trompe l’oeil…do images make builings?
Since my last entry, much has happened. I have met with every major architect in Denmark. Which says quite a lot. I have never met such an open, encouraging, curious, ambitious, clever, talented, young, accomplished group of people. But they were not entirely all of one sort, and I must take stock before I forget who was who.
Dorte Mandrup. This office was the first of many vast white studios with rows of young people (all of them) sitting at computers surrounded by large scale models. Anne, my tour guide in this first adventure sat me down, offered me coffee (declined) and let me show her my crap presentation. Then she showed me around and pitched to me for half an hour. I was ready to go for reasons I am unsure of and she asked me to stay and hammer out some of the details. It was through her that I first heard the name Adam Mørk. I didn’t realise at the time that he was Denmark’s Jussi Tienen (only better).
Uffe Leth. As he hasn’t built anything yet, he was my guinea pig interviewee. I found him fairly relaxed and easy to talk to. Good practice for things to come and interesting answers came from some of my questions.
PLH. Very kind, patient, gentle, the director of this seemingly massive firm that none of the other architects I had met with had heard of was also good enough to let me flog my wares and then express how keen he was for us to work together. But afterwards he told me about other (better?) firms I might like to contact as well.
BIG. I was nervous going into this one as there is so much hype around these guys. The place is exactly as I expected: filled with massive, mind-blowing models, a busy workshop in the middle and 100+ people sitting at computers plugging away at their drawings. The PR guy I met with looked like a young Bjarke Engels and spoke a lot like him as well. He was confident, sharp but not unpleasant or pushy. However, if I were to shoot for them, he said, they’d have to get a lot out of it: loads of high res prints for them to use as they like, for free.
COBE. I really enjoyed my super brief meeting with these guys. The woman I met with was extremely easy to talk to. Friendly, charming, pleasant but also seemingly keen on the idea and knowledgeable about their projects (of which there are basically 2). They were in a kind of shipping container of a studio in Islands Brygge
Henning Larsen. This office was even bigger and more expensive looking than Big. I was given a tour from top to bottom and then kind of pitched to by a woman that seemed to have difficulty operating a computer (though that seems impossible). She was very keen on me going to Iceland to shoot for them. There might even be some money in it. Must chase her up on that.
3XN. Big office. Big hype. Same story as the others. I really disliked the graphic designer I met with and sensed the feeling was mutual. Perhaps it is because she is friends with Adam Mørk. Flattering to be taken as a threat, I suppose. Meeting the PR person in Ørestad tomorrow so that she can show me an innovative school they built recently. Will check out Big’s 8 building after that.
SHL. In the meat-packing district, this started out to be the worst meeting. I was exhausted, at the end of my energy, sick to my stomach and unable to find their offices. When I did I wished I hadn’t as it was in one of those media buildings that show how stupid advertising and fun ideas can be. It made me feel sicker as we sat in the hunting lodge surrounded by faux wooden panels and real dead animals. But the guy I met with, who runs the KBH office and is named Kristian like everyone else here, was kind, patient, clever, young…in short, like everyone else but a little more so. We had a long meeting. He showed me a couple of books and like everyone else gave me a beautiful yearbook to take home and study.
CF Moller. Only got to email with these guys as they were in Aarhus and Helsinki during my stay. Still they are interested and I will meet with them in person upon return here.
Entasis. Owner forgot we had a meeting. We rescheduled for another day but then I emailed him with some questions and never heard back.
Lundgaard and Tranberg. Director wanted to meet up the Friday I arrived but I had already booked with 2 other architects. Didn’t realise at the time that they are the architect’s architect, so to speak. Will have to touch base with them at a later date.
Jens Frederiksen, architect and photographer that teaches at the Royal Collage. Did a two hour interview with him and the rector (who didn’t seem to like me very much) that was extremely interesting. I must try to stay in touch. Would be lovely to have an exhibition there in future and at the DAK.
A rumour has been in circulation for so long it’s surprising people still swallow it. You are bound to have heard it: “he wants it one way, so she does it like that, and they buy it.” Obviously, that rumour is about publishing, architecture and photography.
Trapped in this bizarre love triangle, the three concerned parties are wrong in their assumptions. Yet the dominoes have been set in motion, and you have to do more than point a finger to stop them. Let’s have a look at what these assumptions are, and wonder our way out of the dead end they represent.
Roger Connagh put it better than most in a book that deserves more attention than it is given at the moment: “for three decades now, a neutral photography opting for the pretence of critical openness and freshness can be seen to have failed much contemporary architecture” (68).
Architectural photography is a style: a blazer designed in the 80s with large shoulder pads! And one size fits all, for it is limited to narrow codes. It is a closed loop in which commercial artists try to follow the architectural way of drawing and seeing to present architects’ work from their particular point of view. It is controlled, limited and static. It is not, as is so often claimed, an objective, realistic depiction of the built environment. Indeed it is quite extraordinary no one has thought to investigate the assumptions lying behind the claim that “realistic” is somehow synonymous with the Renaissance representations of perspective upon which it is based. But there is a better reason still to investigate such a claim: one size doesn’t fit all. Both the people making the buildings and the people they hope will see them would benefit immensely from a bit of variety. Yet the rumour puts that dream of Glasnost on hold. Why?
Even the most beautiful thing on earth in would become unbearably boring if you repeated the same image of it over and over again for thirty years . Yet that is what these three interconnected parties have done—the party is running into the wee hours of the morning, and it seems no one can find their keys.
One option at this point is to pass around the remaining bottle of Jalo and crank up the Iskelmä for a sing-song. Another would be to sober up and still a third would be to call in some new drugs. I leave it for the reader to decide which option I propose. But which ever you believe I am peddling, the sales pitch comes in two parts.
Side A: Modelling reality – the money shot
Side B: Atmosphere in lieu of lieu
Part One: Really Real. Really? (AKA: Side ‘A’)
“Modelling Reality” is an exhibition designed to bring together architects and the general public in order to ask the question: what is photographic realism and is it really that which architects think? The exhibition will pose this question by reviving an abandoned vision of three historically significant Finnish architects: Alvar Aalto, Eliel Saarinen and Viljo Revell. It will present photographs of architectural models of unrealized projects by these architects. Taking it’s cues from the notion of faction, the images will be presented as an historical survey of their works and the models and images will avail to look as realistic as possible by following all the standard tropes of architectural depiction.
The point behind this exercise is to question whether it is the image or the building that people are seeing. And if that answer is the image (which of course it is, unless you are the architect who designed the building pictured and still then quite likely) then the depiction of a thing takes on a heightened importance: the depiction is the thing, there is no thing-in-itself. And if that is the case, then why insist on controlling that depiction instead of using the many tools at hand to do so?
I have called Side A “The Money Shot” because, just like porn directors, it is what—according to rising star Samuli Wooston of ALA architects in a recent interview—they are all looking for in order to keep viewers satisfied. [INSERT QUOTE] But are they getting their money’s worth? And just what is the money shot in architectural photography? [INSERT QUOTE]
Returning to Connagh, we come to view architectural photography as a missed opportunity and a well-constructed lie masquerading as objective truth: “[a]ny form of early interactive studies of buildings and architecture that the camera could have offered since 1925 have been rare….an optical truth inextricably tied with the professional production and promise of architecture ruled out other ways of photographic seeing” (55).
He then presents us with a list of things the photographer has forgotten to show:
1. the building is an open form, not closed
2. in movement its solidity of material and culture remain unfinished
3. the building was a complex stunning space in its neo-modernist underclothes of raw concrete and is now a touch too polished
4. why now, in its pristine white dress, this particular architecture is strangely remarkable yet unapproachable.
5. this is an architecture that will mature when ruination begins
6. when then building will look lived in (67).
He is wrong, of course, in suggesting these images as a way out of so called optical truth—wrong because he is an architect. That statement is not meant to provoke just for the sake of it. I mean that Connagh is wrong because these suggested categories would be of no interest or relevance to anyone but an architect. They are no more true than the other truth, and no more general. And yet there lies his complaint about architectural photography: it is directed at too narrow an audience. It is as if dancers only went to see dance, actors, theatre, etc. But how do I know he is wrong? Because I am not an architect.
As a photographer I find his suggested alternative images just as boring as the same sort of photographs his partners against Ornament and Crime always commission. And so would anyone else, quite likely. Other than someone trained to appreciate his industry’s way of seeing. It is ironic he falls into this trap, given the following statements made by him in the same book:
Over the last thirty years of the twentieth century, very little in the architectural publishing scene actually helped the nonprofessional reading of images. Mostly, the ways of seeing architecture through photography remained in the private and privileged world of the architects themselves (57).
Are we in a case where the master’s tools cannot be used to dismantle the master’s house? I believe we are. But, of course, the architect’s solution is to blame photography, not the way it is commissioned by architects and publishers.
Altering the way we read architecture, which includes the way photography informs and deforms architectural promise, would help us understand why contemporary architecture is considered inactive and incomprehensible to all but architects themselves…. Rethinking the architectural photograph might accelerate such a speculation (72).
A photographer, given free reign, would write a completely different list. I would like to see more use of light, more attention to the creation of mood and atmosphere through seeing less of the building and more of the environment. I would like different angles other than those drawn by architects and several technical equivalents to brushstrokes. All of which would make it less obvious what the architect was interested in, what his intentions were, and these are of course the reasons he pays a lot of money in the first place. And therein lies the problem. But there is a solution: the dialectic.
Surely a brief should be something of a dialogue between the viewpoints, skills and interests of different professions to arrive at something neither could come up with on their own. Which it is up to a point, granted. Skills were relied heavily upon, particularly in the age of large format film commissions. Architectural photography required an enormous amount knowledge on the part of a photographer, and it was these skills (both photographic practitioner and architectural connoisseur) that one shelled out for. But doing glamour shots of your little darling is not enough. It is not the building that needs to be airbrushed and shown in a flattering light. Photography should be about all the things photography avails of. And this it decidedly is not where a supposedly transparent depiction of a very large product is all that is called for. But, again, there is a solution.
Part 2: Atmospheres (AKA: Side ‘B’)
Peter Zumthor writes a bit like an architect and a bit like a phenomenologist. “We perceive atmosphere through our emotional sensibility—a form of perception that works incredibly quickly, and which we humans evidently need to help us survive” (13). There is no mention of Mediterranean skies in that sentence. But then again he is not really talking about the subject at hand but rather a shocking notion of tacit knowledge. Yet when he does talk about buildings and photography, he is just as surprising: “How could I design something like the room in that photograph—one of my favourite icons, a building I have never seen, in fact I think it no longer exists?” (11).
This statement is heresy! How can an architect’s favourite building exist only in a photograph? How can a photograph contain all of the information needed to produce such a reaction? Because, says Zumthor, of Atmosphere. [T]he task of creating architectural atmosphere comes down to craft and graft….[p]rocesses and interests, instruments and tools (21).
Like Connagh, he presents us with a list of the basics: that which he considers essential to his work and which he values in the work of others. The following is an attempt to paraphrase that list.
1. The body of architecture collects different things of the world and combines them to create a space.
2 Material compatibility—the presence and weight of materials. (It is unclear to me how this is different from the first secret.)
3. The sound of space: interiors are large musical instruments—again this is due to materials, we are told.
4 Every building has a certain temperature. (materials…)
5. Surrounding objects: the things people collect and keep over time. (small bits of different materials)
6. Architecture involves movement and hence is a temporal as well as spatical art.
7. Exterior vs interior.
8. Levels of intimacy/proximity and distance ≈ scale.
9. The light on things.
It is clear that Zumthor’s obsession with materials have made him the guru of architecture he is today, but clearly light and vantage point also have a role to play in the creation of atmosphere according to his list. There is something altogether theatrical about the notion.
Gernot Böhme, who almost certainly must have influenced Zumthor, writes too about the subject of atmosphere. “The art of the stage set as a paradigm for an aesthetics of atmospheres” is particularly fitting as he discusses the production and reception of predictable atmospheres through established techniques.
The truth is that atmospheres are a typi¬cal intermediate phenomenon, something between subject and object. That makes them, as such, intangible, and means that – at least in the European cultural area – they have no secure ontological status. But for that very reason it is rewarding to approach them from two sides, from the side of subjects and from the side of objects, from the side of reception aesthetics and from the side of production aesthetics (3).
It is the art of the stage set which rids atmospheres of the odour of the irrational: here, it is a question of producing atmospheres. This whole undertaking would be meaningless if atmospheres were something purely subjective. For the stage-set artist must relate them to a wider audience, which shall experience the atmosphere generated on the stage in, by and large, the same way (3).
Architecture and photography share this capacity to set the stage and produce atmospheres. In this sense they are similar practices that would grow together by availing to articulate their points of intersection and work out a common language.
As I see it, photography depicts architecture in essentially two ways: via its emotional space, where the atmosphere produced is content and informational space, in which its content is explanation/narration. In either case, aesthetics are involved as the depiction is visual. Furthermore, the two categories overlap as documentary photography is not devoid of atmosphere nor is the stage set by atmospherically intentional imagery devoid of information or narrative.
One definition of photography is that it is a recording device for the visual. But that is like saying that writing helps us to remember our thoughts. It is true, but states very little about the creative practice, the techne or the technology involved. Hence, just as writing is used in manifold ways to record, persuade, entertain and transport to different places with varied degrees of success depending on the writer, the principals of photography mean that it is a means of recording with limitless outcomes. Furthermore, photography as a practice is not limited to the decisive moment when the shutter is pressed. Photographs are both taken and made; this distinction is commonly pronounced by referring to observational vs. directorial mode photography.
More and more common in art photography is the process of staging. In this practice, photography becomes more like the production of a film involving casting, direction, set design and lighting. It uses photographic technology to record an idea, not a place or an event which were merely instrumental vehicles in producing an in intention. In this use, photography is as distant from a snapshot as from fox-hunting. It is far more like architecture, and other tectonic practices.
In saying all of this, I am merely stating an obvious fact about photography which is commonly overlooked: it can act equally as model for and model of the world. Recording what others have done (moments in time as well as other’s creations from paintings to buildings) has led photography to be thought of by many writers as simply a mnemonic device. But there is no such thing as neutral, as any number of decisions precede and follow the pressing of the shutter even in the most “objective” photographic practice. And most photography is quite subjective, particularly where the much overlooked technical methods employed by professionals are taken into consideration. But whether professional or amateur, photography shows us the world differently than our eyes or other art forms and has thus created a photographic reality through which much of the world is interpreted. As such, it has the capacity to be both a proposition and a statement, depending on the application of the technology as determined by the practitioner’s intention. I believe it is this point which aroused the ire of two architects who wrote against architecture throughout the nineties and have only recently nuanced that argument . Each went on a crusade to purify their craft by removing the photographic way of seeing from the minds of its craftsmen. But if one can go from their writing, the funny thing about their crusade is that neither seems to have bothered to learn about the enemy, for they don’t waste much time writing about what it means to take photographs, how this process is enacted or by whom photographs are made. Photography is a flat and faceless evil, a board at which to throw darts. And this is the core problem with their argument and my fundamental reason for taking it up. If they are truly to critique photography (and to extend the argument a bit further, aesthetics) they might like to spend a bit of time learning about it. Once accomplished, they might be able to offer insight on how to enrich the marriage between photography and architecture by addressing its lacks and suggesting ways in which to ameliorate them. Claiming instead that images impoverish the imagination shuts down any dialogue between the practices and further guilty of logical fallacies: it is like saying that reading and writing impoverish language. Bad writing might. As could limiting oneself to reading only of one sort of book.
If there is something wrong with the relationship between architecture and photography it is that it is too narrow, rigid and limited as stated at the beginning of this paper. Architecture is in part an aesthetic practice and one wonders why architects don’t ask photographers to do more research into that aspect for them. As the relationship between the two practices currently stands the opposite occurs: architects require one sort of photograph and photographers assume that being a (successful) professional means never deviating from that path. As a research tool used at art academies and universities, photography could be used to investigate new forms of aesthetic production in architecture. New photographs might eventually produce new architecture. It probably has done so the entire time. As a non-linguistic means of communication, the use of photography might be explored to narrow the divide between the (sometimes arcane) practice of architecture and the public space it inevitably utilizes. Architects all too often speak the language of architecture and are unable to communicate to a broader public or listen to their responses. Photography might act as a sort of stain-glass window to unite the priest to his congregation. Whilst not a universal language, it is at least universally familiar in all its many interpretations, and spoken in all its many forms.
The current relationship between client and artist limits artistic production, which is bad for producer and consumer alike. There is an old belief that separates the arts: the fine artist asks a question and the commercial artist answers it. As such, the artist acted as a form of investigator—at times into aesthetics, at times into technique, at times into sociology and anthropology. I believe this is rarely the case, now. In conventional practice, commercial and artistic photography are simply two different markets with two different sets of tropes: fashion, product, spaces on the one, staged, dead-pan, new-documentary on the other. In both markets, the artists are interested in building careers, so no investigation takes place. What does this mean for photography, art, aesthetics as the means of encountering and understanding the world? I think it means stagnation.
Part 3: Yes, but…
This is all well and good, I can hear you thinking, but how to put it into practice? The answer is simple: exploitation! But of an honest sort.
Had we world enough and time, this type of production would not rely on crime, but—like Marvell—we don’t. Like him, we want to get down to business. And what we have got are lots of hungry art students with countless desires and very little clue about what to do with them in order to remain familiar with the luxuries of food, shelter and clothing. So lets put them to work and give them photo credits. At present art school is seeking a new paradigm. Artistic research appears to be the answer, but the jury is still out on just what that would mean. I opt for transparent slavery.
In art school we are constantly looking over our shoulder at the scientists. What are doing in that shiny new building on the other end of campus which we have never entered? But we seem to have overlooked the hard-working grad students standing next to the professor. Science couldn’t take place without the sort of exploitation I am advocating. Not all the murderous industrial-military-complex petro-dollars in the world could supply that army with their much-deserved salaries. No, these Roman legions are prisoners of war, but not for long! This debtors’ prison of indentured servitude has a laser at the end of the tunnel. Become a scientist, and the world is yours! Not so of the arts…
Graduates of celebrated art schools drift in and out of bars in trendy zones of large cities for years in hopes of some how making it. All the while they are making very little in the way of art because it takes time they haven’t got after part-time jobs and Facebook. The quest for a big break is the symptom of their unrealistic and unspecified expectations of salvation. What kind of business plan is it to be in the right place at the right time so that a white knight can gallop in on his platinum charger, secured (until recently) by globalised collateral debt obligations? Even the salvation of the medievals makes sense in comparison with the one this ship of fools is waiting for. Jesus may have been no less fictional than Macbeth (or for that matter, Shakespeare) but at least he was after a larger flock than Peggy Guggenheim’s, Charles Saatchi’s or Timothy Persons’.
Young artists need a hand to point them in the right direction. Art school needs a new direction to point to. Exploitation is clearly the right hand-job for each. And as I am thinking particularly how it could allow for a new sort of variety in photographic depiction, why not call this sort of cooperative art education Photosynthesis? Now we have a name for it; the rest is child’s play.
If you are an architect, I am amazed you have read this far. Perhaps doing so means you are at least the slightest bit dissatisfied with the industry that disseminates your work. High five. Would you like to buy some photographs?
If you are not an architect, kudos all the same for making it to the end. Let’s build a better world for tomorrow starting with slavery and even more media presence to distance us to from the world we used to consider real for all but the mad.
And if you are mad, which of course you are if you have read all of this, I’d like to leave you with a thought so you can help me start a new rumour: China is already doing it! That’s right, the big bad menace from the East. That’s the worry isn’t it? That one day they will stop importing ideas from the West and mass producing them; one day they will export ideas of their own, and then where will we be? In indentured servitude, no doubt…exploited to the full. The horror, the horror…. Let’s see if that threat makes important old men scramble from behind their desks in search of young women to listen to…before China gets there first!
next stops on the architour list:
Les Cols Pavellons, a Olot. Girona – cal demanar si és possible i amb quines condicions email@example.com
Carpa al Restaurant Les Cols / Carpa al Restaurant Les Cols – cal contactar prèviament http://www.lescols.com/
Espai Públic Teatre La Lira, a Ripoll. Girona – públic, visita oberta
Llar d’infants ‘El petit comte’, a Besalú. Girona – si hi estàs interessat fes-nos-ho saber, sol anar bé els migdies
Parc de Pedra Tosca, a les Preses. Girona – públic, visita oberta
Estadi d’atletisme Tussols-Basil, a Olot. Girona – públic, visita oberta
Bassa a ‘La Vila’ de Trincheria, a la Vall de Bianya. Girona – propietat privada, cal demanar si és possible http://www.cancapsec.com
Llar d’infants ‘Els Colors’, a Manlleu. Barcelona – si hi estàs interessat fes-nos-ho saber, sol anar bé els migdies
Pavelló a l’estany, a Llagostera. Girona – propietat privada
Casa per a un fuster, a Olot. Girona – propietat privada, visita únicament exterior
Caves Bell-lloc, a Palamós. Girona – caves privades, per a visitar contactar amb http://www.brugarol.com
Espai Barberí, a Olot. Girona – és el nostre despatx, si hi estàs interessat i no és cap de setmana podem mirar de concretar una visita