Mirelle Thijsen (MT):
I saw the announcement on Facebook: The king of the Netherlands, Willem Alexander, received the first copy of WAREHOUSE/LABORATORY presented by the author-photographer Henk Wildschut. A few days later I purchased online a signed and numbered copy from the photographer’s website. It said, handwritten on the French title page: ‘SE#04’ – number 4 out of 100 copies. While leafing through the book publication I realized I had obtained a contemporary company photobook in the tradition of new documentary photography.
WAREHOUSE/LABORATORY is a state-of-the-art company photobook on futuristic high-tech ‘agriculture’. The publication is accentuated by the clever, clean and clear layout concept from Robin Uleman. I sent an e-mail query to the graphic-designer to explain the title, some of the technical terms regarding e.g. the sleeve for the map; the folding of the map; the kind of ‘system typography’ used for the inner work of the book, and the letter font. Uleman’s replies are inserted in this review, highlighted in purple.
Robin Uleman (RU):
Since the building is qualified as industrial heritage, the exterior of the old warehouse has been largely kept intact while the interior has been stripped completely and will get an overall renovation. It was built at the end of the fifties, during the heyday of company photobooks. Most of those publications had a sturdy and alluring look. Hardcovers depicting full bleeding black and white or duotone pictures, with just the book title printed on top, or simply bound in cloth, with monumental type faces embossed in or foil-blocked on top of it were the convention. In the layout of WAREHOUSE/LABORATORY I refer to those days and combine the homage with a shot from the new interior. So the book has a hardcover clad with a canvas-like grainy paper, on which a picture is printed, so sleek and mysterious that it might as well be a still taken from a science fiction movie. The foil-blocked title puts the metaphor of the spaceship firmly on the ground and adds to the earthly tactile sensation of the canvas cover in your hands.
Such books are rare these days. Let me compare a few examples compiled by Dutch photographers and /or designers in the past 20 years. The robust hand glued accordion fold Interpolis (2006) by Frank van der Salm is an artist’s book containing abstracted images of the interior, the exterior, and the location of the insurance enterprise.
All Ferrari Engines (2002) is a sample book collection of 7 technical drawings and 91 color photographs of Ferrari engines collected by an elderly employer from the period 1947-2002. The publication documents the technical history of a car manufacturer and is designed by Irma Boom. How Terry Likes his Coffee (2010/2012) is a non-commissioned documentary photobook by Florian van Roekel. The oblong self-published book is the result of a fifteen-month exploration of five different offices throughout the Netherlands. It documents a candid reality of the changing perception of people in office culture. Mensenstroom (1997) has been setting the standard for a new documentary approach to the genre. This documentary / company photobook is both a commissioned and self-published by Bart Sorgedrager, following the closure of the nuclear plant Dodewaard. Mensenstroom ultimately is a farewell gift for the employees, handed out on their last day of work.
The title WAREHOUSE / LABORATORY stems from the design process. I like to have that kind of freedom in designing a book: not only to develop the edits, but also to play with titles, chapters and words in order to direct the viewer’s attention and shape the editorial content.
PlantLab’s experiments with cultivating crops under totally controlled conditions, which are purely scientific in nature, so the title had to mimic a scientific formula or comparison, like different states of aggregation that are juxtaposed. In this book a building changes from one state – a former warehouse – into another – a laboratory for the future.
The book is divided in four chapters, in line with that same idea of transformation: STAGE 0 / WAREHOUSE, STAGE 1 / DEMOLITION, STAGE 2 / CONSTRUCTION and STAGE 3 / LABORATORY.
The introduction text by the board of PlantLab is business-like; not what you would call a prosaic opening, describing ‘explosive growth’ (from five to 35 people, from 200 m2 to 20.000 m2 working surface); ‘preserve talents’ and ‘deliver results’. PlantLab, founded in 2010, ‘is a mission to change the way the world is fed’. The ultimate goal of the enterprise is ‘to ensure that plants can reach their full potential, so that we can have a world where everyone has access to a sustainable source of safe, affordable and nutritious food’. How to implement that mission, I wondered. Well, by merging know-how related to:
A. Plant physiology
B. Mathematical models
C. State-of-the-art technology.
This business model carries a wonderful name: ‘Plant’s paradise’. So what they do is design and build Plant Production Units (PPU’s). These units are hermetically closed ‘growing environments’ with optimized climate control conditions applicable to all worldwide growing conditions. The consequence and environmentally friendly result allows shortening supply chains inasmuch as food is grown locally. In short, we look at sterile conditions for crop cultivation behind closed doors. All this is happening in a former warehouse, the nostalgic De Gruyter Factory (famous for making chocolate sprinkles and a highly flavoured sweet anise powder called ‘crunched Muisjes’), now a state-of-the-art innovative research facility.
The documentary style of Henk Wildschut, as demonstrated in his recently published book Food (2013), is a remarkable in-depth study on the food industry in the Netherlands, and fits the recording of PlantLab’s culture like a glove. Inasmuch as post-war company photobooks were released as commemoration/ anniversary books to inaugurate a new factory building and in some cases to document the production process and manufacturing, WAREHOUSE/LABORATORY documents the revolutionary renovation of a piece of cultural heritage into a ‘spacelab’.
To be honest I don’t know what would be a more appropriate term for the ‘sleeve for the map’. I guess that description comes closest to what it is. In terms of bookbinding it’s not a very common solution to create a sleeve from the last gathering of pages. The final two pages are folded inward like in Japanese bookbinding and subtly glued at the bottom. I didn’t want to insert an ugly triangular sleeve glued onto the end papers at the inside of the cover to hold the map. It’s a common solution, but in my opinion it’s better to avoid it, since it looks like an afterthought. I wanted it to be elegant and simple, an integral part of the object. NPN printers suggested this solution, which was created and executed in cooperation with Van Waarden, the bookbinders. The map itself is folded half through the horizon and then folded like an accordion.
A schematic field report, tightly fit in a exceptional sleeve in the back of the book shows on a map, in floor plans, on the front side the different stages of transforming industrial heritage into a testing ground for indoor farming. On the backside the construction of laboratories is visualised. And this is new, not only within the genre itself: Numbered pink arrows on the map indicate camera standpoint and angles of every single image. So each photograph is indexed with A. a unique number, B. a location, referring to the coordinates on the field report, and C. a date, indicating when the photograph was made and in which stage of the renovation (demolition 0 + 1) or construction of the laboratories (2 + 3). This information is systematically put in a vertical sidebar perpendicular to the images (construction and interiors are full spreads, individual people and single objects are depicted on a single page). The book is divided into four chapters, according to the four stages.
The book is all about the transformation of an industrial monument, the former De Gruyter warehouse in ‘s-Hertogenbosch (NL), into a laboratory for research at the cutting edge of indoor farming. It documents the first phase of the whole makeover, which will take another year or two to fully execute. The first section was opened in September 2014. The completion of the renovation will take place in the course of 2015 and 2016.
At first glance the book offers an impression of the construction process, showing overviews, details, some action and portraits of the workers at different points in time. At second glance the pictures are embedded in a system. To avoid a simply evocative experience, we wanted to stay close to the architectural nature of the book project and give it a topographical root, something both accurate and detailed to involve the viewer and to provide him with a tool for orientation. Specific locations in the building were documented, some repetitively at different stages. These locations function as a point of reference and make you aware of the actual transformation. To enhance this notion the typographical system visualized on the sidebars of the pages helps you to navigate through the building and offers additional information about the stage of the process, the date the photograph was taken and its actual content. The images carry a number, the floor number and the coordinates that correspond with the map showing all camera standpoints and angles. To make the narrative breathe the air of architecture and science all text has been typeset in Akkurat. Especially when restricted to the use of capitals this font creates an atmosphere of detachment and objective registration.
Stage 0 shows the former storage room, the ramp for transporting goods, and the remains of temporary workspaces for musicians/artists. From 1980-2013 the former warehouse, a two-floor building with concrete arcades (windows beneath the arch), and tall concrete columns were then used for exhibitions and events. A corridor in green and blue led to rehearsal rooms for musicians. The book opens with a neutral and serene – almost blunt – view on a wide window above two central heating units, covered with five light cotton curtains, kept tight together with some pins, in order for the daylight not to peak through. Alongside are 1970s style orange painted walls in this former artist’s studio.
Stage 1starts where stage 0 ends: the demolition of rehearsal rooms and studios. We look at how divisions between floors are removed. Pallets, plaster, loose wiring dangling from ceilings, piles of bricks. But in general the overview of each space is there. The first demolition worker is portrayed, sitting in his caterpillar, using his mobile phone while smoking. Single people, demolition and ground workers, are portrayed frontally, like the dockworkers in the photobook A’dam Doc.k (2007) by Henk Wildschut and Raimond Wouda. And unlike that publication, the name, age, profession and employer of the person portrayed are mentioned. On another spread an extraction installation for the disposal of construction waste looks like a red caterpillar crawling out of the window. A standard blue tarp, used as a contemporary chute for collecting construction waste reminds me of a temporary refugee shelter, much like the ones Wildschut photographed near Calais, collected in the book Shelter (2011).
The daylight captured in the book is as serene as that in a museum exhibition space and the way the different sections of the building are recorded: Each former studio, each pile of disposal, the fluorescent red outlines for drilling and milling on the iron tiled floor are like art installations per se.
In STAGE 2 / CONSTRUCTION you get to understand pre-heated paint, and a paint gun is needed at low outdoor temperatures. Walls are glued. An altimeter placed on a tripod in a ‘Mondrianesc’ coloured room measures the level of the entire second floor.
You get a glimpse of the temporary canteen during a break. In the kitchenette in front of a microwave and a coffee machine, a Makita battery charger is loading a cordless electric screwdriver. An electric outlet and cord is popping through a wall. Apart from constructing 22 Research & Development (R&D) units, 10 Plant Production Units (PPU’s) are installed and 28 km of heating tubes. On the following pages we witness how on top of twisted pipes a poured self-levelling concrete screed flows out. In this section of the book we see more people, more daily workers, most of them wearing safety helmets, and a few too many pictures showing the pouring of mortar.
Further in the book more pouring of screened floors is depicted on photographs 65-69, this time in Plant Paradise 1.
You could curate an exhibition in a PPU, they are very similar to museum spaces identified as ‘White Cubes’: a sterile white box. You could start a prison of a cooling enterprise behind the sliding doors of a R&D unit. And photograph 56, portraying the installers measuring high plain walls of the units with a red level, is like witnessing an art performance in itself.
From daylight to LED-light, from RGB to CMYK and day-glow
The last chapter shows the new laboratory in action: a typical purple, pinkish light radiates from the so-called Plant Production Units. PlantLab creates an ideal environment to grow crops: micro-climates with pitch perfect humidity and temperature and ideal light conditions, provided by LED-lights. ‘Ideal’ means that they are only exposed to those parts of the light spectre that are beneficial to them. Green is taken out, which leaves red and blue, to which far red (a colour invisible to the human eye) is added. Every photographer and designer knows that you loose depth of colour when translating RGB images into CMYK, necessary for printing, but within those limitations these pictures were not suitable to translate into something credible and satisfactory. The reproductions were dull and boring: not resembling the spectacular originals. Finally, I considered replacing a substantial amount of magenta by a day-glow (fluorescent) pink and add this to the regular CMYK line up, it would do the trick. Test prints demonstrated that this strategy worked. In print the result comes closest to the stunning effect your eyes experience when you visit a working Plant Production Unit (PPU). The arrows used on the map are printed in the same colour to create consistency.
In the final chapter of the book STAGE 3 / LABORATORY the fluorescent purple colour (like on the cover photograph) appears, showing Plant Paradise by night. And this is what it is all about: ‘The plants are exposed 24/7 to ideal light spectre that only consists of blue, red and so-called far red, that cannot be seen by the human eye’.
Photograph 074 is the only picture showing an actual crop: wheat drenched in purple light, creating an atmosphere like in a nightclub: artificial, trendy and sensual at the same time. The research is focussed on finding the optimal climate for wheat. In Plant Paradise it is possible to test over a 100 different climates simultaneously.
A young man behind a microscope is inspecting wheat plants to find out whether ears are developing. His job description is ‘plant paradise profiler’. The engineering control is in-house expertise, as well as the installation design, and production supervision.
So what actually happens in these units? Here it is getting really interesting: photograph 57, on floor 2, in field J6, depicts a dividing wall, a processing area where crops are sown, re-potted and covered with black sound insulating fabric and finished with birch panelling, the caption reads. It could as well have been a wall in a cinema theatre.
The special light conditions result in a growing speed that is often twice as high, and the annual production is three to five times higher. Bathing in the purple light, both the uniformity and transformation of the R&D units and the PPU’s stand out as rhythmical elements in the book.