LONDON – During the construction of Zaha Hadid’s first building in Germany in the early 1990s, she commissioned photographer Hélène Binet to take a picture of it. The Vitra fire station in Weil am Rhein was then a forest of steel rebars.
“Hélène went out on the site and climbed on cranes and ladders,” recalls Patrik Schumacher, who has managed Zaha Hadid Architects since Ms. Hadid’s death in 2016. “Zaha loved the photos.
From then on, Ms. Binet became Ms. Hadid’s reference photographer, responsible for photographing each new building, from gestation to completion. The photographs made the buildings look like abstract art. “His artistic interpretations were similar to how we would make our drawings,” noted Schumacher.
And she was easy to work with. “Sometimes there are photographers who are like divas, very difficult,” Mr. Schumacher said. “Hélène was, and is, calm, gentle and modest. “
Ms. Binet is now the subject of a solo exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts (October 23 to January 23), featuring some 90 images of buildings, mostly in black and white, made by a dozen architects. An entire section is dedicated to Mrs. Hadid, with images of the Vitra fire station; the MAXXI National Museum of 21st Century Arts in Rome; the Riverside Museum in Glasgow; and the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati.
The other star architects featured in the exhibition are Le Corbusier, Daniel Libeskind and Peter Zumthor.
“I am very happy to see the genre of architectural space photography being elevated to portrait and landscape photography,” Ms. Binet said. It is “not just a profession, not just a service. It is also an art form.
Exhibition curator Vicky Richardson said Ms Binet’s photography was “an amazing interplay between architecture and an artist’s vision.”
“Her goal is different from other architectural photographers, because she has always affirmed her own vision on a project, whether it is paid for by the architect or whether it is a self-initiated project”, Ms. Richardson added.
Mrs Binet’s home studio is a converted metal workshop in North London. Inside his crowded studio, tall metal shelves are stacked with boxes of prints bearing the names of architects. A narrow corridor leads to a dark room with two sinks where the photographs are developed in the old fashioned way.
Ms. Binet grew up in Rome, where her Swiss and French parents – a flautist and pianist – home schooled their four children. Young Hélène studied violin and dance, then opted for a career in visual arts.
By enrolling in a design institute in Rome, she learned the technique as well as fashion and advertising photography, and decided that commercial photography was not for her, she said.
After a stint as an internal photographer at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, she moved to London in the 1980s to join her future husband, the architect Raoul Bunschoten, who brought her to look at architecture. He taught at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA), whose director, Alvin Boyarsky, commissioned Ms. Binet to photograph buildings for books.
The AA had an “incredible” atmosphere and a clique of young talent, recalled Ms. Binet, including an Iraqi-born prodigy named Zaha Hadid. “Everyone in AA was talking about her: how difficult she was and how wonderful she was. “
At Mr Boyarsky’s request, Ms Binet photographed a curvaceous iron table designed by Ms Hadid. Then came the Vitra Fire Station commission from Ms. Hadid’s own team.
“They wanted a poetic report on what was going on up there,” Ms. Binet said. Ms. Hadid loved construction sites because they were “like the childhood of a building,” a phase in her life that “would never come back”.
The collaboration lasted until the sudden death of Ms. Hadid. She was “always so respectful”, remembers the photographer. Once, when Ms Binet refused to photograph a Hadid model because it was in a tight space with inadequate lighting, Ms Hadid “was very supportive”.
“Zaha created an aura around her, of something real and unreal,” Ms. Binet said. This aura was a combination of “her intelligence, her talent, her dynamism, the way she dressed”, but also the fact that “she always created a distance. He was a very emotional person, very fragile.
Ms. Hadid praised the photographer in a 2002 exhibition catalog “Hélène Binet: sept projects”. “Hélène’s photography has helped me discover additional spatial tensions and atmospheric nuances, allowing me to see beauty in unexpected places,” she writes. “The effects discovered through his photography become conscious intentions and are reintroduced into the process of designing the next building. “
Ms. Binet photographed the work of other architects during her career, even when not commissioned by them, such as with the Mr. Libeskind Jewish Museum in Berlin, opened in 2001. Although she did not could not grasp the first phases of construction, having had a baby, she flew there as soon as she could. Her images are “the result of half a day’s work, where I managed to jump over the fence,” she said.
The topic “definitely touched me,” Ms. Binet added, noting that her own mother was Jewish and had spent the war years in hiding in France.
In the mid-1990s, she received a phone call from another important figure in her career: the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, who wanted to publish a picture book of buildings. “We went up a mountain and talked about the format, the design, the photographs,” she said. “It was a fantastic collaboration.”
In 2019, Ms. Binet received the Ada Louise Huxtable Prize, recognizing women who have contributed to architecture. That year, she also exhibited her work at the Shanghai Power Station of Art.
She is now exploring new themes: photographing angels in Bernini’s sculptures in Rome; and – using color film – depicting the walls and peeling vegetation in the Suzhou Evergreen Garden in China, and producing close-ups of pictorial flowers.
“I’m moving on to something very fragile, very colorful, which is changing all the time,” she said. “It’s the opposite of everything in architecture.