Christoph Gielen: Deciphering the Code for Human Habitation


Christoph Gielen is an artist and photographer. He has recently taken aerial photographs that he feels represent the kind of urban planning that does not take sustainability into consideration. He is utilizing the large-scale photos as a means to participate in the sustainable development conversation. Gielen has entitled the collection Ciphers. He sees the inscrutable way new developments are planned out and it strikes Gielen as a secret code for human habitation, a code that requires deciphering.

Though he is not an architect, his hope is that his work may be useful to anyone who has the power to make a difference in the developments of the future. Gielen will feel a sense of success if through these pictures he is able to peak viewers’ interests regarding issues of land use. He says of his photographs that at the first glance, the images appear as something they are not, maybe a thing that is organic or perhaps a “proliferating cell growth seen under a microscope.”

The project stemmed from Gielen’s interest in sustainable planning. From the artist’s perspective, he is attempting to lend his support to the idea of responsible development practices. He would like to share dialogue with those, like him, who believe that society has a certain responsibility to use the land wisely with consideration given to the environment.

Gielen also wants to aid in the understanding of how systems of urban growth create continued dependency on the automobile. He likes the idea of his work being a medium for calling to action changes that he believes should occur in society.

To explain what the viewer sees in his photographs, Gielen says that he desired to turn something that is mundane and drab into images that are both compelling and striking. Though plenty of people are aware of urban sprawl and the problems that come from misuse of land, it is not the most aesthetically pleasing imagery to look at. He made specific choices for his subject matter. Gielen sought out patterns in settlements that had the potential to be attention-grabbing. Still, they had to be housing formations that could be used as symbols of unsustainable urban sprawl.

The research Gielen put into the project was extensive. A couple of the factors that went into his selection process were foreclosure and settlement rates. He discovered that so-called foreclosure hotspots tend to be in areas that are location inefficient. Settlement rates would tell him where the most developments were popping up.

Once he had a few regions picked out, he would visit one, look around, pretend to be a prospective buyer and get to know the area. Gielen used maps, satellite searches, realtors and in some cases even contacted the developers themselves. He would then ask about the story behind the development and the priorities of the developers and planners. Not one had anything to say about sustainability.

Finally, Gielen would get up in a helicopter and take his pictures. The pilot would need to be experienced for some of the maneuvers required by the shots the photographer wanted to capture. Various altitudes and angles were needed to truly depict the subjects in the most desirable fashion.

Gielen said that one of the most bizarre discoveries during his research was south of Las Vegas. In a region called the Black Mountains, he found a development that targeted buyers based on shopping preferences. Essentially, the neighborhood would be ultra-homogenized. He said that each house already looked like the others. Add people with all the same preferences, and it gets a little spooky. Deciphering the code for the kind of human habitation that lacks regard for sustainability is a daunting task, but Christoph Gielen has the passion and vision needed to make the puzzle clearer for those who do not quite get the connection.

By Stacy Lamy


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