Architecture of Waiting
Photographs by Ursula Schulz-Dornburg

If you have studied them just the once, then you can no longer get them out of your head. The photo-collection of bizarre bus stops that Düsseldorf-based photographer Ursula Schulz-Dornburg brought back with her from her trips to Armenia in the years between 1997 and 2001 possesses an enigmatic power far exceeding its time and place of origin. The Museum Ludwig in Cologne has now acquired this series.

They are pictures of a rather unusual sad beauty and a comic element which is difficult to categorize. If you were to see one of these bus stops on its own, perhaps you would laugh at it as if you might laugh at a cartoon; taken as a whole, however, they have a certain metaphorical touch of existential loneliness. Schulz-Dornburg has managed – with composed conciseness – to capture on film these bus stops in austere black-and-white photographs. She puts her trust in the meaningfulness of this Architecture of waiting and her photos are left totally to the interpretation of the attentive observer.

All the structures that she captures on film are completely out of proportion. Practicality never plays a role and material is always squandered in abundance. It is as if there had never been any shortage of building materials and no door had been barred to the imaginativeness of those architects who designed them. So as to fill the emptiness with monuments for the waiting strangers, the architects’ work was carried out not with standardized economy versions but with neither expense nor effort being spared.

© Ursula Schulz-Dornburg.

Between the hope for a departure into the unknown and endless emptiness

Ursula Schulz-Dornburg has found a concise pictorial style for this subject which exploits to the full the whole potential inherent within the theme of waiting. Every mood between calm, the hope for a departure into the unknown and endless emptiness is to be found. There are umbrellas made of reinforced concrete with primitive stools, mushroom-like structures in every variation of arc segment. Others are filigree steel structures engraved like wire drawings in the grey sky. Ornaments in a surrounding of nothingness.
There are impassioned similarities to concrete stars, structures bearing symmetrical projecting side wings as if the departure could not happen quickly enough and far enough away from here. There are skeleton-like structures hinting at the existence of fantastic adjoining rooms and peculiar back rooms.

Some bus stops appear to engulf those waiting like waves made of arched stone. Others are nothing but empty shells merely hinting at the existence of walls and roofs, where the observer is left to guess whether they were never completed or are already dilapidated. Token gestures of shelter which offer shelter from nothing.

Far away from any human habitation

Structurally speaking, just about every reference from temple to castle can be found. Every over-sized structure and token gesture of shelter is put to the test. The grandiose variety of forms contradicts the shabby state that the structures are in. Windows have long been shattered or were not even fitted at the outset, walls are covered with graffiti and messages to strangers who have wasted hours of their lives waiting. Place names or a hint at the existence of bus timetables with arrival or departure times generally do not exist.
Palaces of emptiness in the seemingly placeless expanse of a no-man’s-land. It remains a secret how the photographer has succeeded in photographing the bus stops in such a way that they always appear to be far away from any human habitation.

The people in these photographs look as if they were starting out on a journey from a deserted planet to a continent of invisible cities. Their gestures of waiting possess an element of calm unpretentiousness that lies beyond the empty pathos of structural shapes.

This impressive series of photographs by Ursula Schulz-Dornburg is blessed with a graphic power tending towards the metaphorical. All the pictures are documentary finds from reality, yet they appear to be parables of waiting for new eras that have never dawned. Maybe some day we will interpret them as the summarizing closing pictures during an epoch of state socialism?

Jan Thorn-Prikker

Translation: Guy Skuse

Publication: Göthe-Institut, Bonn, october 2006

© Ursula Schulz-Dornburg