Juergen Teller studio review – the art of concrete thinking
By Rowan Moore
A naked middle-aged man is sitting on a donkey, captured in the cool light of northern European art, unsparing of its description of flesh. The image is a self-portrait by the German-born art and fashion photographer Juergen Teller, shot in the London workplace that the British architects 6a have designed for him. He tells how, as a young man travelling in Turkey, he was nearly raped while riding such a beast, by the man sitting behind him. This photograph, he says, is “my way of making my peace with donkeys”.
To the casual eye there’s not much to see in the grey architecture in which the picture was taken. It’s certainly less arresting than the Teutonic Silenus or ass-centaur in the centre. But the space is integral to the image: by a combination of intent and chance, 6a’s building is a landscape that acts as a setting, prompt and influence on Teller’s work. It is an active participant, sometimes conspicuous and sometimes not, which is what architecture should be.
As Tom Emerson of 6a puts it, Teller is not a studio photographer, but uses “the natural environment, just where it is”.
He might shoot in a hotel bathroom or the back of a limousine. The ostensible purpose of the new building was therefore to serve all the pre- and post-production work that goes with photography, the planning of props and personnel that a shoot requires, the refinement of the tone and balance of images, the laying out of books and exhibitions, more than to make a place where photographs might actually be taken.
As the project progressed, however, its site became the sort of environment that inspires Teller. He was engaged by the spectacle of trees being lifted into place in its courtyard gardens, their rootballs neatly wrapped. He was also struck by the costs involved: “Oh my God, are you kidding me? I had to pay £20,000 just to have the street closed so they could get the trees in. OK, so I might as well photograph it. Then I got inspired.” So trees became a favoured prop and subject. He shot workmen labouring to insert one in the ground: “I find that really poetic, like those Americans putting their flag up. You know… Iwo Jima.”
The building site became a location, as did the exterior of the building, in an area of west London that is punctuated by industrial units (still), postwar housing and flyovers, as eventually did the completed interiors. Teller shot a famous actress with urban foxes he found inhabiting the property. He snapped himself bathing in one of the fish pools into which rainwater runs, wearing a German football fan’s curly wig in black, red and gold. The donkey was shoved and cajoled into the building. “Can I ride the donkey? Can I be naked?” he asked the handler. “I could do whatever I liked, except put two people on it. Then the donkey police would come along.”
The role of architecture in inflaming Teller’s feverish imagination is subtle. 6a planned the building as an apparently simple enfilade of three roughly cubic blocks interspersed with two square-ish courtyards planted with the help of the garden designer Dan Pearson, laid out in a row on a long, narrow site. Walls are sometimes glass to allow space to flow from inside to outside, sometimes opaque. There are double-height spaces and mezzanines to house such things as offices for Teller’s team, a kitchen and dining table where staff and visitors can be convivial together, a secluded room for thinking and yoga.
The material is wherever possible concrete: concrete floors, walls, ceilings, stairs, paving and a strong rhythm of concrete beams that hold apart the party walls with the two neighbouring properties. There are touches of brass and ceramic, some decorative floor tiles Teller found in Beirut and surprisingly old-fashioned taps. Emerson borrows a phrase from another member of his practice to describe these: they’re “the ‘whiskers on the dragon’, that thing that gives the whole building character, and makes it angry or serene or whatever”.
To make almost all the building out of a single substance gives it the quality of a body. Somewhat in the way that parts as different as fingers, ears or stomach are unified through all being flesh, the concrete can change itself from something massive and earthbound to precise beams overhead, to forming treads and balustrades that you touch with your feet or hands. It can be rough, marked with the boards of its moulds, or smooth. In the courtyards a thin concrete layer was selectively smashed, so that plants can grow through the cracks. Where ventilation is needed it is perforated with cruciform patterns of holes. In places there are graffiti-like stains, accidentally caused by cleaning, that “really upset” Teller, “but now I like them”.
Hard and grey as it is, the concrete could be monotonous, but here it serves as a medium for revealing variety. Apart from the range of its own surfaces, it catches different kinds of light, blue-ish from one direction and gold-ish from another, that changes with the time of day and the seasons. Some incidents from the site’s former lives are allowed to stay, the vegetation from neighbour’s gardens that engulfs a party wall and, a bit like a bit of colonnade in a Roman desert city, a fragment of concrete frame.
It also serves the workplace’s multiple moods, which during a shoot can have the frenzy of a baroque court, with 40 or 50 people pursuing their trades in makeup, hair, lighting, props and whatever, plus models or actors and their entourages, plus whatever livestock Teller might want to introduce. At other times it is monastic, a place of quiet work. The building has a semi-public aspect and a very private one, as the front facade tells you. Generally mute, it suggests through unusual aspects of its scale and detail an exceptional universe beyond. It is flat, but when the front door opens, a deep vista is revealed, through layers of glass and courtyards, 60 metres to the back of the site.
Teller’s images take a frank relish in the specifics of surfaces, in the half-repulsive glisten on a piece of seafood, in mottled skin, body hair, the granularity of dirt, talcum on the nappy zone of his baby son.
6a have a comparable but gentler fascination with the tactility of building materials. Teller combines an openness to chance with a will to be exacting when it matters. As I know from having commissioned 6a myself, for a domestic extension that is all wood rather than Teller’s all concrete, so do they. In Teller’s building, for example, they took care to match the width of the board marks on the concrete with that of the actual timber of the doors. They set up barely noticeable echoes, as with a certain splayed shape that appears as a brass door-pull, a concrete hood over the place where the charger for an electric car is placed, and the housing for roller shutters.
So the building and its uses are complementary and unfold over time. It deals nicely with architecture’s generative paradox, which is that it is about creating a fixed and stable object that also, as both a construction site and an inhabited place, is in constant flux. It shows how architecture works as a background to life, without being inert and boring. “I use this place in a very inspiring way,” as Teller puts it, “and wherever I go it looks fresh to me. I shoot anywhere. I like it that I can do a lot of things here and make them totally new.”
No donkeys were harmed in the writing of this article.