce aesthetic gestures devoid of spiritual ambitions. They delimit a space for the aesthetic in architecture (and society) that is purely visual. The common fantasy of previous avant-garde movements in art and design was the belief that abstraction in whatever form was a means and measure of liberation. Aesthetic/artistic movements could divorce themselves from or transform economic forces, and in the process of remaking consciousness, remake social relations. This turning away from obdurate (class-based) reality in favor of aesthetic theory has been endlessly criticized, but Fischer, like Gerhard Richter, underscores what the world looks like on the other side of abstraction. With Richter’s recent stripe “paintings” (and with those of Wade Guyton in the United States), the entire history of modern painting’s various ambitions comes to a close in the purging of any possibility of content-related gesture. These are large design objects that exist to occupy a specific economic role and physical place within collections of like objects, similar to a currency that is printed in different colors but is stored in bank vaults and spent in the same old way.

Similarly, Fischer’s façades imply that what occurs inside the contemporary office building has no perspicuous relation to the patterns presented on the outside except that in some sense both are abstract, the former dealing with data management and capital flows, the later with the “flow” of design through the circuits of urban expansion and consumption. Again, this has nothing to do with whether the individual buildings might be perceived as beautiful, inspiring, necessary, or even transformative in a limited sense. The Façades series (ideally Fischer would multiply them to near infinity) communicates the message of their own ubiquity, interchangeability, and replaceability. They form a perfected language, infinitely diverse in its vocabulary but limited in its syntax. They reflect a perfected present without a past, the end of history without an apocalypse.



Lyle Rexer is a critic, curator and lecturer.  The author of many books and articles on photography, he is a core faculty member of the School of Visual Arts in New York.

He lives and works in Brooklyn.



Lyle Rexer, „Roland Fischer’s Façades: Architecture’s Closed Language“ in Roland Fischer „Façades“,  published by Hirmer, Munich 2015