An Urbanizing World, Through the Lens of an Israeli Architect

Nahum Schutz's photographic documentation sheds a melancholy light on urban cliches.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Nahum Schutz's , 'Cage,'.Credit: Nahum Schutz's

As an adviser on infrastructure to the World Bank a few decades ago, Israeli architect Nahum Schutz encountered firsthand the most extreme manifestations of two major developments of the time: accelerated urbanization and global capitalism. The first time he visited Mexico City in the 1970s for the World Bank its population stood at eight million. On his next visit just a few years later, Mexico City had 14 million inhabitants. Many were homeless or squatters, living in temporary quarters that lacked basic infrastructure.

Schutz was in charge of the installation of sewage, water systems, “and less frequently, also electric power” in poverty-stricken neighborhoods in Central and South America, although the systems the bank provided were of course inadequate in meeting the population’s true needs.

The rampant urbanism he witnessed had an impact on the way Schutz viewed the people live in cities. Photographs he took during that period are now the subject of an exhibition – titled “People and City: Urbania” – which opened earlier this month at the Architect’s House Gallery in Jaffa (curator: Eran Tamir-Tawil) and is on through February 12.

The photos do not focus on the type of extreme situations one finds in the megalopolises of South America and East Asia, from which the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has carved out a productive career. Instead, they follow everyday encounters between city and people, which take place on the streets of Beijing as on the streets of Tel Aviv, in London’s Underground stations as at the stations of Israel Rail. Many of the photos address the architecture of transportation and of people in motion, as well as situations of “intimate anonymity,” to use a term coined by the Israeli architect Hillel Schocken to capture the essence of urbanism.

The 21 photos on display were taken in Israel and abroad, though the captions do not reveal their geographical location or identity. The people themselves are figures shot at random, in some cases from a distance. Indeed, that is part of the message: The people and the places may be different, but the relations between the people and the urban space repeat themselves in one way or another.

A library buzzing with students at the London School of Economics, buyers and the simply curious in Apple’s flagship store in London, an office building opposite the Tate Modern in the British capital – all are links in one chain of spaces that, without an identifying label, are everyplace to the same degree as they are one specific place.

Schutz, 76, is from Uruguay, where he studied architecture. He has been in Israel since 1968, lives in Zichron Yaakov and owns a small independent architectural firm that does small-scale designs, mainly of spectacularly colorful kindergartens.

No nostalgia

In the show, the shot of an office building in London, taken from the top floor of the Tate, is the only one printed in color. Its title, “Chicken Coop,” needs no further explanation. The other photographs are black and white, but principally gray, though not for reasons of nostalgia or aesthetic considerations.

“Color makes everything so cheerful,” Schutz says, “and I thought black-and-white would convey better an atmosphere of melancholy and forlornness.”

Indeed, his works instill melancholy life into well-worn clichés related to cities and their salient sites, which have been photographed and documented extensively by others – whether packed escalators in the London Tube; a lone individual on a bench amid the hustle and bustle of the Dizengoff Center shopping mall in Tel Aviv; a public urinal in China that’s exposed to everyone’s view; or crowding, anonymity, loneliness and human relations in choreography with a given place.

Schutz’s camera violates the ironclad rule of architectural photography since its inception – maximum architecture, minimum people – and restores the human dimension to architecture by filling the void with people.

His photos “focus the gaze on an architecture that manages glut,” the curator writes. “A glut of people, an overload of faces, of advertisements and visual stimuli, a glut that characterizes the global capitalism of the metropolises across the world.”

From the images, the city emerges as an assemblage of sidewalks, buildings, hidden political and economic forces embodied in concrete, stone, glass and masses of people in a space that allows or compels life to be lived together, although each person exists alone. This can be summed up succinctly by a line from Micha Sheetrit’s song “As Long as We’re Alone,” which is quoted at the entrance to the exhibition: “Millions of people alone, and as long as we’re alone, let it be in motion.”