Picture imperfect: architecture in photography #1


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.




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.


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?




I thought I’d put up a picture up here, since I’ve been thinking about photography a lot lately while working on this post about photos that doesn’t come along very well, and I happened on this great image by Joe van Cleave.

This image of a sign, the only remainder of a gas station, struck me. There it is, a picture of an indian, held up in the blue sky, in front of this uneventful landscape. The landscape might actually be beautiful, if you could see outside the picture. The schematic drawing style of the picture prevents it to be indentified as someone of a particular tribe. It has become a generic sign, saying “indian”, or “indians here”. Yes, there used to be. This was a different country once. You can still see the contours of the hills, the colors of the landscape might not even have changed that much. But there’s a highway now, and you can see the tops of the roofs of houses beyond. And there’s only the sign left, even the gas station isn’t there any more.

Carchitecture #2 The Urzeit

The Nissan building (now owned by a different company) by ZZ&P architects

I was surprised, when I looked for information on the Nissan building next to the A4 just outside Amsterdam, to find it was finished as late as 1991. It was this building that struck me as the first building that truly made something out of its location right next to the highway. The rectangular slab of the building is positioned at a 90 degree angle to the road, making the entire facade a billboard that carries the company logo. A whimsical blob emanates from the edge, near the top – a board room probably – and gestures at the passing cars. The blob seemed to me a rather transparent quote from the vocabulary of OMA (the architecture firm that everybody now knows from the CCTV building in Beijing). This office made, much earlier, a true piece of Carchitecture.

The building I’m thinking of is the 1980 project for the “Boompjes” in Rotterdam. Its complicated and contradictory shape (a slab made out of towers) is further rationalized by the view it presented from the road that went past the building. A beautiful piece of OMA bravura, it was a project for a site that didn’t exist, precariously ambushed by water and a curving bit of highway. Driving on this highway meant that just when you would arrive at the building you had to make a sharp turn and right after that another, to prevent crashing into it – a fantastic cinematographic experience that was preserved in the flight of the little renderings (perspective views of the approach) that hover in the left panel of the triptych made for the presentation of the project. So here, for the first time, there was an awareness of the quality that a roadside location could have, not only because it was so conveniently placed to the means of access, but also, and very much so, because the building itself could advertise, just as the car salesmen had found out before.

The Boompjes building was a watershed because, for the first time in decennia, it celebrated infrastructure and the highway. By the end of the 70’s you could find the ruins of the big infrastructural dreams of the previous decades in almost every city in the Netherlands. Stretches of highway looking forlorn in the still standing fabric of the old city around it. In Amsterdam a 4-lane road stopped right before a venerable remainder of the Golden Age, the 17th century residence of the Pinto family. The frail old building proved to be stronger than the stream of asphalt. In Delft a highway speeded gingerly towards the medieval centre – that is, before the value of the old brick and mortar was judged to be greater than a smooth transition by car. And so the highway stopped right in front of a row of 19th century houses; dramatically, incomprehensibly. Something similar happened in The Hague. A wide lane, lifted on concrete pillars, abruptly had to go down on its knees and bow down before the neighbourhood it all but had destroyed.
Of course the buildings that would line these dreams of swift connection and frictionless transport didn’t sport the complicated forms of Carchitecture. They were reticent boxes, quiet (or should i say “boring”) containers for the offices and shops that would bring the old city back to life. Most of these buildings are now torn down.
This was the state of things by 1980: a ban on highways within the boundaries of the cities, preservation and reconstruction of the old city centres, a move of businesses to locations outside the city, and a new effort to provide the existing highways with enough capacity to connect the cities with these new locations.

The Boompjes project never made it past the beautiful presentation. The “impossible” location turned out to be a quite possible location for a rather bland building, that didn’t do anything with the highway but addresses a bend in the river at that point, supposedly. It took another ten years for the Nissan building to appear, the first built example of car driven architecture: Carchitecture.

It’s a job that just suits me?

foto by Reinhard Krause

Blogging can be frustrating. There’s a variety of subjects I would like to write about, and more come up every other day – but I should really work (on this blog that is) on, for instance, expanding my piece on Carchitecture and not jump from topic to topic like a little grasshopper.

Here’s stuff that makes me think, though, and just might be developed into a future post: I’ll consider these snippets little placeholders that hopefully will help me nag into actually write the things.

I would like to write about the use of photography in architecture – after all, all of us architects are ready to profess that architecture is a spatial art, and yet we have to admit that most of the buildings, yes, even the buildings that influenced us the most, we know from pictures that are as flat as really flat things. Modern architecture has been accompanied and diffused with photos since it’s beginning, and the kind of photos, the subject matter in them, and their setting in a book or article were very important in spreading the word. The amount of pictures of buildings on the Internet is stunning, and sites like Archdailyand Dezeen offer each day a generous helping of jpegs. So there is a true virtual existence of buildings that lives parallel to the actual buildings, sometimes even superseding the fysical reality – the grainy black and white pictures of Eileen Gray’s E1027 house on the Côte d’Azur are the reality everybody refers to, since the building has turned into a sad ruin and the restoration has not been going very well (maybe you can help??). Pictures proselytise, serve as manifestos, indoctrinate, seduct. How did they shape the image of architecture in the heads of its proffesionals? What about the renderings that have now become uncannily ‘realistic’? Is there an architecture of the mind next to the stuff that bricks and mortar made?

Then there is the elusive matter of Transparency. A very popular item these days, almost hard to avoid. We finished the project of the NRC newspaper offices last year in which transparency was an important starting point for the design. A newspaper wants to be transparent for its readers, but of course there still are things that shouldn’t be THAT transparent – and transparency can help you to hide those too. So, how many layers does transparency have? What is actually meant with this word – the thing the window cleaner thinks of, or the politician?