“Successful failures make a city”
Everywhere in the world, large numbers of architects, city planners, politicians and developers are continuously working to shape the modern city. However, the results of these activities are not always the same. What is it then that makes a city a city? According to photographer Bas Princen, educated as architect and public space designer, cities are literally large places where all kinds of things can develop. We do not even have to try very hard. “New situations always develop out of what already exists. They do not necessarily have to be designed.” Princen has always been interested in adapting the urban environment. “All required elements often already exist in a city, but sometimes simply not in the right spot or the right form,” Princen believes. “A minor change can be enough to create a completely new situation. Basically, photography is the same.” In his exhibition ‘Five Cities’, currently running in Gallery Van Kranendonk in The Hague, these types of changes are clearly visible. Through photographs taken in Istanbul, Beirut, Cairo, Dubai and Amman, Princen shows how new places in cities develop. Often these are the kinds of places that people would consider to be typically ‘beautiful’ or ‘successful’. Princen does not mind about that. “The results of the developments I photographed might not be exactly how they were originally planned. But in my opinion, successful failures make a city.”
In 2009 Bas Princen visited five cities currently undergoing
major changes. He did that for a project commissioned by the
Biennale Rotterdam. He traversed each city for eight to ten
days, mainly focusing on the faultlines and borders of the city. “I
am not really interested in the centre. I always start my work at
the spot where a city is expanding, and from there I slowly move
While many people often love the layered identity of the city centre, Princen mainly focuses his lens on places on the border of the city, where multiple layers are still separated. His project is therefore not so much about urbanity, but rather about the uncontrolled growth of some cities. “On the raw borders of a city, you can clearly see what kinds of processes are taking place. In my project ‘Five Cities’ I wanted to treat all these city borders equally. The project is therefore not about five individual cities, but about the types of building process that have taken places there.”
Relations and beauty
For Bas Princen, the relationship between the urban objects he
photographs and the natural surroundings is very important. The
surrounding landscape should be visible in the photograph. The
image cannot be a 100 percent urban. In some photographs of the
‘Five Cities’ series, it seems as if the city has fallen from the
sky, right into the landscape. I find this relationship between
city and countryside – in which one has not won over the other –
They are definitely interesting, but they do not portray the classical notion of beauty. An article in the Dutch daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad about Princen’s current exhibition, said that the photographer has been able to find beauty in the urban nightmares he displays. Princen does not directly agree with this statement. “The things I show in my photographs are not necessarily urban nightmares. You should see them as the results of ideas. Maybe those ideas were very good, but the results were simply different than initially planned. However, that does not mean they are not interesting. In my work I try to offer a way to look at these kinds of rather harsh developments by making them readable. I think it is important that you can view these kinds of drastic developments with wonderment.”
Especially in Western Europe’s urban landscape, you will probably not come across the images from ‘Five Cities’. Why? According to Princen this has to do with the type of economy we live in. “I do not believe you have a lot of direct influence on the built environment here as an urban planner. You may be able to reorganise it a little, but you cannot fully control it. That is probably the reason why I started working as a photographer. I had the feeling that, as an urban planner, you do not have a lot of tools to change the environment. Other forces, such as the market, safety and sustainability are much more dominant.”
Princen believes that this combination of forces has resulted in the fact that in large parts of urban Europe, there is a certain nuance in the urban environment. In the areas he photographed for ‘Five Cities’, there is often only one single factor that determines the construction of new buildings or areas. “In most cases, speed is very important. More important than money,” Princen says. An this speed leads to fascinating images.
Is the urban environment in Europe maybe too planned then? Judging upon Princen’s words it is not that bad. He points at a project he did in Italy, on the construction of the high speed line between Milan and Bologna. For this line a tunnel was dug, which naturally resulted in a tall mountain of sand. Princen wondered what happened with all that sand. Where did it go? He discovered that the sand from the tunnel was dumped into an old foundry along a motorway junction (dug in the 70s to construct the junction). In order to be able to distinguish between the old and the ‘clean’ sand, the old foundry was completely covered with green fabric. “Many people might not directly see this action as a change in the landscape, because it concerns the creation of a new place in a landscape that appears to be finished. However, for me this is the same kind of process that creates urbanity in the ‘Five Cities’ project.
Sometimes managers, planners or architects need a fresh look at their work. As a photographer, Bas Princen has a simple tip for all professionals working in the field of urban planning: “Just keep going, because the current working method creates the most interesting photographs for me.” He laughs. “Ah, there is no general way to urban success. That is because successful failures often make acity.”
The exhibition ‘Five Cities’ will be running at Gallery Van Kranendonk inThe Hague until 25 February. Between 23 March and 9 May Bas Princen’s work can be viewed at DEPO in Istanbul. After that, the exhibition will move to Beirut, Amman and Cairo.
© EUKN, Simone Pekelsma