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Mikael Levin 


Cultural Identity 

in the Urban Environment 





The Untidy Intimacy of Places 

by Christopher Phillips 

Exhibition Schedule 

Insitut Frangais de Thessalonique 
In Conjunction with PhotoSynkyria 99 
Thessaloniki, Greece 
February 16 - March 15,1999 

Anglen, Katrineholms Konsthall 
Katrineholm, Sweden 
June 14 - August 14,1999 

Centre Regional de la Photographie 

Douchy-les Mines, France 

October, 1999 

Galerie am Fishmarkt - Konsthalle Erfurt 

Erfurt, Germany 


Funding and technical support for 
this project where provided by Institut 
Frangais de Thessalonique, Thuringian 
Ministry for Science and Cultural Affairs, 
Centre Regional de la Photographie, 
and Katrineholms Konsthall. 

Special thanks to jacques Soulillou, 

Kai Uwe Scheirtz, Pierre Devin, and 
Siv Falk. I would also like to thank 
Thomas Nicq, Christophe Bavier and 
Aurora Hendricks. 

Design by Linda Florio 

“The house of memory”—this is how the architect Aldo Rossi once described the 
Western city. Rossi’s striking phrase prompts us to recall the ways that the forms 
and structures of our built environment, as they slowly accumulate over time, come 
to provide a guarantee of a living connection between past and future generations. 
Seen in this light, the city can be imagined as a space whose true function is to 
enable individual and collective memory to coexist. In our century, however, the 
cultural value of memory has been increasingly challenged; as times change and 
circumstances shift, the contending claims of the past, present and future are being 
constantly renegotiated. 

These are some of the considerations that underlie Mikael Levin’s photographic project 
“Common Places,” which takes as its subject a relatively unheralded aspect of urban 
Europe: its towns and smaller cities. In four locales ranging from Scandinavia to the 
Mediterranean —Katrineholm (Sweden), Erfurt (Germany), Cambrai (France) and 
Thessaloniki (Greece) —Levin introduces us to a distinctive urban culture marked 
by a singular array of pleasures and tensions. The pleasures spring first from the 
preservation of a human-scale architecture that avoids the typical big-city imbalance 
between the human body and the massive built environment; then from the survival 
of a casual street life that encourages pedestrians to linger in public spaces, fostering 
an air of easy face-to-face encounter; and finally from a sense of coexistence with, not 
detachment from, surrounding nature. The tensions arise from the pressure to create 
a sustainable local identity in a Europe that is growing both increasingly unified and 
culturally homogenized. In “Common Places” we are presented with four distinctive 
yet not untypical communities, each responding in its own fashion to the challenge of 
creating a shared sense of place. Through the photographs of Mikael Levin we gain a 
new insight into seemingly unremarkable urban spaces, which we learn to recognize 
as the setting for a quiet battle that pits the relentless forces of the present against 
the stubborn traces of the historical past. 

“Common Places” extends, in an unexpected direction, the concerns of Mikael Levin’s 
previous projects, which have frequently explored the dialectic of rootedness and 
exile. After landscape photographs carried out largely in France, Sweden and Israel 
during the 1980s, his “Border Project” of 1993-95 encompassed several interrelated 
bodies of work. One consisted of laconic studies of the now-abandoned border 
stations found along the boundaries of the French hexagon; these architectural 
structures, which once symbolized a whole national ethos of belonging and exclusion, 
have now become obsolete with the dismantling of internal borders within the 
European Union. Another presented rather anonymous-looking photographs of people 
moving confusedly through the terminals at Orly airport in Paris—a crucial transit 
point for arriving immigrants—and a third comprised portraits made in Sweden of war 
refugees who had fled the Balkan conflicts. 

In his next project, “War Story” (1995-96), Levin retraced the path that took his father, 
an American war correspondent, through the battlefields and concentration camps 
of France, Germany and Czechoslovakia at the close of World War II. Alongside text 
panels bearing excerpts from his father’s writings. Levin showed his own quiet, 
observant contemporary photographs, often made at the same sites. From their juxta¬ 
position emerges an overlay of historical moments, one that prompts the viewer to 
search for subtle traces of the past in the apparently banal scenes of the present. 
Subsequently, in a 1998 project tellingly titled “The Burden of Identity,” Levin carried 
out a series of portraits of the contemporary lews of Berlin —men and women who are 
slowly rebuilding a community all but extinguished during the Third Reich. These 
portraits gain part of their intensity from the fact that they were made at a variety of 
different sites in a city whose urban fabric is now being irrevocably transformed. 

It is possible to discover a cluster of related themes in Levin’s earlier projects. These 
include the fragility of human communities; the ways that inhabited spaces preserve 
or conceal traces of the past; and the difficulty, during an era of violent flux such as 
ours, of understanding who one is and where one comes from. From such concerns 
arose the questions that led Levin to conceive “Common Places.” He writes, “When I 
was photographing ‘War Story,’ especially in the cities, I was noticing how the impact 
of the war was often expressed more in the absence of things than anything else.” 

As a result, he says, “I now wanted to try to work with more subtle traces, to show 
how everyday scenes in themselves express memory and identity.” 

“Common Places” acquired a specific shape in response to Levin’s growing interest in 
a certain kind of urban European community, that found not in the great metropoles 
but in towns and smaller cities. His aim, he says, was not to carry out an exhaustive 
documentation of the four places he selected, or even to convey a rounded portrait 
of each. Instead he set out to suggest, through a carefully edited group of eight 
photographs of each locale, both the “typical” qualities they share and the particular 
features that set them apart. 


Levin approached “Common Places” not analytically, as an urban sociologist might, 
but intuitively, as a visual artist. As the project developed, he hit upon ways to make 
visually manifest the correspondences he sensed between the four locales. Working 
primarily around the central urban district in each city, he looked primarily for “every¬ 
day” sites: the kinds of places that a local resident might regularly pass along a per¬ 
sonal promenade. At the same time, Levin purposely avoided recognized landmarks 
(“postcard views” of Katrineholm are represented in the exhibition by the actual 
postcards he collected). Searching for settings that suggest what Aldo Rossi has 
called “the untidy intimacy of places,” he concentrated on the kinds of scenes that 
furnish the familiar, unremarked backdrop of a community’s collective life. 

In deciding upon his camera viewpoints, Levin chose to keep to a middle distance, 
avoiding both extreme long views as well as close-ups of individual details. He sought 
to register in each image as much mundane information as possible—for example, 
the varieties of clothing worn by people in the streets —knowing that such particulars, 
while of scant importance today, often become a source of fascination with the 
passage of time. To retain a sense of the specific atmosphere and quality of light in 
each locale, he varied his printing method slightly for each group of prints. And, to 
encourage the viewer to become visually immersed in the scenes that he presents, 
he decided to make the prints in a comparatively large format. 

In the end Levin chose to concentrate on four places that he had encountered more 
or less by accident during his travels in recent years. Katrineholm is a town of around 
21,000 people that lies just over 100 kilometers southwest of Stockholm. Cambrai, a 
modest city of roughly 175,000, is situated in northern France, not far from Lille. Erfurt 
is located in central Germany, approximately 100 kilometers southwest of Leipzig, and 
counts around 220,000 inhabitants. Thessalonki, a port bordering the waters of the 
Aegean, is the principal city of northern Greece, with a population of around one mil¬ 
lion. In addition to their variations of size and geographical location, these four urban 
sites also differ significantly—and here is perhaps the real key to Levin’s project—in 
the ways that the past impinges on the consciousness of present-day inhabitants. 

Katrineholm is a town whose roots do not go deep. Although 6,000 years ago a Stone 
Age hunting and farming culture existed in this area, Katrineholm is a new town, a 
garden city officially founded in 1917. It is located in a predominantly farming region 
that is also home to light manufacturing operations and high-tech companies. Above 
all there is an attempt here, characteristic of the turn-of-the-century garden-city 
movement, to achieve a balance between economic and environmental concerns, 
between work and leisure activities. Yet despite its seeming isolation, this is also 
a town in which foreigners have grown to be a familiar presence, a result of the 
Swedish government’s policy of directing to Katrineholm many immigrants— 
Vietnamese, Kurds, Cambodians, Africans—who have come in search of temporary 
work or political asylum. Focused almost entirely on the present, Katrineholm has 
only lately begun to preserve “historic” buildings erected at the turn of the century. 
Recently, too, the downtown streets have been paved with cobblestones—which 
never existed before. It is as if a sense of tradition is something that must be 
artificially cultivated or be imported from elsewhere. 

Levin’s photographs evoke a town that still seems rather precariously cleared from the 
surrounding countryside. In one photograph green nature looms in the distance past 
a row of houses, and in another we see low, wild shrubbery unobtrusively edging past 
the outer boundaries of a parking lot. Katrineholm’s solidly constructed buildings are 
rather nondescript; their unblemished, unornamented facades lend them the air of 
oversized architectural models. This flawless quality renders almost shocking the 
one instance of graffiti that we see. Street lights and traffic signs are anonymously 
modern; and only the sprinkling of satellite TV dishes on rooftops speaks of a direct 
connection to the outside world. This is a town which, undistracted by relics of former 
triumphs or tragedies, seems determined to hold on to its stasis. 

The past intrudes more forcefully on Cambrai, but it seems to offer few unambiguous 
messages to the city’s contemporary inhabitants. Once the capital of a Roman province, 
Cambrai flourished during the Middle Ages as a commercial city on the trade routes 
linking England, Flanders and Champagne. Like much of northern France, Cambrai was 
devastated during World War I (the first modern tank battle was fought nearby), and 
the city was deliberately rebuilt on the lines of the original street plan. A handful of 
architectural monuments have survived from the i6th-i8th centuries, but these are of 
insufficient grandeur to turn the city into a tourist destination. As is the case throughout 
this region, Cambrai’s once-vital textile and manufacturing industries have fallen on hard 
times, and it is too early to predict the outcome of current efforts to forge new economic 
partnerships with neighboring areas in Belgium, Holland and Germany. 

Levin shows a small city of modest, comfortable aspect, whose three- and four-story 
buildings are fronted by unassuming facades of brick, stone and stucco. Within 
Cambrai’s almost seamless blend of architectural styles, the more distinctive struc¬ 
tures, such as the 16th-century Maison Espagnole and the restored Hotel de Ville, 
do not stand out dramatically from the prevailing urban mix. They are jostled by 
their neighbors—more recent, anonymous buildings whose roofs bristle with TV 
antennae—and by the ubiquitous parked autos which seem to crowd every sidewalk. 
Levin’s photographs present striking evidence of the congestion that threatens many 

European urban centers, whose narrow, winding streets, fundamentally unaltered in 
plan since the Middle Ages, were never meant to handle high-volume auto traffic. A 
moment of visual relief, at any rate, is provided by a long perspectival view that looks 
past a vista of residential blocks toward a reassuring terminus—a stand of trees that 
appears to signal the boundaries the old city. 

Erfurt, too, has inherited a classic, concentric city plan, but it has dealt with the prob¬ 
lem of circulation by turning the old city center into a pedestrian zone—one aspect 
of an effort to parlay Erfurt’s rich medieval heritage into a major touristic attraction. 
For centuries a prosperous trading town, Erfurt boasts a collection of splendid Gothic, 
Baroque and Rococo buildings as well as the university where Martin Luther studied. 
The expansive cathedral square, the Domplatz, is ringed by historic houses with 
half-timber facades; from it fans out a network of narrow streets. The survival of the 
old city owes more to luck than foresight. Erfurt escaped the Allied aerial bombing 
of World War II relatively unscathed; subsequently, during the 50 years of the socialist 
German Democratic Republic, little renovation was attempted, and new building 
activity was confined to the satellite zones beyond the old city. 

In his photographs of Erfurt, Levin presents us with only indirect glimpses of the 
restored Domplatz, as when we catch sight of soaring steeples through the trees of 
quiet residential streets. The new construction undertaken since 1990 seems for the 
most part tastefully done, with even the modern apartment buildings blending in 
more or less harmoniously. Yet the 20th century cannot be held fully at bay: consider 
the evidence of a graffiti sprayer’s recent visit on the ground-floor walls of an impos¬ 
ing building with rusticated timbering. 

Whether consciously intended or not, the restoration of medieval Erfurt as a kind 
of Disneyesque fantasy has the effect of throwing into obscurity the more doubtful 
aspects of the city’s past. During the Third Reich, for example, Erfurt was home to one 
of Germany’s largest military garrisons and witnessed the wholesale deportation of 
the city’s Jewish population; its factories manufactured the gas ovens that were put to 
deadly use at Nazi extermination camps. Reminders of Erfurt’s half-century of socialist 
rule seem no more likely to survive. In addition to his photographs of the central city, 
Levin visited the monolithic residential high-rises built during the socialist era. These 
buildings once stood as symbols of an alternative vision of the future—a vision that, 
now discredited, is being erased from Erfurt’s collective memory. While still maintained, 
the 10-story slabs are filled largely today with the families of aging, unemployed 
workers who have proved unable to find a place in the new free-market economy. 

In contrast to Erfurt’s selective memory, Thessaloniki offers an example of a modern 
urban environment built on the wholesale repudiation of the historical past. Founded 
more than 20 centuries ago, Thessaloniki flourished under the Romans and became 
the second city of Byzantine empire. Conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1430, it 
remained under Ottoman rule until taken by Greek forces in 1912. Only five years later, 
in August 1917, a devastating fire swept through through the city, destroying virtually 
all of the old urban center. Thessaloniki’s political leaders seized the opportunity 
to totally recast the city plan; in so doing, the architectural heritage of Rome and 
Byzantium was highlighted and the memory of the Ottoman period was expunged. 

A French architect was commissioned to draw up a modern grid of streets cut by 
diagonal thoroughfares, and the old city dwelling pattern, based on the existence of 
distinct ethnic quarters (Greek, Jewish, Muslim) gave way to new neighborhoods 
based on economic stratification. 

Of the four locales that Levin photographed for “Common Places,” Thessaloniki marks 
the point where a sense of modern big-city life enters the scene. We see wide boule¬ 
vards flanked by recent 8-story residential buildings that overwhelm the remnants of 
Byzantine churches, and a waterfront packed with high-rise structures. We encounter 
the big city’s familiar whirlwind of visual information: street signs, commercial bill¬ 
boards, dense forests of TV antennae, and a jumble of modern architectural styles. 

The distinctive features of Mediterranean culture, too, become evident here: almost 
every residential building features generous, sun-drenched balconies, suggesting an 
easy openness to the environment. Surprisingly, in a city laid out with the automobile 
in mind, a flourishing public life survives on the streets, making Thessaloniki seem an 
enormous small town rather than an impersonal metropolis. 

With tact and subtlety, Mikael Levin’s photographs of Katrineholm, Cambrai, Erfurt and 
Thessaloniki reveal the deep-seated strengths and surprising vulnerabilities of urban 
communities as they struggle to reconcile the inheritance of the past and the insistent 
demands of the present. His images pass no judgments. Richly descriptive rather than 
prescriptive, they advance no easy solutions. Instead these photographs enable us to 
take a crucial first step, one that brings us closer to comprehending the urban processes 
that slowly unfold, in all their human and historical complexity, before our eyes. 

Christopher Phillips is senior editor at Art in America magazine. He teaches at 
New York University’s Tisch School of Arts and at the School of Visual Arts. 




Katrineholm, founded in 
1917, is a town that lives 
in the present, without a 
past and without any 
great interest in its lack 
of one. Built as a railway 
junction and designed 
as a “garden city”, it 
represents the ideals of 
the modernist movement 
and the best aspirations 
of social planning. In 
recent years Katrineholm 
has seen a major influx of 
immigrants, refugees from 
conflicts the world over. 





Cambrai has a history of 
over 2,000 years. Yet it 
too, like Katrineholm, 
seems to live very much 
in the present, not having 
resorted to any self-con¬ 
scious preoccupations 
with historical structures. 
It is a city layered with 
successive urban designs, 
rebuilt after war time 
and again. Today Cambrai 
searches to redefine itself 
as a regional center in 
a part of France that has 
experienced severe 
economic decline. 




The city of Erfurt revels 
in an idealized past, as 
expressed in its unique 
medieval center. Here 
one finds an untainted 
Germany, a Germany 
from before the horrors 
its modern era. 
Surrounding the historic 
center, however, this 
century’s expansion 
festers, presenting all of 
the social and economic 
problems carried over 
from the Communist 
era to the united Germany 
of today. 






Thessaloniki is remark¬ 
able for its denial of 
history, trying as it does 
to erase 500 years of 
foreign rule. The city, once 
a rich multi-ethnic center 
of trade and culture, was 
largely destroyed by fire 
in 1917. Rebuilt starting 
in the ‘20s, it was laid 
out on a modern grid 
that preserved only its 
ancient landmarks, and 
its Ottoman past was 
completely obliterated. 
While Thessaloniki has 
expanded greatly in 
modern times, it never 
recovered its wealth or 


tin iuai 

Mikael Levin’s photographs often focus on questions of 
identity and memory in the landscape. Projects include 
Silent Passage, a study of an isolated lake in Sweden 
(published in 1985 by Hudson Hills Press, New York), 

Les Quatre Saisons du Territoire (1987 -1990), a survey of 
changing land use in western France, and Borders (1993). 
about the evolving notions of borders in today’s Europe. 

In War Story (1995), he retraced his father’s 1945 journey 
through war-torn Europe, photographing the places described 
by his father as a journalist fifty years earlier (published 
by Gina Kehayoff Verlag, Munich, 1997)- Mikael Levin has 
exhibited widely and his work is included in many public 
collections, including, in New York, the Whitney Museum 
of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the 
Victoria and Albert Museum (London), Bibliotheque de 
rationale de France (Paris) and Moderna Museet (Stockholm). 
Mikael Levin was born in New York City and lives there 
today. He has also lived at various times in Israel, in France, 
and in Sweden. 

Common Places looks at how 
four western European cities 
express their cultural identities. 
It is about the origins and 
history manifested in ordinary 
urban spaces, and how 
these manifestations reflect 
contemporary attitudes toward 
the past and the future. 

Ranging in size from small 
town to large city, these 

geographically diverse places 

are typical urban centers of 
today. And while they each 
have a distinctive history, 
this century’s cultural and 
economic cross-influences 
have steadily brought them 
closer to one another. 

Your comments on this project are welcome. Please 
contact Mikael Levin through any of these exhibition 
sites, or by e-mail at: