Review: The Transparent City by Michael Wolf


Book Reviews, Photobooks

After seeing Michael Wolf’s Architecture of Density one of my thoughts was that the project should have been done in the United States. Granted, there is a lot of anonymous, hideous architecture, housing thousands and thousands of people, in many parts of the world. But the story of skyscrapers and huge apartment buildings, all together in small spaces, is tied to the United States - and even though I’m not an expert in the architecture of skyscrapers up until recently the list of the largest ones was mostly populated by buildings in the US.

Thankfully, my secret wish was now granted, with Michael taking his approach to Chicago. The results of the quest can be found in The Transparent City (for a preview check the corresponding page on his website). Needless to say, Michael is not only following his own tradition but also that of other photographers, whose images of, for example, New York form part of our photographic canon. Even knowing the older imagery The Transparent City does not disappoint at all.

In addition to many large-scale views of the city (many of which unfortunately run across the gutter - something I am not very fond of at all), there are also details, in the form of very small sections of larger photographs, blown up to make people visible. Chicago being America, there is the unavoidable angry person with a very personal and not all that original “message” and quite a few more, some of it bordering maybe a bit too much on slight voyeurism. I think I had more fun studying the larger images and finding, for example, Jimmy Stewart looking through his SLR in “Rear Window” on somebody’s plasma TV. Maybe that’s what doesn’t quite convince me of showing the details the way they are shown in the book: It’s all a bit too obvious. The details that show larger segments of buildings work much better for me.

But I’m nit-picking. I suppose this is what I do when there’s nothing major disagreeable to be found. The Transparent City is a wonderful book, and, oh, it comes with a beautiful essay by Geoff Manaugh, the mastermind behind bldgblog.