Tag Archives: Photography

Do buildings really know how to fly? architecture in photography #2

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The first pictures in the Bauhausbuch #12 are taken from an airplane. An unusual viewpoint for a photo of a building, sure enough. The subject of these photos was the Bauhaus, just finished. An abstract composition of planes, rotated at a 45 degree angle, turns out, at closer scrutiny, to be a white building sitting on the dark earth, a field without any precise definition but for two faint lines that could be roads.

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The book “gropius bauhaus bauten dessau” was designed by Moholy-Nagy. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was an artist who, after WW I, had contacts with people like Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Höch, and who started working with the precepts of Constructivism and the Suprematism of Maliewitch. In 1923 Walter Gropius appointed him, at 28 years old, as a professor at the Bauhaus and he became the director of the influential preliminary course. His art from that time shows the floating planes and colors of constructivism.

“We renounce volume as pictoral and plastic form of space.
One cannot measure space in volumes as one cannot measure liquids in yards:
look at our space … what is it if not one continuous depth?”
(Realistic manifesto, Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, 1920)

He also became a prolific photographer who transferred the new found constructivist sensibility to the photo paper.

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“Photography when used as a representational art is not a mere copy of nature”
“What used to be a distortion is nowadays an astounding experience! A summons for a re-evaluation of beauty. This picture can be turned around. There are new views from every point.”
(Painting, Photography, Film, Moholy-Nagy, 1925)

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These new viewpoints are celebrated in the pictures in the Bauhausbuch. The Bauhaus appears as a gleaming white object. Building parts like balconies and windowframes are not just functional elements but show up as abstract forms. The photo gives a new justification to a shape by the way it is balanced on the picture plane. The people in a photo of the facade of the living quarters show a death defying attitude towards gravity, perched on the balcony railings and the roof edge. Everything wants to be weightless.

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This stresses the character of the building as a non-hierarchical composition. A composition of weightless volumes in which top or bottom, up or down, are no longer relevant; only the balance of shape and color is. This building has no front or back. In fact, it is hard to find the entrance. Then there appears to be two of them, one on each side of the road that bisects the building. “Clearly defined division of the separate parts of the organism” it says in the caption under a drawing of the plan, but it is more complicated than that. To define these these parts Gropius uses various formal ruses. For instance, the “clearly defined part” of the administration department is structurally part of the construction of the two buildings that it connects. But a false raised roof edge defines it as a separate abstract bar that penetrates the volumes of these buildings. Also, this seemingly weightless bar has to be supported by a concrete beam and posts that are downplayed by their dark grey color – clearly an unavoidable necessitiy dictated by gravity that can’t take part in the play of white shapes. Similary, the volumes sit on a grey base, a humble facade of the servant space (it isn’t shown in the plans in the book) in the basement.

These humble parts get their moment in the book, though. There are many photos that show the building as a construction, a proud display of concrete slabs, columns, cantilevers and fill in brickwork. Further along in the book there are pictures of the mechanism used to open the steel windows, a device to share a telephone between two offices, the light fixtures.

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These photos exemplify the aspirations to a disinterested functionalism – “a functional form is a good form”. This was the decade in which the word “beautiful” was exchanged for the word “good”. There are some charming stills from a movie, made at the same time, properly presented with their guiding holes, that show how Gropius’s wife or a servant girl use various cleverly designed items: a built-in coat rack, a well-organised wardrobe, a set of drawers in the working desk. The sequence of movie images stresses the connection between the use and the form of the design.

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And yes, a typewriter is indispensable.

And yes, a typewriter is indispensable.

Gropius published the book in 1930. By then it was two years since he had left the Bauhaus and the villa that came with it. The photos still show the optimism that carried the Bauhaus. The text stresses the rational choices that underpin the design, but the photos aspire to something more than “good” design: a beautiful and, actually, happy future. Unfortunately, buildings never learned how to fly.

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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?