Koechlin House

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The problem with taking pictures of architecture, a well known photographer once told me, is that someone else’s work (the architect’s) typically is calling too much attention to itself. Unless your target audience consists of architects or people interested in architecture I can easily see how that’s a major problem for a photographer, in particular the more idiosyncratic the building in question might be.

I know next to nothing about architecture so I might be forgiven when I write that the Koechlin House looks as if its architects had been unable to decide whether they wanted to build an air-raid shelter or an aquarium. They appear to have compromised on a mix of both, producing a building that features ample amount of concrete and large windows at the same time. How such a building could possibly be homey I have no way of knowing. Maybe one would have to have a radically different idea of what the word “homey” means to be comfortable in such a setting. Or maybe homey is too petite bourgeois a concept in this context.

Regardless, the house is indeed being lived in, as becomes clear from the photographs in Daisuke Hirabayashi‘s Koechlin House. Hirabayashi is a Japanese architect and photographer, and I’m intrigued by that combination. As a writer and photographer, I am aware of how being deeply immersed in both contains both huge potential and equally huge pitfalls. As I said, I don’t know anything about architecture. But it might be a good assumption to say that being an architect and a photographer involves similar struggles — maybe even more so, given that by construction, architecture has a large visual component to it (whereas words have not).

My attempts to learn Japanese involve cramming kanji, the characters (let’s call them that) borrowed from Chinese. There are thousands of them, and each one might involve different readings and pronunciations. But kanji also allow you access to some cultural aspects that are contained in Japanese.

In my beginners’ kanji book, number 49 is , which on its own can be read as either ie or uchi. It means house or home. You can find the character used in the word 家族 (kazoku), which means family (if you have a copy of Masahisa’s family book in your collection, you will have seen this on the cover). If you think about it, that’s interesting: the word for family contains the element of home. Or house. Well, no, because when you think about family, you wouldn’t think about the house it lives in, would you? You would think about the home.

Architects build houses, and those living in them make them their homes out of them. Koechlin House alternates between those two poles — house and home. But ultimately the photographer was more interested in the latter than the former. This manifests itself through photographs of small details such as, for example, apples laid out on a table outside, photographs of the plant life in and around the house, and photographs in which late day light bathes the building in warmth while hiding away some of its harsher features.

In contrast, the more architectural photographs at times are grim. There is a picture of what might be an entrance area that is almost entirely devoid of ornamentation. The light falls in from two directions, illuminating barren concrete walls, a light fixture that looks lost, and what might be a wooden bench with possibly a radiator underneath. I don’t think you’ll ever get the coldness out of that location, regardless of how high you turn up that radiator.

The many large windows and the presence of some interior courtyard invite photographic games that, I suppose, neither a photographer nor an architect can resist. Reflections in windows layer images on top of other images, and similar reflections also often prevent a view inside the building when it’s photographed from the outside.

Ever since I had to work in two large buildings made of concrete my senses have become aware of how the material does not age very well at all in a purely aesthetic fashion. As the various concrete air-raid bunkers in the place I grew up in demonstrate, the material is durable — so durable in fact, that tearing down those towers has not been in option in many German cities. But with time, the light grey of the material becomes darker and darker, and it attracts dark stains. You can see signs of that in parts of the building’s exterior.

How or why one would be comfortable in a home that has almost no soft surfaces escapes me. I have been looking through Koechlin House many times now. Hirabayashi does an incredible job bringing out the building’s character and how the plant life outside has created what I perceive as a refuge from its harshness. But I always end up feeling the photographs in my joints — much like how after a long day in one of the concrete buildings I mentioned above, my knees would hurt from walking on such hard surfaces for hours.

As is obvious from the above, my life experience shades how I view the building — the building more than the photographs actually. This brings me back to the well known photographer’s words, that the architecture commands so much attention. But unlike in the case of the functional architecture photography that I see every once in a while, I think here it’s Hirabayashi’s skills that  communicate the fact that this is a home more than a house, leading me to imagine how I would function and feel inside.

Whatever you might make of this particular building, Koechlin House deftly connects the separate but not independent ideas of house and home. The building feels lived in — not so much because we see that it is (there are the occasional people) but because of Hirabayashi’s focus on the aspect of home and how that aspect can be communicated with pictures.

I suppose that someone interested in architecture or someone trained in it will be able to extract something entirely different from the book. But then, they might be not so interested in all the photographs that don’t even really show the building. Who knows? Either way, Koechlin House offers a compelling look at an example of contemporary architecture and how people living in it have adjusted to life inside.

Koechlin House; photographs by Daisuke Hirabayashi; texts by Ellena Ehrl, Tibor Bielicky, Nicolas Jérôme Hünerwadel; 128 pages; MACK; 2023

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