Swirly shapes and circles, a glimpse of a spiral staircase under a right-angled corner, and stacked-up models that look as if they might topple over at any minute. Then more fragmentary, curvy shapes that recall abstract art. These are the details captured by Thomas Demand in the series of photographs entitled Latent Forms that he took at SANAA’s offices in a Tokyo suburb in 2013. Cardboard cut-outs represent a plaza; staggered oval shapes convey a dormitory; layered sheets portray a theatre. In Demand’s abstractions, the models look unfinished, haphazard, even disorderly, as if the projects might be reconsidered at any moment. It’s a far cry from the meticulous architectural models that we see displayed in galleries and museums.

Asked why he chose to depict SANAA’s projects in this way, Demand replies, “Because they aren’t architecture yet, and their recognisability is the least interesting part for me. I am not looking to monumentalise the very gifted architects. These are artworks in their own right, not homages. It was an attempt to describe the potentiality of the paper structures you see in the images. Things could be something or not. They might be a building or they might never get to the next stage. It’s this openness, which is of course the same as in an artist’s studio, that I am after in this group of works.”

Demand, 51, is known for the pictures he takes of his own paper and cardboard sculptures, ranging from forests and grottoes to laboratories and domestic interiors, which are created for the sole purpose of photographing them and are destroyed afterwards. Having studied at the Arts Academy in Düsseldorf before completing an MFA at Goldsmiths College in London, Demand developed a signature style of large-scale, complex images that questioned the medium of photography as a faithful record of reality. His new book, The Dailies, features works based on details or moments in everyday life. For example, clothes inside a washing machine, a plastic cup falling off a shelf, and a hotel room door.


A few years ago, though, Demand ventured out of his comfort zone and made images of John Lautner’s dilapidated architectural models, which he had discovered in the archives of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. The cardboard and foil constructions had served as tools for spaces that Lautner never realised. Demand’s project, called Model Studies, marked the first time that he photographed an architect’s existing models and offered an articulation of the architect’s unrealised dreams. The series was exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012, just nine years after Demand had represented Germany at the Venice Art Biennale.

“I didn’t want to build a monument to Mr Lautner, although he surely deserves one”, explains Demand. “For me, it was about his fascinating point of departure: the back and forth, his hand, the non-assuming treatment of the material as just material for thought, communication, and correction, rather than a representation, as per the common approach to architectural models. So when I visited SANAA, that process – the abandonment and vagueness of the shapes being created, left, and reused for other projects – was particularly intriguing after what I’d seen in Lautner’s work.”

From the other side

The impetus for Latent Forms harks back to Kazuyo Sejima, who co-founded SANAA with Ryue Nishizawa. Ryue Nishizawa had invited Demand to participate in the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2010, which she curated. “She very generously offered me a platform to display a public project for Zürich that was slaughtered by the extreme right-wing party in Switzerland”, explains Demand. “We then got to know each other better. I met Ryue and the team, all very unorthodox but open and welcoming.”

Demand was given free rein to wander round the offices on his own for several hours a day, and had access to everything he wanted to see. “Imagine me using their office as a studio – it’s highly subjective”, notes Demand. Indeed, SANAA’s generosity towards him segues from the duo once authorising Walter Niedermayr to independently photograph all their finished buildings. While Niedermayr’s images capture the beauty and minimal lightness of the architecture, Demand’s images capture the lack of pretension in SANAA’s process. “Most of the people at SANAA are not Japanese, so the models, which are mostly made of simple copier paper (until a later stage), are a crucial element for the sharing of ideas and directions during the design phase”, says Demand.

The surprise of seeing SANAA’s models interpreted in a novel way reflects how the perception of model photography is defined by standard images published in the mainstream media. “The genre of architectural-model photography is hugely underdeveloped”, insists Demand. “All you see is politicians touching blocky little models of airports and high-rises, feeling like God.”

So what does producing these model studies mean to Demand? “I feel more like a photographer than before”, he replies. “But it’s just another way of looking at my own work. If you were to think of my large pieces as novels, these ones are more like notes in a diary.” This reveals Demand’s eagerness to stretch his mind further by presenting himself with challenges. “If I started studying my own models, it would not really give me any insights that I didn’t already have whilst making them. That’s why I am looking at SANAA’s.”

Thomas Demand: Latent Forms is at Sprüth Magers, London, until 19 December 2015. 

Thomas Demand: Modellstudien is at the Siza Pavilion, Raketenstation Hombroich, Germany, until 06 December 2015. 

Thomas Demand: Daily Show is at The Common Guild, Glasgow, Scotland, until 13 December 2015. 

Thomas Demand: The Dailies, published by MACK, 2015. 

This article appeared in DAM53. Order your personal copy.