Benoît Fougeirol, (Zus)

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by X Artists’ Books (here). Softcover with printed plastic dust jacket, 375 pages, with 199 color photographs, 22 black and white aerial images, 11 silhouette diagrams, and 11 maps. Includes an essay by Jean-Christophe Bailly. Design by Jérôme Saint-Loubert Bié. In an edition of 1000 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

A special edition of (Zus) is also available (here). It is divided into 11 unbound booklets, and available in an edition of 20+4AP.

Comments/Context: When we think about how the bland label “architectural photography” is often applied, we typically begin (and end) with singular pictures of great buildings. In these photographs, we are carefully shown the key features of a design that make it distinctive, innovative, or dramatic, and this visual communication hopefully takes place in a way that goes beyond simple documentation of the structure itself to capture the spirit of the whole (sometimes including the larger relationship of the building to the site). In the examples we can all bring to mind, the genius of the architect is matched (or at least intuitively understood and usually amplified) by that of the photographer.

But “architectural photography” can of course be much more than postcard ready views of iconic landmarks. In Benoît Fougeirol’s recent photobook (Zus), the idea of “architectural photography” is expanded to include a range of image types and functions, from overhead aerial views all the way down to up close detail studies, encompassing everything from the placement of buildings in the surrounding landscape to the handrails and door handles. And while most architectural photography celebrates the glory of successful buildings, Fougeirol systematically examines building projects that have failed to fulfill their promise, looking closely at their worn surfaces, vacant windows, and empty plazas, in search of elusive and complex answers to how and why these high rise developments didn’t create durably livable environments for their residents. In this way, he merges the attentive eye of an artist with the practical focus of an urban planner or housing department administrator, seeing both elegant geometric patterns and grim graffiti-covered decay.

The title of Fougeirol’s photobook (Zus) is actually an acronym – les zones urbaines sensibles (or sensitive urban zones in English). These are specifically bounded areas designated by the French government as priority targets for urban policy attention, given the problems and challenges the inhabitants are facing. There are some 700 zus throughout France, many located in the extended suburbs around Paris, and the clear plastic cover of the book is sprinkled with what look like black dots, each one actually representing (with precise fidelity to shape) the boundaries of these zus.

Fougeirol has selected 11 specific zus for his project, and has organized the resulting photobook into a series of 11 identically-structured sections. Each begins with a carefully constructed black form, its jagged edges defined by specific streets and landmarks listed in small type at the bottom of the page – it is a map-based silhouette of the particular zus, the shape then echoed by the cloud of black forms on the cover. This is paired with an actual map (in black and white), and a full spread aerial view (in black and white) of the area. So right away, Fougeirol orients us, explaining with visual precision how this zus is laid out, where the buildings lie, and how the larger environment surrounds the development in question.

The aerial view acts like a set of bookends, as it is divided, effectively enclosing a selection of color images of the zus. These can include broad views of blocks of buildings, individual portraits of specific structures, closer images of external plazas and site features, exterior studies of facades, balconies, windows, and architectural patterning, interior studies of rooms, hallways, stairwells, and other common spaces, and close up details of everything from wallpaper to security intercoms. Fougeirol deliberately telescopes back and forth, honing in on key aspects of the specific buildings and then stepping back, creating a multi-layered composite document of the zus in its current state. In each and every case, there are essentially no inhabitants, the buildings standing in eerie silence, even if partially inhabited.

Fougeirol’s photographs are reserved and understated, and although they do closely observe overgrown weeds, broken windows, trash heaps, cracked concrete, and peeling paint, they don’t play the emotional games we associate with “ruin porn”. The images are dispassionate and largely aloof, looking with frankness at the realities found at these sites. That said, Fougeirol’s eye constantly searches for an elegant kind of balance, seeking out geometric patterns, frontal clarity, and complex layering of forms, even when the surfaces of those subjects are worn and broken.

What’s fascinating about Fougeirol’s images is that they consciously place the lofty aspirations of modernism and the International style in conflict with contemporary evidence of failure. Most of these housing projects were built in the 1960s and 1970s, and many have gorgeous curves, clean lines, and intricate geometries – on paper, they surely looked bold and futuristic, filled with optimism for how forward-thinking societies could live.

And while Fougeirol does highlight the graceful repetitions of balconies, the perfect alignment of windows, and the color blocking of decorative tiles, he upends them with blackened remnants of fires, piles of discarded rubble, overgrown and unattended landscaping, or simply the messiness of actual tenants (bicycles, satellite dishes, laundry etc.). The results are consistently dispiriting, particularly in pictures that might have been beautiful but are actually sad. Spreads with paired images slightly offset make these opposites even more noticeable, where windows, balconies, and other architectural details fall into seductive all-over patterns of lines, only to be rudely disrupted by a boarded up window, a soot stain, a dangerous looking crack, or unexpectedly bright curtains.

The harsh irony embedded in Fougeirol’s (Zus) is that these buildings were constructed as carefully considered solutions to the problems of growing urban population, and now decades in the future, they require another round of bureaucratic interventions and “solutions” to recover from their failings. The images in this smart photobook are filled with the quiet devastation of abstractions forced to be real, where clever designs actually take shape as everyday misery. The results oscillate between constant tension and a kind of desensitized numbness, forcing us to wrestle with the troubling questions of how such good intentions could turn out so poorly.

Collector’s POV: Benoît Fougeirol is represented by Maria Wettergren Galerie in Paris (here). Fougeirol’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up. Selections from this body of work were also on view at Galerie Asymetria in Warsaw (here) earlier this year.

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