diary: living architecture

At the moment I am writing from a flat designed by Bjarke Ingles whilst taking pictures of two schools and the metro in Ørestad.  Quite an immersive learning experience I am having.  It is like a kind of participant observation in the life of this buildings and the neighbourhood.  The particular design features of Kim Nielsen and Bjarke Ingles are beginning to become distinctive and apparent on an almost intuitive level.  So too of the school by KHR (more of that anon) and the metro stations by Ørestad.  Each readily offers itself to be photograph and inspires you with the intelligent design (creationist?), quality of materials and excellence in building that make these buildings so much nicer to be in than the ordinary institutional offenses we are stuck with.  I would love to see what they could do with a hospital.

I realise I am settling in here as I begin to think about ways in which I would do certain things differently if I could – like have shops at the metro stops and on the ground floor of the buildings instead of the awful shopping centre.  Or better yet just put the metro underground.  The rails are kind of monolithic and hence attractive to shoot and interesting to walk around.  But the train is noisy and runs 24/7 (or should do: it is undergoing nightly repairs at the moment) and would become quite a hassle to live next to, long term.  But for good or bad I am forced to leave for a couple of weeks, pack up things in Barcelona and return to finish the job I started.  I will wind up spending all of my grant on flights and accommodation, but I guess that was the idea.

I am still confused and a bit annoyed by the ‘say yes to everything, whether or not you actually mean it’ attitude of the Danes.  It has happened now, for something like the eighth time.  This time around it is with Mikkel Beedholm of KHR.  All of the other architects agreed to participate after then first meeting then backed out at the last minute before the interview (with the exception of Henning Larsen, 3xn and Plh).  But Mikkel actually gave me 2.5 hrs of his time and walked me around his building from top to bottom.  When we said goodbye it was Friday and he said he’d get in touch Monday or Tuesday to arrange access.  It is now Friday and his phone has been switched off all week; I’ve had no replies to texts or emails.  I feel like a jilted lover!  Honestly, why take the trouble of doing the interview, only to back out at the very last minute?  The interview is the only bit of effort required of the other party.  Well, that and looking at some photos.  But everyone seems to enjoy doing that.  I simply cannot fathom these people.  There is something going on here, at a commercial or cultural level, that I am not twigging- and I need to find out what that something is!

diary: following adam mørk

ways of seeing

the school is undergoing a summer cleaning and is anything but presentable according to the rulebook.  it is dirty, everything is out of place, there are cleaners and builders with all of their equipment running around.  in short, the place is a mess.  and you never want guests round when your house is in such a state.  the pretense that we all live and work in perfect environments, kept up by this show, is one of those funny little lies we tell ourselves that are so blatant and prevalent only mass lunacy can explain how we overlook them.  i doubt very much that 3xn will like the pictures i am taking of the building in this state, but doing so is a learning experience.

i am engaged in  a particularly interesting activity at the moment:  reshooting adam mørk’s pictures of the ørestad gymnasium.  this should be required learning for every architect and photographer is it is an incredible exercise in seeing through another’s eyes and also becoming aware of your own way of seeing things.  invariably you are struck with admiration for a master’s ability to find just the right spots from which to see certain aspects of the site.  at other times, you wonder just what s/he was thinking.  I have done this activity with my studio lighting students many times– all of them have had to learn by imitating.

additionally, i think this is a wonderful example of how photography is useful as data.  by documenting the building from the same spots over a span of several years, you can really asses the wear and tear of certain materials use an as such learn about their suitability for future projects.  photos become clear evidence to make a case, as in a crime scene.

what does all of this say about my battle against convention?  that i am not waging one.  the architectural way of seeing is lovely.  there is no reason to eliminate it.  i would only modestly assert that it could easily and should definitely be expanded.

research question: introducing the introduction

This is just a first stab at it.  The middle bit is wholly incoherent and shows have far I’ve got to go before that article will be ready.  But it was good to structure my thoughts in this way and I shall continue to do so until I get it nearer the mark.

Having reached a milestone in my research, I am writing to explain the relationship between architecture and photography – such as I see it.  That milestone is the completion of an artistic research project done in collaboration with three Finnish and three Danish architectural firms.  In preparation for that project, I conducted a formal analysis of the conventional practices of the architectural press, which I shall also avail to explain during the course of the following text.  With such a big question to research, I think it timely to point out the obvious fact that this is only a small step on the road to understanding.

If I have any insight to offer it will be as an architectural photographer.  I have come to understand the relationship between architecture and imagery, image-makers and architects and that of buyers and sellers better than I did before.  I believe that is information worth sharing.  I have, likewise, become aware of gaps, slippages and misconceptions that occur when commissions are made which should be brought to light and further considered.  Additionally, I believe I have come to know and understand my own practices in greater depth.  Yet before discussing any of that, I have realised after repeated conversations about this topic that the most important thing to do first is to state quite clearly what I am not going to cover.

Architecture is divisive.  Everyone seems to have an opinion about it, usually stemming from love or hatred.  Architects tend to prefer and often even idolise the constructions and drawings of the 20th century.  The rest of the world calls for the wrecking ball and bulldozer when you bring them up.  And whilst the architectural way of seeing will be addressed in this paper, the relative merits or evils of contemporary architecture will not.  My work is as a photographer, not an architectural critic or historian; like everyone else, I have my own views, but I will endeavour to keep them from this text.

Likewise, ‘the Image’ is too broad a subject for the scope of this investigation.  My main focus will be on the photographic image, digital and film based, and it’s reproduction.  CGI (3d and 4d renders), engravings, woodcuts and watercolours are interesting, relevant, and will be touched on lightly, but they are outside my area of expertise and thus must only be mentioned for the sake of comparison with photographic images.  For the same reason, I shall  avoid the interesting pitfalls of Phenomenology, Semiotics and Structuralist theories as they have been very well explained by people far more qualified than I to talk about them.  I shall just touch upon them where they shed light on my endeavour, but not lean upon them too heavily for fear of not being able to walk on my own afterwards.

Lastly, the important link to PR will only be crossed obliquely.  Books by Beatriz Colomina, Laura Iloniemi and Petra Ceferin were the starting point for this research, but not it’s final destination.  Photography is so closely linked to the promotion of architecture that to avoid its discussion would be akin to praising the emperor’s new clothes.  However, they have already done such an admirable job of unpacking that particular issue that my purpose is simplified by them: to add the missing voice.  Academics, architects, philosophers, promoters and publishers alike (often one and the same person) have all discussed the relationship between images and architecture at length, but photographers have been silent for a generation.

So much for what must be passed over in silence; what can be said clearly?

I have attempted to concentrate the contents of my research into three articles. Each addresses a part of the subject at hand, like the blind men who described the elephant they encountered as: a palm leaf, a snake and a broom.  One is tempted to argue that each of these might, in abler and more patient hands, have been developed into a separate thesis.  But to do so would be, in my mind, to remain blind to the overall issue and run the risk of letting the pachyderm trample the village.  I believe sincerely that to address the relationship between photography and architecture you must look at the role of publishing and the established conventions therein, consider what is not being said by those images once you have established what is, and test people involved in creating those conventions.  How do photographers, publishers, architects work with images – what were their motivations and why?  As stated, I am using photography as my principal method of investigation, and it has allowed me to talk to architects about several things, the first of which was atmospheres.

Atmographs or Archmospheres?

This is the first article I have written about an artistic research project in search of a dialectical method and a new sort of expanded architectural photograph.  The process involved 6 case studies with architects who were selected after interviews with 12 practices in Finland and Denmark. A key component to the enquiry is to work out the notion of atmosphere, as understood by Gernot Böhme, and its implications in regard to my field. The idea was that instead of following contemporary architectural photography practices – depicting material objects largely removed from their context –photographs might be used as a method to explore and represent what might be meant by the term “space of moods”, offered by Böhme. Doing so might also allow for an investigation into certain institutional practices, as it is a component largely ignored by architects and publishers when they commission photographs.  That omission is significant as it stands in contrast to the interest in the subject evinced by architects like Peter Zumthor and Juhani Pallasmaa.  In short, there is a gap between what architects write about and what they (are prepared to) show in images.  To test this hypothesis, I conducted photographic experiments in order to articulate questions in a visual form and interview architects and publishers about their response to these new techniques. The contact points between photographic art and research are several, but crucial to the work is the desire to produce questions via photographs. In this way, photography is used as a method to enquire into conventional practices within three intertwined industries: photography, publishing and architecture.  Hence artistic research is the method of enquiry; expert responses to the work form an important part of the findings.

Do images make buildings?

In this article I consider a number of different ways to interpret and answer that central research question:  How have they?  How do they?  How might they in the future?  But more importantly, what is meant by the word ‘make’?  Images are central to the business of promoting buildings – they make them look beautiful and make them famous.  It is here that the media discourse alluded to earlier takes on a central role in understanding the relationship between photography and architecture.  But still other meanings for ‘make’ come to mind.  What about photography’s role in the process of design?  Architects spend their lives looking at buildings of other images.  In what sense, then, might those images be said to provide ideas both vague and specific for future designs?  Moreover, it is not merely the architect that looks at pictures of buildings, but also their clients.  Photographs (and digital renders) act, in this sense, as a style guide for non-expert practitioners to make decisions about the images they want to commission.  So much for an overview of standard industry practices, what about parallel uses of architecture and photography?

The art world has been filled with imagery – often called Dead Pan – of buildings and urban environments since the 1990s.  Interest in that subject matter is often attributed the Dusseldorf school and its several prominent graduates. Clearly also the rise in staged photographs put into fashion at first by Jeff Wall, and the creation of fictional spaces by Andreas Gursky and more recently artists like Victor Enrich, Josef Schulz and Filip Dujardin are an example of how space might be used photographically only as a starting point.  Their images depict an idea, rather than document a point on the map. Seen this way, photographs work as a means of revealing the overlooked or unseen – a spy hole for viewers into another world.  Digital capture and post production are the enabling technologies.  Photography’s relationship with time makes it an obvious technology for such reconfiguration of daily life through the senses.  Digital capture means it is also a means of expanding our knowledge of light, thereby extending the notion of photographic capture’s relationship with time which is normally limited to the freezing or blurring of objects in motion.   The same goes for unravelling space, where vast surfaces can be stitched together and then viewed in one take, rather than panned across by the eye.

Lastly photographs can act as data.  In (XXX) 2012 Martin Parr gave a talk about the idea of large bodies of photographs at Aalto University as part of the presentation of his latest travelling exhibition.  In it, he explained how the internet means we are invariably dealing with photography as massive quanta of data about the world we live in.  Inverting the standard relationship between time and works produced, Parr offered rough images hung cheaply and quickly about local sites photographed immediately before exhibition.

All of these are examples of ways in which images might be said to make buildings, but as was the case in the former article they fall into two clear categories.  Images where photographs are instrumental to an architectural practice and images where architecture is instrumental to photography.  In the end, it ought to be said that images make buildings and buildings make images.

How images make buildings: conventions in publishing.

In this, the third and final article we go back to the beginning of my research, to the background information found in books, magazines and online.  It was this research which led me to enquire into conventions of commissioning and publishing architectural photography.  Following the hypothesis that architectural photography fits into very narrow parameters, in both the formal and narrative sense, I decided to assess the history of architectural publishing in Finland and compare it to one month in global publishing at the time of enquiry.  In doing so, I felt my method would ensure place as the control group in the first case and time in the second (with the inverse being true of the variables).   I offer a photographer’s analysis of the strategies used to produce these images and a look at just how few photographic practices are made use of (and, by virtue of which it seems safe to assume, considered) in their production.  In short, it is analysis of the way of seeing: an architectural one guiding a photographic one with the results shown to an architectural audience.  In this loop, the photographer offers little more than a safe pair of hands.  One can’t help but wonder if that is good value for money.

Market terminology is, even when used in jest, perhaps inevitable in such a commercial niche of photographic production; however, there is a larger issue at stake, which returns us again to the way of seeing and doing.  Ultimately, I am engaged in research into the relationship that has developed between photography and architecture—not into either practice on its own, per se.  Photography is both a profession and a passion for me.  Architecture is the source of commissions and the object of observation.  But more interesting than either on its own, I find, is the way they are connected.  By investigating that relationship, I don’t claim to offer a new theory or even break new ground.  Instead, I have availed to articulate the position of a working professional and question the practices of other closely related professions in order that they may shed some light upon each other.  Articulation, description, interpretation – as Juha Varto succinctly put it.  In doing so largely via means of artistic research, I hope to open up my own practices as a photographer but also guard a hopefully not vain hope – and hopefully not in vain – that this means of questioning about one’s profession through one’s profession might be considered by other academics and arts in the future.  It would not have occurred to me to do so (at least not to this extent) without the influence of others conducting research at my university and at various others around the globe.  I feel I must at least try to return the favour.

diary – coffee without cream / without milk

What is not being said by architects through the selection / publication of images is the most telling.  There is such a small story leaking out to the world.  Why?  These are images from the world and of it?  Are we condemned to the projection of pretty shadows on the cave wall?

research log: thus far with k2s

click on pdfs to see photographic interpretations of the following excerpts from interviews with architects about their work, personal interpretations which ignored those suggestions and a road towards the synthesis of the two (eventually) thanks to this dialectical approach:


research log: a+u

this is what japan architect has chosen to publish.  no people or life of any sort.  no black and white.  no surprising angles.  no story.  just pretty shiny still-life photos of a very large object and one aerial shot to show context.

the rest should be passed over in silence

But can what can be said be said clearly?  I think so, and whilst the branches are several I see them all very clearly joining up into a solid base.  That base is of course a dissertation that attempts to unpack architectural photography.  In doing so, I will need to address my work as a commission-based artist, consider photography from a photographer’s point of view and look at what architects and publishers say and what they do in order to scrutinise their practices, as well.  All of this must be done with scientific detachment and scepticism whilst at the same time embracing artistic knowing and doing.  I believe the best way forward is to focus on three articles and then frame them with an introduction, methodological explanation, gallery of images and conclusion.  The articles break down as follows:

  1. What is an atmosphere and how would you photograph it? Atmographs or Archmospheres. Evidence:  combination of photographs, classroom, and interviews.  Explain full process and how you will later test feedback about your experiments
  2. Conventions.  All spaces and all photographs have atmospheres, the funny thing about architectural photography is that it attempts to make all of the spaces and places around the world look the same.  Through strict ideas about what an architectural atmosphere is, the architectural depiction of it generally succeeds at repeating the same place space and time around the world and has done so, many would argue, for nearly 30 years.  Evidence:  analysis of finnish publication over time.  Analysis of world publications in one month.
  3. Do images make buildings?  And if so, in what ways:  reliance on pr (to sell), feedback loop in design (inspiring and limiting),  journalism (to inform and interest the broader public).  Evidence:  textual – architects writing about publicity and role of images (ceferin, iloniemi, this is not architecture, urbanidad).

The fourth part is an image gallery.  Key question here:  should photos stand alone or invite some form of interpretation/explanation/accompanying text?  Much of what I will do photographically will be in opposition to conventional practice.  Should I let the work speak for itself?  Doesn’t sound academically very convincing.  But telling people what they are supposed to see in an image you have produced is about the greatest faux pas/insult I can think of in the art world.  You come off as smug and gormless all in one go.

The fifth part is a two-sided poster, one for Archmospheres and one for Atmographs, with an image-grid on each side.  Should I design it myself or get help?

The sixth part is an interactive website.  I think this has the greatest potential of all the aspects of this project because it would use technology in a sensible means to allow the viewer to use images for knowledge – interact with them to learn about photography and architecture simultaneously.  It sounds like the introduction to the kiddy section of a science museum, but I am thinking more along the lines of architects, photographers and educators.  In essence, it would allow the viewer to make several sorts of comparisons between images to explore the flattening or contrarily the differentiation the one style or another of images produces.  By this I mean, it would be the clearest way to explore and demonstrate the validity (or lack thereof) of my hunch that the so called neutral style of architectural photography is counterproductive for architect and client alike, for it makes everything look the same in a world that run on branding via perceived differences.  And the viewer is robbed of the richness of a world full of inherent differences presented through 4 or 5 tired tropes.  Alternately, in presenting the same building through a variety of different representations, the effects of light and people on a so called document and various forms of post-production and mis-en-scene narratives forms for the production of so called art work will show just how varied and different the built environment and it’s image can be.  For this part to be successful I will have to find a grant of 2-3 thousand euros.

In addition, I must avail to write – here – a log book stating the main procedural steps each day I go out to take pictures.  What did I do, how did I do it and why.  It is obvious, but it strikes me that I have yet to come close.  Btw, Juha Varto came to me in a dream like ObiWan Kenobe the other night, pointing this out to me instead of telling me to go to the Degoba system.  Learning from Juha not Yoda, I am.

diary: truth be told

in this battle to understand what architectural photography is about – what it is and isn’t saying and why – i am confronting some of my own glass ceilings that keep me thinking inside the box.  one of them is cars.  i was highly frustrated last night because the light was beautiful but the facade of the ørestad school was obscured by a van.  i am not fond of personal vehicles in cities and this may account for my reaction, but isn’t that type of tidying up of reality exactly the sort of thing this project hopes to address?

just what does this project hope to address?  now one thing, and now another, it would seem.  i guess it is only natural to go broad before you narrow, but i think the time has come to specify what i think this project is about and receive feedback in the form of green or red lights.

research log: old boss meet the new boss?

2 schools side by side in ørestad by celebrity architects.  currently shooting for the left hand side and trying to get ahold of the right.  would be wonderful to make a comparison of each for this project.  the following reasons occur:

1.  old vs new

2. same function different programme

3. foreground / background

4. logistics

5. compare / contrast 2 different architects’ response to photos of their school

6. consider function vs form of building and how to depict each

7. compare / contrast with school in espoo