Growing up in post-war Germany, photographer Christoph Gielen was “repulsed” by the rows of drab, identical, pre-fabricated buildings that were constructed quickly to rebuild cities lost to Allied bombings. When he left art school in his twenties, he took on a photographic mission to document the way buildings and development misuse land.
He headed to the United States, where he encountered the most extreme examples of suburban development. Heading out with a helicopter pilot, Gielen began photographing communities from above to show how our car-centric development has altered the face of the planet.
“We are leaving a huge footprint on the environment,” says Gielen. “Sustainability is something that we need to address now.”
Gielen shared some of the photos from the project with us here, but you can check out the rest in his new book Ciphers.
For Gielen’s first attempt at aerial photography, he flew with an LAPD pilot in a training helicopter. With the doors off, Gielen hung outside the helicopter to catch these photos of California’s famous freeway interchanges.
On the left is a development constructed in the 1950s in Sun City, Arizona. On the right is Sterling Ridge in Florida, built in the 1970s.
This is another view of Sun City, Arizona. To choose which communities to photograph, Gielen uses population and economic statistics like foreclosure rates and mapping from the U.S. Geological Survey. When he has found an area that he thinks will be intriguing, he poses as a prospective home buyer so that real estate agents will show him the area from a local’s perspective.
On the left is another view of Sun City, Arizona. Venture Out RV Resort in Mesa, Arizona (right) is an active retirement community of nearly 2,000 homes. It was built in 1968.
Gielen says that suburban sprawl like the kind pictured here in Anthem, Henderson, Nevada, originated in America, but has since spread to many parts of the world.
Sun Lakes, Arizona (left) was built in the 1970s and encompasses five country club communities. Summerlin, Nevada (right) was owned by Howard Hughes and has since been developed into a number of villages, many of which are still under construction.
Gielen believes that single family homes are a misuse of land. He instead envisions “mixed use zoning.” “You’d have developments that are a mix between housing and businesses, so that you wouldn’t have to get into your car every time you need to go grocery shopping or go to your school or job,” explains Gielen. Here, Gielen photographed skyscrapers in China.
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