On the sublime of the ordinary

How can a photograph make us experience architecture? Every textbook states that it cannot. It is argued that the fourth dimension, proper to this art form, turns any attempt, from an essay to a film, unfruitful or, at least, insufficient. A building must be perambulated. In order to truly understand space – the one embraced by the structure and the one that encompasses the construction – you need to let it act upon you. 

Koen Van Damme’s architectural photography challenges the established idea that self experience is the only way to entirely perceive architecture. His work reveals the essence of each building with a profundity that transcends first-hand sight itself. It guides our vision, shapes it, and compels us to stop in front of what would be certainly missed. Instead of love at first sight, he produces a type of aesthetical connection solely achieved with long-lasting companionship and intimacy, the one that only too many visits to the same building allow: the recognition of beauty in the routine, the regular dialogue of forms at each hour of the day; the identity given away in those apparently insignificant details that familiarity makes noticeable. This is the reason why he excels at capturing interiors more than exteriors. Both the work and its author are about profoundness, insight and reservedness. He avoids extravagance and artificiality not because of some Modern Movement creed, but as a devotion to a silent simplicity that resembles medieval spirituality.

The spectacular or extraordinary tends to draw and consume all our attention and, thus, distract us from the intrinsic and basic nature. The extraordinary is sporadic and, in this sense, obvious. It does not imply much effort to be discovered or appreciated. The distinctive character of Koen Van Damme’s photography is his ability to uncover the beauty in what seems at first ordinary, common, banal, minor. His work makes it possible to aesthetically experience those daily architectural elements that we never notice: a plain wall, a predictable corner or a basic staircase. After becoming the subject of one of his photographs, they lose their function and gain a depth at no time suspected. Our previous relationship with that building changes, as if we have seen its true colors for the first time. Place Koen Van Damme in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim and you will see it from a point a view that you did not even know existed. Take him to photograph a mere pharmacy or post office and you will never wait in line in the same manner.

His photographs are not frozen moments nor do they constitute representations (i. e. mediations that offer a glimpse of the essence). They are encapsulations of the fundamental nature of each architectural existence, resulting from an extremely demanding creative process. Silence, time and some degree of loneliness is required to think, listen and feel the space. As if the photograph was already there, just waiting to be recognized. He thinks as an architect, sees as a photographer and shoots as a painter. The apparent easiness of the final image conceals an impressive level of self-criticism and exactingness. He searches nothing less than the perfect composition and lighting. This means negotiating peace with an immensity of rival lines, balancing absence and presence through exposure and a scale of grays, carefully measuring the amount of air (distance) that each subject needs to breathe and determining the journey that the spectator will undertake, the direction and the crucial points to stop along the route. The outcome seems like pure velvet – a noiseless and absolutely serene harmony. 


Joana Brites

Art historian

Professor of Art History at the University of Coimbra