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Architectural photography as conduit for tacit knowledge: The Heinrich Helfenstein Estate at the gta Archive


Irina Davidovici Ziu Bruckmann

The architectural photography of Heinrich Helfenstein (1946-2020) is grounded foremost in an understanding of language. A trained linguist, his approach to image-making was shaped by semiology and post-structuralism. Helfenstein’s point of entry to architecture, as Aldo Rossi’s teaching assistant at ETH in the 1970s, was also the start of his career as architecture photographer. Some of his earliest photographs are also some of the most familiar, having been used to illustrate Rossi’s widely circulated Scientific Autobiography. The delicate and absorbing dialogue between images and words that resulted from this collaboration influenced generations of architects, whilst paving the way to an extensive photographic oeuvre. By the time of his retirement in the early 2010s, Helfenstein was one of the most celebrated Swiss architecture photographers, having worked with Diener & Diener, Peter Märkli, Peter Zumthor, Meili Peter, Gigon Guyer, Burkhalter & Sumi, and Valerio Olgiati, as well as artists Hans Josephsohn, Per Kirkby, and Meret Oppenheim among many others. Due to his approach, his photography not only helped disseminate Swiss architecture in the late 20th century, but actively shaped its discourse, particular its interfaces with art. Based on original material from the Helfenstein holdings at the gta Archives, this paper explores the formation of tacit professional knowledge through the vector of architectural photography. It accompanies the exhibit co-curated with gta archivist and architect Ziu Bruckmann.

This object will be presented at the TACK Conference in the object session LINEAGES, 20 June 2023 between 17:30 – 19:00 (CEST) at ETH Zürich (Auditorium HPV G5).

Irina Davidovici is the Director of the gta Archives at ETH Zurich, where she is also active as private lecturer and senior scientist. Her research straddles urban housing studies, commons theory, and architectural history and criticism.
 Ziu Bruckmann is an architect who works as a scientific assistant at the gta Archives at ETH Zurich and at the THEMA laboratory at EPF Lausanne. Besides, he studies Classical Archaeology at University of Zurich and works on renovation projects in Germany.