By Claus Lutterbeck
He is a marathon runner and a triathlete. He swims for miles then speeds 60 miles out of Berlin on his Italian racer. Photographer Roland Horn is a man of long distances. But the new Berlin Central Station almost did him in. For the first time, eight years ago, he secretly made his way around the station’s construction site, his Rollei 6008 camera with its huge 40-mm lens in his backpack because he wanted to take a few quick shots of construction workers. This is how he got hooked and continued to shoot there for years. Again and again he crawled through the construction, climbed 230-foot cranes, accompanied French divers into the ice-cold Berlin groundwater, and drank a pint or two with the steel binders—always dodging the security officers, because he was not “accredited” for the job.
Initially, he did not find the site all that exciting. After all, it was nothing more than a big hole in the ground. But then the fascination kicked in and stayed with him for eight years. Step by step he documented how the forsaken Lehrter Bahnhof subway station in Berlin’s Tiergarten district slowly changed into Europe’s largest transportation hub.
“From an economic perspective,” he says, “it was sheer madness to see through such a big project over such a long period at my own expense.” He took thousands of black-and-white photographs, printed them in large formats—at dimensions of up to a square meter—and used to ask himself late at night, “Why don’t you photograph something that will earn you some cash?”
He stood in the mud in his worn-out boots when the enormous steel columns were built to support the railway tracks. He was on the spot with his Rollei when 85,000 tons of steel parts were assembled and over half a million tons of concrete poured. He was there when the glass canopy over the platforms was mounted.
“People always only see the vaulted roof and think that’s the station, but it’s only the skin,” says Horn. He was excited by the beauty of the raw materials of steel, wood, and concrete—exposed and unfinished. In his photos, the emptiness and austere geometry of the underground “cathedral” spaces, lit only by neon lights nailed to coarse timber tripods, reveal a peculiar kind of ponderous beauty.
Roland Horn’s black-and-white photographs are sober and precise, rigorously composed and perfectly exposed. They prove that Horn knows his trade. As an apprentice and later as an assistant (to Jim Rakete among others), he soon realized that he did not find the world of celebrities and pretty models as interesting as the work of the Polish welders he got to know on the construction site.
“People talk of ‘smart’ professions, but they don’t realize how hard some people have to slog.” His photos convey this feeling of respect. His camera openly and directly focuses on the sloggers’ faces. In black and white, they appear even more dramatic than in color.
Horn’s classic black-and-white photography is a response to a world of images that are becoming ever smarter and more colorful; it has remained his passion, even if everyday media might prefer something a bit flashier. Horn does not wish to follow that trend; he prefers to do his own thing and has persevered in doing it. His first book (published by Nicolai in 2000) documents the construction of the Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz. That project sparked his enthusiasm for building sites. An experienced climber who sometimes trains on the sandstone rock formations along the Elbe River, he went up 140-yard cranes to take close-ups of workers tensioning the steel cables that now traverse the city’s most famous glass canopy. For his second book project (2001), he dragged Berlin celebrities to the zoo and portrayed them together with the animals of their choice.
Berlin’s Central Station is now completed. The walls have been plaster-boarded, and the space is divided into small kiosk cubicles for selling Big Macs, mobile phones, and muffins, making the station look like most others. But Roland Horn’s photographs remind us of the fact that every construction site has its own hidden beauty. You only have to look to see it. Can an underground parking lot look good? “Under construction it did, when the concrete ceilings were boarded up with thick, un-stripped timber. It really was a gigantic work of art.”
Adapted from the preface to Roland Horn’s A Feat of Engineering: Constructing the New Berlin Central Station. Used by Permission.
Copyright Preface: by kind permission of H.M.Nelte Publishers
Translation: Annette Wiethüchter
© 2001–2007 Carnegie Hall Corporation