When people speak of Dubai’s architecture, they usually mention the Burj (the tallest skyscraper in the world) rather than peripheral industrial plants. Yet it is precisely these overlooked and unsightly structures that Dutch photographer Bas Princen seeks to capture in his recent series Refuge, Five Cities (2009). In these photographs he introduces nondescript, yet commanding buildings stationed in desolate landscapes in the outskirts of Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Dubai, and Istanbul. Primarily serving migrants, these factories, residential and commercial buildings further exclude these communities from the city’s culture.
It is evident from this series that Princen is largely interested in the formal qualities of these buildings, rather than the socio-political conditions that inform them. Inevitably, though, these issues are addressed. This is most apparent in the striking aerial image of the infamous “Garbage City” in Cairo, Mokkatam Ridge (Garbage City) (2009), where recyclable trash is piled up on roofs, staircases, patios, and backyards. The neighbourhood’s residents, the Zabbaleen, have been painstakingly earning their income since the 1950s from recycling Cairo’s waste. The residential building Former Gececondu Hillside (Istanbul) (2009) recalls the design of Istanbul’s many mosques, yet in essence is merely a building that undergoes frequent expansion, with a hodge podge of layers tacked onto its façade. In stark contrast to Dubai’s championed luxury skyscrapers, Princen captured the city’s dense and austere structures. Cooling Plant (Dubai) (2009) presents a crowd of uniformed workers standing around a windowless black structure. His perspective renders these individuals inconsequential—merely a backdrop for this massive building. This photograph is perhaps the most pertinent example of Princen’s goal of encapsulating the dynamic relationship between human and architecture.
Viewed without titles, one may assume these photographs were taken in the same country, since they are devoid of any identifying elements. While to the designer these buildings are architectural horrors—to the anthropologist they are goldmines. In shifting his focus to structures that characterize specific communities, rather than recognizable emblems of their country, Princen provides a rare view of these five cities. These images thus serve as poignant portraits of communities whose stories are told through utilitarian structures and void landscapes.
Images: Cooling plant (Dubai), 2009; Former Gececondu Hillside (Istanbul), 2009; Mokattam Ridge (Garbage City) Cairo, 2009. Courtesy Storefront for Art and Architecture.