Picture imperfect: architecture in photography #1

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I can’t exactly remember when I realised that most of the buildings I thought I knew, I knew only from photos. That was a startling thought! After all, architecture is the creation of space, and yet my knowledge of the great models was from pictures. I culled them from magazines – the faculty of Bouwkunde in Delft had a great collection of the important architectural reviews going all the way back to the early 1900’s. And I poured over them in the monographs about famous or interesting architects (not necessarily the same thing). The photos were, as a rule, accompanied by plans and sections, so I could get an idea of how these photos related to the drawings, and where excactly they were taken. Two incongruous pictures could turn out to be of the same room, a striking detail was actually a minor instance on the back facade. Seductive pictures . . . I knew that by combining pictures and plans I could get a functional knowledge of how a building was laid out – the way the living room connected up with the dining room, how a “void” could connect two floors. How the sequence of rooms in a Loos house, strung around a staircase, would connect and relate to each other. Knowledge of an abstract nature, though. The physical aspect that is also part of how a building works, the sound of steps reflecting in a space, the sense of how wide the opening of a door is – none of that was communicated by the photos.

Part – and I think a vital part – of the education of an architect is building a library, or a memory bank, of spaces. Knowing beforehand what a design will look like once it is standing up in the real world under the glare of the sun requires a sense of how dimensions translate into space. There are, certainly, nowadays, tools that help with that, like 3-D imagining. But as a rule, architects take good notice of the space they find themselves in – it could be an addition to the library. That’s why it can be such a revelation to visit a project that you know on paper only. I still remember the wonder of being in the 1.88m wide, 2.23m high hotel room in the Cite Radieuse, the well-known housing project of Le Corbusier in Marseille. These dimensions, that seemed impossibly narrow and confining in the drawings, actually worked perfectly. Certainly the view out on the foothills of the Sainte-Baume mountain ridge helped, as did the thoughtful detailing of the wooden folding doors that had a collapsible wooden bench over the window sill, and an arm rest on the door that made it into an impromptu seat. It was exactly the sort of thing you don’t see on the photos, so that’s why you go and visit.

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Of course these holiday snaps, to illustrate my point, still don’t convey how it was being there

But is was photos that brought me there in the first place. Seductive pictures . . . They show a different building. Gathered in a magazine or a architectural photo book, they tell a story, they are an argument. And when you go out, you look for that story in the first place. Photos can have a strong influence; when visiting the building, the impression of these images is overlaid on what actually meets your eye – the photo dictates your eye. The photo shows shapes starkly outlined in the light of the sun – it’s overcast when you arrive there, but you imagine the sun. The brilliant white of the walls in the picture is really a cracked and sooty surface – but you imagine it to be smooth and wonderful. The magical, wonderful presence of the building as it was conceived and photographed, that’s the reality that is truly real. The building as it stands there is compromised by use, misuse, new inhabitants, people who don’t care, badly done renovations, unhappy additions.

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Earliest photograph. You really have to look closely.

The first photo ever was of buildings. Immobile subjects, well-suited to the long exposure time that was necessary. Buildings continued to be the subject matter of photography, through the work of Atget and Marville, to the use of photography in “The English House” by Hermann Muthesius. With this book a change is visible. From the documentary work of Atget (who worked preferably in the early hours of the day, so as not to have too many distracting humans in his streetscapes) photography had turned into a means of supporting an argument. By combining the expectation of transparency – the promise that a picture is a window on reality, the truth – with a careful choice of interiors and their decoration, Muthesius’s photos would make a warm apology for the merits of English domestic architecture as a model for the German middle class house.

In the next post about this subject the question will be: do buildings really know how to fly?

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