Eyes From The Sky

Christoph Gielen is a photographer whose work centers on suburban city life, specifically to solve the task of a growing population in a finite world. How we plan new housing developments and cities will directly impact the ecological footprint of the society living in them, and the goal of his work is to create the desire to start moving towards a harmony between nature, society, and its architecture.

In an age where environmental awareness seems like the newest “in” thing, you may not be surprised to find photographs that encourage good stewardship when designing environmentally friendly architecture. That being said, these photographs aren’t your typical shots of suburbia, and they have a substantial amount of “wow” factor to them, so much so that they’ve been featured in the New York Times, and Metropolis Magazine among others. In addition, the artist has held talks at the BMW Gugenheim Lab in New York, and TedxMidAtlantic.



In order to encourage sustainable building practices and a sustainable society in general, Cristoph created Ciphers, an aerial look at the growing suburbia, or “sprawl”, which examines the inefficiencies present in our car-centric society and perhaps would open up a dialog between engineers, architects, city planners etc, on how to combat the issues of sprawl. You can find and purchase the book here.


Christoph had this to say about why he chose Suburbia as his main focus:

“I’ve always registered a disproportionately strong response to encountering architecture, particularly to pre-fab Plattenbau growing up in post-war Germany.

I understood early on that I had a fascination with housing, a heightened sense of space. This almost innate desire to discuss housing found its perfect focal point in sprawl on my first journey across the U.S., after studying photography here in New York. It was the perfect answer to my long search.”

DEER CREST II Suburban California

“As a topic – sprawl inevitably concerns us all. Earth’s land surface is finite  – but population growth and urban expansion are increasing rapidly. A change in our approach to sprawl is overdue and it’s the dominant landscape in America. Sprawl is already built, and the critique of it is valid: So far suburbs tend to be places of consumption, devoid of culture, and isolating. The architectural expression of the suburbs is one of sameness.”


I try to turn sprawl into an aesthetic experience at the intersection of photography and environmental politics… and by providing a perpendicular view to display the morphology of these neighborhoods. The results are abstract, kaleidoscopic — creating a “Verfremdungseffekt” (an estrangement effect). At the same time, these photographs are detailed enough to also function as a diagnostic tool for assessing the conditions on the ground — as if looking into a petri dish with proliferating, unsustainable growth through a giant magnifier.


In a recent interview for PBS ART BEAT, he discusses the project further sharing his process of traveling to different places, talking with realtors as if buying a home, and working with the U.S. Gelogical survey to find topographical patterns in the developments and roadways. Finally he flies over with a helicopter in “vertical spiral movements” to get the final shots you see here.

CONVERSIONS VII Urban California
CONVERSIONS Suburban California

He found a region outside of Las Vegas that was growing rapidly before the real estate crash which hit so many just a few years ago. The disturbing part about this is that they seemed to be built using methods of profiling, in essence putting people in different zip codes based on things such as shopping habits, age groups, families, and gender. To top this, when Christoph Gielen looked at how different neighborhoods were pieced together in areas of California, there wasn’t much thought to how efficiently the land was used, and this has a direct correlation to our impact on the environment around us.


What occurred to me seeing these photographs, was an approach to environmental awareness that I don’t often see pursued. Though it’s still a highly prominent issue in modern society, it seems to be the elephant in the room that’s not likely to come out in the open soon lest we have to give up our homes and live in multi-story building complexes that many in suburbia are trying to avoid.


Where to Go Now

When home buyers are looking for a place to settle down, one of the biggest factors they consider is population density, and they want more space! Living in California, one becomes aware that Americans thrive on having more… of everything, and I don’t believe they’re alone. It goes with the “bigger is better” philosophy, but realistically, how much do we need to live happily, comfortably, and sustainably? This goes beyond having the next new Toyota Prius, or Smart Car. Should we be re-evaluating the way we live, and the way we build? Discuss below.


To Find more of Christoph’s work, you can head over to his website, or purchase his new book, “CIPHERS.”

CREDITS: All photographs by Christoph Gielen are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.