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Architectural photography: learning by observation

Valentijn Kerstens 0715399 Philosophy and architecture December 2016

Architectural photography: learning by observation Photographing architecture is a way of learning architecture. While moving through a city, a building or wherever I am, I look through my camera lens. Not always literally, yet constantly searching for something to capture. It is the continuous search for something that pleases the eye, that makes photography such a useful and valuable means to approach architecture. Photography is often used as a means of registration or to make art. I use photography primarily with a different purpose. Photography firstly stimulates me to carefully observe and analyse and subsequently to capture the image, which I study again. This approach stimulates the growth of one’s personal interest. While exploring one’s surroundings one discovers new things that excite. Photography gives the chance to study buildings and it helps to recognize and appreciate their beauty. How can I learn from and design with photography as an approach towards architecture? The work of Swiss architect Christian Kerez is exemplary for how one’s architectural approach can be shaped through photography. Before establishing his reputation as an architect, Christian Kerez photographed infrastructures: power plants, dams, motorways and industrial complexes in Graubünden, Switzerland.1 The architecture he found there directly influenced his later architectural designs and ideology. Albigna Dam is unambiguous in its form and structure. The uniformity of massive concrete suits and serves the grandness of a water dam. The structure is the consequence of its mathematical, structural and practical requirements. Nevertheless, Kerez’s photo of the hollow space inside Albigna Dam also shows something else. His position reveals an almost divine experience captured in height and light. As Hans Frei beautifully describes in ‘A manifesto on form’: “Above-ground components are connected with subterranean facilities, where we find ourselves abruptly immersed in environments straight out of a sci-fi movie or reminiscent of the sublime interior of Gothic cathedrals. (…) Even if one views all these buildings by engineers as a disturbance of the natural order in the mountains, one cannot help noticing how perfectly attuned they are to their context.”2 Kerez’s photo adds new meaning to the architecture. 1. Clavuot, C., Ragettli, J., 1991 2. Frei, H., 2010, p.173


figure 1. Hollow space inside the Albigna Dam, GraubĂźnden.


figure 2. Waste incinerator.

figure 3. Pressure tunnel under construction. figure 4. Kerez’s competitionentry for the new VRT-building.


A photograph always represents a fragment and never the whole. Even when photographing the whole building, a position has been taken, which excludes any other point of view. In taking photographs one loses information and context. By means of a photographic inclusion of architecture, the fragment – the photo – loses meaning on the one side and gains new meaning on the other side. Herein lies the inherent ambiguity in photography: the meaning (of the architecture) is subject to perception and interpretation. Kerez’s photographs show buildings that are solely made by engineers, out of practical necessity and logic. Nonetheless, they contain an almost expressionistic quality. It gives the buildings rational strength. Hans Frei writes that one might interpret Kerez’s early photographic work “as a precaution should his career as an architect fail to materialize or as occupational therapy to bridge the gap while waiting for commissions. But his photographic oeuvre cannot be detached so easily from his architectural projects.” Frei continues: “After all Kerez did complete his studies with the ‘Analogues’ where he was academically drilled to design with images the way others were taught to deal with geometric forms or functional diagrams.”3 The series of images presented here are taken by Kerez before he set up his office. The photographs are no sources of inspiration for single projects, as one might expect from an Analogue Architect, rather they refer to Kerez’s oeuvre as a whole. The images refer to the logic that stands behind the structures. Their aesthetic effect is a direct consequence of a precise and sometimes purely technical conceptual approach . Architecture is a fragile medium, Kerez says. It is always in danger of disappearing. Disappearing behind furniture, equipment, things that change quickly. Moreover, it is influenced by rules and regulations. What interests Kerez “is what can stay in architecture. (…) What could restrain through the vastness of everyday life?” As the program of a building can change, questions like ‘how to use space?’ are avoidable, thinks Kerez. On the contrary, as structure tends to be more permanent, questions like ‘how can it stand up?’ are unavoidable according to Kerez.4 Although particularly the first conception is highly questionable, these ideas characterise his architectural approach well. Exemplary is Christian Kerez’s recent competition entry for a new VRT-broadcasting building in Belgium. Kerez did not design a new icon, not even a building, but a ‘toolbox’, as he puts 3. Frei, H., 2010, p.172 4. Kerez, C., 2010,


it. “TV and radio have changed dramatically over the last decades, and we think it will also go on changing. It is unpredictable.” 5 The design is just a structural frame that can be used in different ways and can change in order to respond to the continuously changing demands of the different media. A design for the future. Designing a building, is to Kerez the same as thinking about its necessary structure. The exterior is just a result; something that he thinks is not crucial or fundamental in the discipline of architecture. Kerez explains further: “what I try to do in my work is to make something that you can experience. And that elements of architecture, like a wall, become again something that you can get aware of.” 6 This conception reoccurs throughout all his projects. Well known is the ‘House with one wall’. It has one simple rule. Two houses are separated by one wall. Every floor has one wall and it is folded so that it doesn’t fall down. Wherever the wall comes close to the façade, in the other apartment it will be far away from the facade. The facades are open, i.e. fully glazed, as a result of the folded wall that is load bearing and creating stability at the same time. This offers a very open view on the landscape and a very direct relation with the trees nearby. The staircase is an important element to connect all the three levels. The space is continuous; it is divided - not separated - by structure. Christian Kerez’s interest in infrastructure works and his photographical approach have contributed to his penchant for a technical conceptual architecture and have nourished his ideologies. The interaction between structure, open space and landscape also appears in the architectural work of Kerez. Through photographing architecture in the high mountains he studied and learned how these three aspects work together. Mountains generate space through the interaction of the elements. Kerez creates space with the basic elements in architecture; the horizontal slab, the wall and the column become again something that you can become aware of. The photographed infrastructural systems depend on, react on, use and even change natural systems. Kerez’s projects are additions to and insertions in the landscape that define new space by their elementary structure. For each project he defines a rule in order to avoid designs that are purely based on aesthetical qualities. Through photographing architecture Kerez adopted a design approach that enables him to create architecture, also in the banality of the everyday and analogous to the beauty of the power plants in the mountains. 5. 6. Kerez, C. ,2015,


figure 5. Model of ‘House with one wall’. figure 6. Military fortification at St. Gotthard. figure 7. Power plant, Ofenpass, Grisons.


Notes 1. Clavuot, C., Ragettli, J. (1991). Die Kraftwerkbauten im Kanton Graubünden. Chur: Verlag Bündner Monatsblatt. 2. 3. Frei, H. (2010). Oris (62), A Manifesto on Form. p.172-183. 4. Kerez, C. (2010). Venice Architecture Biennale. Marta, K., Institute of the 21st century. https://vimeo. com/16442408, accessed on 10-12-2016. 5. 6. Kerez, C. (2015). Reyers 2020 . Het ontwerp van Kerez: een toolbox voor de toekomst. VRT Canvas. http://, accessed on 2501-2016. Images figure 1. Hollow space inside the Albigna Dam, Graubünden. Kerez, C. (1991). overview-of-articles/[109]a-manifesto-on-form,1729.html, accessed on 12-06-2016. figure 2. Waste incinerator. Kerez, C. (1991).[109] a-manifesto-on-form,1729.html, accessed on 12-06-2016. figure 3. Pressure tunnel under construction. Kerez, C. (1991).[109]a-manifesto-on-form,1729.html, accessed on 12-06-2016. figure 4. Kerez’s competitionentry for the new VRT-building. Dujardin, F. (2015). reyers-2020/reeks1/christian-kerez, accessed on 25-01-2016. figure 5. Model of ‘House with one wall’. deSingel International Arts Campus (2009)., accessed on 25-01-2016. figure 6. Military fortification at St. Gotthard. Kerez, C. (1991).[109]a-manifesto-on-form,1729.html, accessed on 12-06-2016. figure 7. Power plant, Ofenpass, Grisons. Kerez, C. (1991).[109]a-manifesto-on-form,1729.html, accessed on 12-06-2016.



Architectural photography: learning by observation  

Philosophy and architecture essay