To Hélène Binet, Photographing Architecture Is ‘a Form of Art’

LONDON — When Zaha Hadid’s first building was under construction in Germany in the early 1990s, she commissioned the photographer Hélène Binet to take pictures of it. The Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein was, at that point, little more than a forest of steel reinforcement bars.

“Hélène went out on the construction site and climbed on cranes and ladders,” recalled Patrik Schumacher, who has run Zaha Hadid Architects since Ms. Hadid’s death in 2016. “Zaha loved the photos.”

From then on, Ms. Binet became Ms. Hadid’s go-to photographer, commissioned to shoot every new building from gestation to completion. The photographs made the buildings look like abstract art. “Her artistic interpretations were similar to the way we would do our drawings,” Mr. Schumacher noted.

And she was easy to work with. “Sometimes, there are photographers who are like divas, very difficult,” Mr. Schumacher said. “Hélène was, and is, quiet, soft-spoken and modest.”

Ms. Binet is now getting a solo exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts (Oct. 23 to Jan. 23), featuring some 90 mostly black-and-white images of buildings by a dozen architects. An entire section is dedicated to Ms. Hadid, with images of the Vitra Fire Station; the MAXXI National Museum of 21st Century Arts in Rome; the Riverside Museum in Glasgow; and the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati.

Other star architects featured in the show are Le Corbusier, Daniel Libeskind and Peter Zumthor.

“I am very glad to see the genre of photographing architectural space being lifted to the level of portraiture and landscape photography,” Ms. Binet said. This is “not only a profession, not only a service. It’s also a form of art.”

The exhibition’s curator, Vicky Richardson, said Ms. Binet’s photography was “an amazing interaction between architecture and the vision of an artist.”

“Her lens is different from other architectural photographers, because she has always asserted her own vision on a project, regardless of whether she’s being paid by the architect or if it’s a self-initiated project,” Ms. Richardson added.

Ms. Binet’s studio-cum-house is a converted metal workshop in north London. Inside her crowded atelier, tall metal shelves are stacked with boxes of prints bearing architects’ names. A narrow corridor leads to a darkroom with twin sinks where photographs are developed the old-fashioned way.

Ms. Binet grew up in Rome, where her Swiss and French parents — a flutist and a pianist — home-schooled their four children. Young Hélène studied violin and dance, then opted for a visual-arts career.

Enrolling at a design institute in Rome, she learned technique as well as fashion and advertising photography, and decided that commercial photography was not for her, she said.

After a stint as an in-house photographer at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, she moved to London in the 1980s to join her future husband, the architect Raoul Bunschoten, who was instrumental in making her look at architecture. He taught at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA), whose director, Alvin Boyarsky, commissioned Ms. Binet to photograph buildings for books.

The AA had an “incredible” atmosphere and a clique of young talents, Ms. Binet recalled, including an Iraqi-born prodigy by the name of Zaha Hadid. “Everyone at the AA was talking about her: about how difficult she was, and how wonderful she was.”

At Mr. Boyarsky’s request, Ms. Binet photographed a curvy iron table designed by Ms. Hadid. Then came the Vitra Fire Station commission from Ms. Hadid’s own team.

“They wanted a poetic report of what was happening up there,” Ms. Binet said. Ms. Hadid loved construction sites, because they were “like the childhood of a building,” a phase of its life that would “never come back again.”

The collaboration lasted until Ms. Hadid’s sudden death. She was “always so respectful,” the photographer recalled. Once, when Ms. Binet refused to photograph a Hadid maquette because it was in a tight space with inadequate lighting, Ms. Hadid “was supportive.”

“Zaha created an aura around her, of something real and unreal,” Ms. Binet said. That aura was a combination of “her cleverness, her talent, her drive, the way she dressed,” but also the fact that “she always created a distance. She was a very emotional person, very fragile.”

Ms. Hadid had her own words of praise for the photographer in a 2002 exhibition catalog “Hélène Binet: Seven Projects.” “Hélène’s photography has helped me to discover additional spatial tensions and atmospheric nuances, allowing me to see beauty in unexpected places,” she wrote. “Effects discovered through her photography become conscious intentions and are fed back into the design process of the next building.”

Ms. Binet photographed the work of other architects in the course of her career, even when not commissioned by them, as with Mr. Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, inaugurated in 2001. Though she was unable to capture the early construction phases, having had a baby, she flew there as soon as she could. Her images are “the result of half a day of work, where I managed to jump over the fence,” she said.

The subject matter “definitely touched me,” Ms. Binet added, noting that her own mother was Jewish and spent the war years in hiding in France.

In the mid-1990s, she received a phone call from another important figure in her career: the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, who wanted to publish a book of images of buildings. “We went up in a mountain and talked about the format, the design, the photographs,” she said. “It was a fantastic collaboration.”

In 2019, Ms. Binet received the Ada Louise Huxtable Prize, recognizing women who have made contributions to architecture. That year, she also exhibited her work at Shanghai’s Power Station of Art.

She is now exploring new themes: photographing angels in the sculptures of Bernini in Rome; and — using color film — picturing the peeling walls and vegetation in the Lingering Garden of Suzhou in China, and producing painterly close-ups of flowers.

“I am switching to something very fragile, very colorful, that changes all the time,” she said. “It’s the opposite of everything in architecture.”

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