“Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that is troublesome” said Isaac Asimov. Our culture greatly celebrates beautiful architectures of buildings we live in, but what about places we go after life ends? Have you ever thought about the architecture of a crematorium? Or choosing it as a photographic subject?
Despite how great the architecture of a cemetery or crematory is, its beauty is often not celebrated and the focus remains mostly at its function. For a lot of people, in fact, the subject of death is even considered inappropriate and they prefer to restrain themselves from talking about these places, so let alone contemplating about its design aspects.
Pierre Châtel is not one of those people. During the Hamburg Art Buyers Tour, he shared with us his fascination for a crematorium related project he did in the past. As an assignment for Henning Larsen Architects A/S, he visited the Ringsted Communal Crematorium in Denmark and captured the side of the crematorium that most of us don’t usually think of: that there is incredible beauty in such space.
So today we talk to him about this rather unusual project, his photography journey, and his view on the importance of the human aspect in the architecture of crematoriums.
Tell us about yourself. Who is Pierre Châtel?
I was born in Saint Pierre and Miquelon in 1982, a very small and unknown French island near the coast of Canada. I moved to mainland France at 17 to study and… never left. I’m a computer engineer by training and I recently abandoned integrated circuits for the active contemplation of the facades of buildings! I’m now a full-time professional architecture photographer and artist in Paris. My style is characterised by a minimalist aesthetic that I put at the service of the natural beauty of buildings and interiors.
I work across all Europe doing architectural photography for various types of clients (you can see most of my work on my website) and I also do artistic photography and personal projects. In fact, I had my first solo gallery exhibition in Paris this year (check it out if you can read French).
How did you and photography meet?
I’ve always been passionate about photography and architecture, but it really gained momentum about two years ago, as a hobby at first. It was a difficult time for me, because I didn’t feel fulfilled working as an engineer – as I did before – and I was looking for a creative outlet outside of work. This is how it really began.
Most of my time outside of work was devoted to roaming the Paris region, finding good photography spots and then editing. At the time, of course I couldn’t have guessed that this would lead to me quitting my job and switching careers! Which I did last year.
Why architectural photography?
I was probably always drawn to urban settings, so street photography in general also remains a big subject for me. In my pure architectural shots, buildings come to the center stage… and keystoning becomes a religion 😉
I’m not an architect by trade but have been fascinated with modern and contemporary architecture for many years now. I come from a small island and there, the main city is mostly composed of small wood houses. So when I moved to Europe, I became quite obsessed with this particular big-city atmosphere, in which buildings play such big part.
Part of the fascination for me is about how architecture is so embedded in our lives and yet almost no-one is really paying day-to-day attention to it, outside of experts of course. In my photography work I then try focus on the interaction of these buildings with their environment, with light, rain, clouds… and with people.
You have a very creative eye and it’s fascinating to scroll through your portfolio. We couldn’t stop noticing a project you did on a crematory in Denmark. How did it come about?
It was originally ordered by a customer: Henning Larsen Architects, from Denmark. They were the ones designing the building. As architects, they were mostly interested on the purely architectural features of the building. But these particular features exist precisely because of the very unique role it plays in society and with its workers: the undertakers.
Are such places usually photographed from an architectural perspective?
They’re usually not photographed at all! Not often at least. I think it would have been incredibly difficult to make such a photographic work in France for instance. But the proverbial openness of the Danish played in my favor.
As for myself, I discovered an entirely new field of architecture. There’s an astonishingly creative approach to crematoriums in Europe, with very different takes depending on the country and local culture. In fact, there is one reference photography book on the subject that I can think of: ‘Goodbye Architecture’, by Vincent Valentijn and Kim Verhoeven. I highly recommend it to anyone interested by this topic.
How was it to gather inspiration and prepare to shoot such a place?
There’s always some level of preparation that goes into such a shoot. You have to coordinate with people in order to get all the proper authorisations. The people at Henning Larsen did most of the legwork here, I have to thank them for that! Other than that, for this particular case, I really didn’t know what to expect!
How would you describe the experience?
In the end, I had the opportunity to spend the most part of a day shooting inside and outside the crematorium, working discreetly alongside the undertakers. I must say it was quite a unique experience. From both an architectural and personal standpoint. Dare I say, even more personal than architectural.
Nothing was hidden from sight and I can say they are doing an incredibly respectful – vital, even – job. All the team was very welcoming, putting me at ease, talking about the job and its challenges. I felt (almost) immediately very at ease, despite the gravity of the place. In fact, this is where architecture plays a big part: in order to alleviate some of the psychological burden the workers must feel, the building was consciously bathed in natural light and the beautiful surroundings can be seen from the inside so as not to feel trapped.
From a photography standpoint, my role was to focus on the architecture of course, and I think it transpires in the photo selection, but I also had the opportunity to capture the team working. I chose to only take pictures of specific key steps so as not to disrespect the dead.
What was the main message you tried to convey?
It’s twofold : firstly, that architecture can – and should – be made to accomodate any type of place: not just office towers, operas and villas, but also places such as this one that are so rarely in people’s minds.
Secondly, that such a place can be beautiful in its own right. And I think this is where the work done by Henning Larsen Architects really shines, all the while keeping everything functional.
How would you describe your photography journey in one sentence?
A truly human and aesthetic experience. As should any photography journey be!
What song do you have on repeat at the moment?
It’s an album : ‘Tokyo Stories, by the amazing Francesco Tristano.