Two Photographies There is reason to believe that architectural photography is currently experiencing a new
period of triumph. The sheer proliferation of imagery on the internet has led to a number of new, or enhanced, ways in which architectural images can be consumed, and it's not a stretch to suggest that there is a more substantial market for architectural photography than ever before. From the success of design blogs, which reach a greater international audience than the magazines could ever have hoped for, to various platforms such as flickr, tumblr, instagram, twitter, and many others, the traditional print media have been supplanted and in many cases eclipsed by a profusion of new channels of experience. Until recently it would only have been possible to view, say, one thousand architectural photographs if you had a spare day and access to a library's slide collection, but now this glut of images can be taken in in just an hour or so, from wherever you might be at any point. A new set of architectural photographers have seen their careers rise in the last few years, and in certain cases (most notably Iwan Baan of the Netherlands) a celebrity status has been achieved. The images that this new generation create are presented in a different way to previous years as well. A few generations ago, in the post-war era, architectural photographers would primarily be employed by magazines, sent on assignment to take pictures of significant new buildings. Later, architects would hire the photographers directly, meaning that magazines could choose their photographs from a selection of images pre-selected by the architect, which would thus be much more tightly controlled. Nowadays, however, with the democracy of content online, it is customary for a full set of upwards of thirty distinct digital photographs to be published accompanying a single entry on a design blog, meaning on the one hand that there is less demand for a single, standout image to capture the essence of the project, but on the other that it is necessary for the whole set of images to be of a quality that can be distributed widely. Also notable is that these clusters of professional images have to compete with an even more vast collection of amateur photography taken with smart-phones and other non-specialist equipment.
Zaha Hadid, Heydar Aliyev Centre, 2013. p: Iwan Baan
For the most part, this new architectural photography has very little to do with the photography from other recent periods in architectural history, whether that be the early photography of the 19th century capturing the last days of eclecticism and the rise of big engineering, to the polemical photographs of found industrial structures and avant-garde functionalism of the early 20th century, or the dramatic chiaroscuro of post-war modernism. After waxing and waning fashions, contemporary architectural photography has seen a return to the inclusion of the human figure, which is a factor of the ease with which digital imagery can be produced, no longer requiring long or multiple exposures. Borrowing from lifestyle publishing, models (or frequently, staff from the architecture practice involved) are often to be seen drifting through the newly finished spaces, sometimes working or chatting, sometimes blurrily moving past, and more recently posed in a somewhat more sculptural manner. In today's architectural photography, artificial lighting is generally not used, although there is a frequent taste for crepuscular shots which combine the slightly-too-rich effects of daylight and the artificial lights of evening. Almost always taken in perfect blue-sky conditions, the influence of digital visualisation on contemporary architectural imagery is apparent - perspective is sometimes stretched outwards way beyond the usual correction of vertical edges, depth of field is often abnormally broad, and it is occasionally obvious that photoshop has been used to clean up a space or eliminate a problematic reflection. More significantly, digital architectural
photographs today are often notable for an eerie perfection of colour - due to digital postproduction, grass is always perfectly green, the sky is always a pure blue, lights always have just the right halo about them.
Lakeshore Drive, p: William Zbaren, 2010
By and large, it is usually perfectly clear what era of architectural photography one is encountering, but occasionally there are images that seem to short circuit this feeling. A good early example of this uncanniness occurred when one of the main worldwide architecture blogs, Archdaily, published a recently completed restoration of Mies van der Rohe's Lakeshore Drive apartments in Chicago, on the 29th March 2010. Taken by the photographer William Zbaren, they seem to occupy two different historical modes of photography. They are apparently taken at dusk, the sky is a deeper shade of blue than is natural, but the lights of the apartment windows are mostly still switched off. In only one image is there any direct sunlight, but it barely casts a shadow; there is a distinct lack of contrast in the images except for the blackened steelwork. One shot, of the corner of the entrance hall, is spread out with a field of view far wider than 90 degrees in both horizontal and vertical dimensions. In short, these images are typical of contemporary architectural photography, but what is immediately odd, though, is that the subjects are iconic buildings of mid-century American modernism. Mies van der Rohe's towers, in Chicago, Montreal and New York, are the quintessence of a certain classicised modernism, the tower on the plinth, the theoretically universal office grid. It is odd, after having seen thousands of reception halls which trace their design patrimony to the austere luxury of Mies' originals, to then see his own works documented as if they had been built yesterday - the unheimlich effect is such that they almost look like pastiche.
Seagram Building, p: Ezra Stoller, 1958
The Lakeshore Drive apartments are sister buildings to one of Mies' most celebrated designs, the Seagram building in New York. This most influential of office buildings was famously photographed in 1958 by Ezra Stoller, the elevated perspective of its gridded surfaces straightened out and shifted off the centre of the image, its darkening mass dominating both the sky, the buildings behind, the bustle of the Manhattan streets in front and the placid whiteness of the plinth, itself mimicking the almost vanished sky. Stoller was one of the most prominent American photographers in the post-war era, whose austere black-and-white images were primarily intended to convey not structure or detail, but space itself, the very medium of modernism. His images, high contrast, slick, were highly composed, professional but with the sense of the great modernist city photographers about them, and became so recognisable that the word 'Stollerised' was coined to refer to his influence. They created a very specific East Coast US aesthetic of corporate modernism; powerful and innovative, the very image of corporate capitalism. At the same time, out in California, Julius Schulman created a language of relaxed luxury, of the quintessential American dream inhabiting the new modernism exemplified by the Case Study houses.
p: Lucien Herve
Back in Europe, the more rugged and expressionistic architecture being generated by Le Corbusier and disciples had their own perfect photographer. Lucien Herve's images are extremely bold, often gloomy and primitive. They evoke the mystical qualities that Corbusier poured into his concrete forms in the fifties, in a way that could only ever be captured in black-and-white. Every grain and texture of the roughly shuttered concrete seems to shout out, while the shadows created by the deep reveals around the brise soleil and projections create great diagonals of pure black across the image, veering towards total abstraction even from the gentlest of angles. And as Corbusier's language became the pattern book for young British architects, so British photographers like Henk Snoek and Richard Einzig carried on a similar high-contrast aesthetic language, drawing out the shadows and projections of the New Brutalism as it was appearing around the UK.
l: p:. Richard Einzig. r: p: Henk Snoek
l: Mies van der Rohe, Metals and Minerals Research Building, MIT, 1946. r: Alison & Peter Smithson, Hunstanton School, 1954.
In a post-war world where mass travel was yet to become reality, the primary mode of experiencing new architecture was through publications. One famous example of the way this dissemination occurred can be seen by comparing the Hunstanton School by Alison and Peter Smithson of 1954 and the MIT campus buildings, again by Mies van der Rohe, of 1946. Photos of the Mies buildings were published by the Architect's Journal, which is where the Smithsons encountered them, before adapting the architectural language of steel frame, flush glazing and infill brick panels for their own project. Despite the programme and layout of the two buildings being completely different, the images of the Hunstanton School taken after completion gave the impression of being remarkably similar to the American original, and these differences in the buildings would not be apparent except when experienced on site. In these post-war years, it was very much the case that the world-wide reputations of architects relied upon the dissemination of their work through published drawings and photographs, always through a limited number of publications.
p: Berndt & Hilla Becher, 1979
It wasn't until the latter half of the 1970s that colour photography began to be used regularly in the architectural press. There were a number of reasons for this: firstly, although lifestyle magazines and supplements had been using colour for decades, it was still very expensive to print, and the relatively niche architectural magazines had to wait for the process to become economical for them to begin doing so regularly. But even then, colour photography still posed a number of problems: as anyone familiar with 1970s imagery can relate, colour processes were still difficult to work with, achieving a believable colour balance was a problem, and high quality colour photographs were harder to make on location, taking a longer time, and frequently requiring multiple exposures. The growing use of colour photography led to conflict within the industry as well: initially considered somewhat base by the previous generation, the introduction of colour at least partially led to the further emphasis on black-and-white as the medium for fine-art photography (as in the work of Berndt and Hilla Becher, for example), while colour became more associated with advertising and lifestyle images.
James Stirling l: Andrew Melville Hall, 1964. r: Olivetti Training Centre, 1969
The extent to which the transition to colour photography influenced the design of buildings will probably always be contested, but some things are clear. In the 'Zoom' wave of the early 60s, centred around Archigram, the use of colourful new materials, especially plastics, was seen as a way out of the doldrums of establishment modernism. The brightly coloured images from the 1964 Sunday Times article on Plug-in City were just the start, and by the early 1970s their ill-fated Monte Carlo project was always depicted as a riot of garish colour and collaged media. With common criticisms of the housing and architecture of the time decrying the uniformity and blandness, and with the rise of a bright and exuberant youth culture, colourful technological architecture became a vector of escape, one which can be followed through from the 70s through to the contemporary polychromatic hi-tech of Richard Rogers. Another example would be James Stirling, whose earlier 1950s works such as the 'Red Trilogy' had been monochrome to the most extreme degree, and who had in 1964 built halls of residence for St Andrews University with a facade of typically grey pre-cast concrete panels. However, starting with his work for Olivetti at Haslemere of 1969, with its cream and mustard GRP panels, and intensely lime green interiors, and also apparent in his Southgate housing estate, worked on throughout the 1970s, he took full advantage of the chromatic opportunities of the new materials, and their opportunity for accurate depiction and dissemination.
l: Richard Meier, Smith House, 1967 r: Charles Moore, Piazza dâ€™Italia, 1978
Postmodern architecture wasn't, at first, necessarily a colourful affair. The debates of the late 60s and early 70s in Oppositions journal between the 'whites' (Eisenman, Meier and so on) and the 'greys' (Venturi & Scott-Brown, RM Stern and others) gave very little impression of what was to come later on, being focussed around the question of architecture as a formal or a semiotic language, but as the 1970s progressed and classicism, especially Beaux-Arts classicism, was revived from the critical cold, then the stage was set for all manner of chromatic fantasias to go ahead. Buildings such as Charles Moore's Piazza de Italia, or Michael Graves' Portland office block, simply couldn't have made the impact that they did without the possibility of their being depicted elsewhere, in full colour.
Renzo Piano, The Shard, 2012
And as the formal extravagances of brutalism and the garishness of high-pomo receded, the new corporate style of glassy curtain-walling as developed by Norman Foster et al is an example of an architecture completely at home with, and almost completely reliant on, colour for its depiction. Black-and-white architectural photography relies entirely on chiaroscuro for its effect, on shadows cast by elements, on reveals and massed offsets, and cannot really do justice to the vanishing reflections of a glazed curtain wall. Colour, on the other hand, is capable of registering the difference between reflected external daylight and lights within, and of picking up on the complexities of the warped reflections across a large flat expanse of glazing. A building such as Renzo Piano's the Shard, with its blue-tinted glass designed specifically to match the shifting qualities of the sky, could not be depicted appropriately in black-and-white.
Lyons, RMIT Swanston building, 2013
The world of the contemporary design media relies on an almost absolute pluralism. For example, many South American architects continue to design as if it was still 1961, all concrete and brise-soleil, while Australian architects based around Melbourne have developed a kind of hyper-pomo, formally ludicrous, with every single element a different saturated colour. Contemporary digital architecture, while super-formal, tends towards the monochrome, as does much of the commercial design field, while contemporary housing all over the world plays with a millions different variations on powder-coated panelling. This general stylistic pluralism is reflected on the design blogs, which cover most architecture without a great deal of selection, and indeed return to historical architecture with increasing frequency, which finds itself sandwiched into the feed between the latest new projects from around the world. This is the way most people experience their architecture now, and it seems most unlikely that there could ever be a new design language which united all the different approaches, let alone one that was at its best depicted in black-and-white. It's a new stage in the history of architecture, and photography, one that - to return to Mies again - finds itself rendered absurd by the
artworks of Thomas Ruff (himself a student of the Bechers), sacrilegiously adding digital colour to historical images of the old master's landmark 1930s modernist housing.
p: Thomas Ruff
The new media world of design blogs and other platforms have changed the way that architectural photography is experienced, and a new genera...