“Modern Forms”: Photographer Nicolas Grospierre Finds Beauty In the Wreckage

“Modern Forms”: Photographer Nicolas Grospierre Finds Beauty In the Wreckage

According to my 1968 Webster’s, the definition of “modern” is:

of or characteristic of the present or recent times; not ancient: often used to designate certain contemporary tendencies and schools of art, music, literature, etc.; as, modern architecture and furniture are characterized by functionalism and lack of extraneous ornamentation.

The first part of that definition still basically hasn’t changed, but the world has moved on from the form-is-function mandate that characterized design back when my dictionary was published. The very word “modern” is becoming increasingly poignant — it’s still conceptually the way of the future, but practically it’s the way of the past.

Photographer Nicolas Grospierre explores that tension in Modern Forms, a coffee-table volume that must be one of the fanciest Tumblr-to-book projects ever. Grospierre walks us around the world through modern architecture in a meander organized not geographically or historically, but visually.

Each page has one large photograph with a minimal caption, the next page featuring a building that shares a similar feature. The entire 224-page book is a cycle: the last photograph is the same as the first, a bus stop in Crimea.

The architecture is utopian, but the photographs are decidedly not: most buildings are shot in flat grey light, the photos framed to include generous portions of the flat expanses surrounding them. In most cases, that means shaggy lawns or cracked pavement, vacant or nearly vacant of human life. Stains streak the buildings’ aging walls (often concrete, natch), and there are frequently signs of disrepair. A number of the buildings are currently vacant, and a few of them have been torn down since Grospierre shot them just a few years ago.

Every once in a while, you turn a page and come across a celebrated landmark of modern architecture: the St. Louis Arch, say, or the Eames House. These are included, it seems, not to shame the others but to dignify them. Look where these ideas led, Grospierre seems to say. The modern movement was a beautiful dream, even if it led to some nightmares.

It’s no surprise that Grospierre is a hit on Tumblr, which has a thing for architectural decay porn — there’s nothing it loves more than an abandoned amusement park. This artist is no voyeur, though: he’s providing a valuable service by contextualizing these buildings, by documenting them, and by bringing some minor landmarks (particularly those from the former Soviet Union and Soviet Bloc) to the attention of a wider audience.

START SEEING MODERN ARCHITECTURE. Why isn’t that a bumper sticker? It would look great on a laptop.

Jay Gabler