GEOFF MANAUGH | DATE 4/2/2014
In his classic 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, drives down into this Euclidean city of rough-edged shapelets, only to find with no real surprise that "nothing was happening" there.
She "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, of an intent to communicate." Indeed, looking downhill at these fingerprint-like whorls and acute angles of a now-absent intelligence, Oedipa experiences an "odd, religious instant."
Glyphic, abstract, and typological, German-born photographer Christoph Gielen's aerial studies of suburban landuse patterns range from the multidirectional universe of ribbons in the highway structures of Southern California to kaleidoscopic rosaries of Arizona houses. In his own words, Gielen "specializes in conducting photographic aerial studies of infrastructure in its relation to land use, exploring the intersection of art and environmental politics."
Gielen approaches his chosen locations by helicopter, performing what he describes as "meditative moves" in the sky, hovering above these sites distinguished by their absolute clarity: they are boxes, loops, labyrinths, and half-circles, exaggerations of the desert topography they are surrounded by.
His prison photographs must be made quickly, Gielen explains, 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, permissionless, and oddly guerrilla, though satellite views of the very same places remain easily accessible 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 heights.
For Gielen's suburban missions, on the other hand, his method is to start with maps, surveying the landscape county- by-county until the right, optically provocative geometries are found. To zoom in further on these arranged environments, he visits them by car, touring the sites with a real estate agent to gain 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. It is an encounter in the most literal sense: a forensic confrontation with something all but impossible to comprehend.
The Sun Belt suburbs depicted in these images are "absolutely self-contained," Gielen suggests; "many of them," he adds, are "not changing anymore." They are static, crystalline and inorganic. Indeed, many 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.
The photographic results are often stunning, as these monumental earth-shields of anthropological sprawl reveal their spatial logic from above. Seemingly drab and ecologically disastrous—even culturally stultifying—suburbs become complex geographic experiments that, for all their initial ambition, perhaps didn't quite go as planned. Many of the photos—such as the triptych Sterling Ridge VII / III / VI Florida 2009—reveal something genuinely alien, more like conceptual studies for exoplanetary settlements as imagined in the 1950s by NASA.
How strange and deeply ironic it seems that a photographic project ostensibly intended to show us how off-kilter our built environment has become—Gielen writes that "he hopes to trigger a reevaluation of our built environment, to ask: what kind of development can be considered sustainable?"— reveals, instead, that the suburbs are, in a sense, intensely original settlement patterns tiled over the landscape in ways our species could never have anticipated.
We are living amidst geometry, post-terrestrial screens between ourselves and the planet we walk upon.
Indeed, 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—diagrams of a new anthropology still waiting to be discovered?
Or are they the expression of something much deeper in human culture—some mystical spatiality of the global suburb, an emerging cult of a redesigned earth—like prehistoric glyphs only visible from high above?