True Cities: a photo(geo)graphic installation by Charlie Koolhaas

Photographs by Charlie Koolhaas are on show through March 26 at Aedes architecture gallery in Berlin. The exhibition True Cities offers an exciting and disturbing portrait of four rapidly growing cities.

Nothing is more fascinating to an architect and urban designer than a rapidly growing city. New buildings that continually transform the city‘s appearance, the changing lifestyle of inhabitants, the struggle to survive in the chaos we call the city. But how do you capture that convincingly? Film and video are commonly used, yet photography is better able to convey the speed of growth in images.

Charlie Koolhaas, daughter of Rem Koolhaas and Madelon Vriesendorp, grew up in London and currently lives in China. She studied sociology and works as a photographer and editor for various magazines. The exhibition True Cities consists of 200 photographs of four big cities: the Chinese Guangzhou, the Arabic Dubai, the African Lagos and the British London. The photographs offer penetrating insight into what happens when cities expand rapidly – sometimes in a controlled manner like in Dubai, sometimes totally uncontrolled like in Lagos. The photographs depict scenes of both creativity and grief. Hope and construction, mourning and destruction. The four cities fuse in the exhibition to form one megacity growing ferociously.

The photographs of London and Guangzhou are suspended like washing from clotheslines that span the space. That makes the work seem everyday and familiar. The photographs of Guangzhou in particular are fascinating. Hung so close to one another, they need to be examined from close range by the viewer, who can almost smell and feel the decay. Take the photo of a sex shop. Out front is a carrier bicycle and the words ‘sex toys shop’ in Western letters next to Chinese letters are written on the wall. Attached to the wall is an electricity meter, so everyone hunting for sex toys can see how much energy the shop is consuming. A jumble of suspended electricty cables connects the cheerless houses to one another.

The brand-new buildings, a sharp contrast with the wonderful blue sky, give the Dubai pictures a sense of 1960s’ optimism. Any notion of romanticism is immediately belied by a photo that depicts a smartly dressed man and a woman clothed entirely in black who, paddling along the seashore, and come face to face with Western tourists wearing skimpy bathing costumes. Bikini meets burka. Further contrasts are found in the pictures of big building models that show the construction boom very well. Standing next to the virginal white model is a women draped completely in black clothes and headdress.

Koolhaas also ruthlessly exposes the downside of this riot of building development. There’s a picture of an advertisement in a Dubai shop that reads: ‘Bed space available, indian muslims only. Decent bachelors are allowed’. It’s a sentence that evokes images the exhibition doesn’t show, but the observer can immediately picture the overpopulated dwellings where contract workers only go to sleep.

Despite – or perhaps thanks to – the absense of the slightest form of planning, Lagos still seems to function well. On show are lots of pictures of concrete infrastructure slapped carelessly on top of slums and chaotic development. Man-sized triangular advertisement boards that show us a life we will never enjoy but always crave: Celebrate succes with Celltell. Expect great things.

The exhibition arouses opposing responses. Koolhaas is a very sharp observer. She forces viewers to face the chaos and decay of Lagos and Guangzhou. The seemingly well-organised cities of London and Dubai show a totally different picture. Dubai in particular is all about bling bling and the rich and famous. At the same time, Koolhaas the photographer clearly doesn’t want to convey a particular message or opinion. And no matter how direct and confrontational the photographs may be, that makes the exhibition somewhat noncommittal. Perhaps the clear and carefree images of Dubai constitute a statement by Koolhaas, in which she tells us that the beauty of the new Dubai will one day fall victim to decay. For that is ultimately the fate of every city that grows so fast.