diary : ideas upon return

  • fill chapel with red balloons hang red streamers in centre of voids in library.
  • shoot nude model or dancers in spaces.
  • shoot repeated view under different weather and light conditions.
  • shoot model simulating different atmospheres

research log: article submission to JAR for peer-review

Introduction (images omitted)

Atmosphere might be compared to the genius loci; sadly that benevolent spirit is often overlooked and by some, forgotten. Can it protect us if we cease to believe in it?

Architects and philosophers have examined the notion of atmosphere as a communicable aspect of the phenomenological experience of space, a social construct and a means to an end in the design of spatial experiences. Their work forms much of the context for this study and informed to a large extent the content of interviews conducted. Atmosphere, it is hypothesised, allows for a shift in the focus of the architectural photograph.

Jean Baudrillard addressed atmosphere early on in his book, A System of Objects. The work looks at the world “no longer given but produced…constructed” and asserts that, acting as an “engineer of atmosphere” [1] mankind has converted space into a system into which cultural meaning is projected. The bourgeois engineering of one sort of space is central to his argument. Atmosphere is defined as the “systematic cultural connotation at the level of objects [2]. This notion of atmosphere has proved an important part of the background for this study – a means of questioning the principal concepts and a possible explanation for the uniformity of architectural atmosphere as found in publications.

Another key component to the enquiry is Gernot Böhme’s understanding of atmosphere. In addition to depicting material objects removed from their context, photographs might be used as a method to explore and represent Böhme’s term “space of moods” [3]. His discourse is particularly a propos as it addresses the subject “both from the side of subjects and from the side of objects, from the side of reception aesthetics and from the side of production aesthetics” [4]. Aside from being expressed in terms strangely Cartesian for a phenomenological discourse, the production/reception binary opposition is significant for the representation of space. It is not architecture but sceneography which Böhme uses as a testing ground for thought experiments into atmosphere. He writes:

“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” [5].

The idea that you can identify and synthesize distinct atmospheres and deploy them with predictable results to an audience (implying interpersonal agreement in reception) is the second motivation for this experiment.  You can make and receive atmospheres in a way that is intrapersonal and reliable he says; as proof he offers the work of scenographers. Could the same be said of architects and photographers?

An architectural vision of atmospheres is provided by Peter Zumthor, bringing us even closer to the focus of this photographic project. Zumthor presents the idea of a set of component parts crucial to the production of atmospheres in his work. He argues that “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” [6]  The point is that if atmosphere is part of the way we encounter the world, shouldn’t the spaces we inhabit take it into account? His talk is instructive as it centres on methods and means, “the task of creating architectural atmosphere comes down to craft and graft [… p]rocesses and interests, instruments and tools” [7] he says, giving nine specific examples of things he uses to produce atmospheres. I will argue that the representation of such spaces ought to raise similar questions because much of architectural space is represented and hence understood through photography. Shouldn’t what we write about space and how we depict it through images have atmosphere as part of the core vocabulary?  One is almost tempted to ask here, can the subaltern not speak? [8] What are the consecuences from banning, avoiding or overlooking this aspect of our views on the world? Trying to establish the atmospheres of a selection of photographs (and document the reception of each as commercially viable or not) might also allow for an investigation into certain institutional practices largely ignored by architects, photographers and publishers, at present [9].

Finnish architect, Juhani Pallasmaa has recently addressed the subject as part of his exploration into the embodied image and haptic architecture in the Finnish Journal of Architecture [10]. He is an interesting point of reference for this study, as he has spent several years writing against the use of photographs in the deployment of architecture [11]. Building on my understanding of his arguments about architecture and images, established through several written works, I was fortunate to interview Mr Pallasmaa and discuss these issues with him. From the outset he took a far less black and white position on photography than expected. Statements like, “I cannot think what architecture would do without photography, and I respect good architectural photography,” were abundant. It seems, in fact, that his argument points more to the need for a deeper and richer understanding of the world through the images that represent it rather than eliminate image making from certain fields. Images must awaken the imagination, not shut it down: “There is always more to a photograph than the picture.  It conveys because of our fantastic sense of imagination.” Pallasmaa’s argument for the sort of poetic image discussed by Gaston Bachelard strikes a chord: all spaces have an atmosphere, so presumably do all photographs.

Photographers, however, appear to have neglected atmospheres entirely. Given the dearth of commercial photographers reflecting on and writing about their practices, such silence is not surprising – but no less alarming.  What if doctors said nothing about medicine, leaving the articulation of that practice to those that might achieve it from the safe distance of theory? That type of specialised articulation of practices in photography is sorely neaded, according to Christopher Bedford in the Aperture publication, Words Without Pictures: “If photography is to be understood…. this will require a rich and thorough understanding of the myriad decisions that precede the production of the photographic image, ranging from the conceptual and obtuse to the mundane and pragmatic” [12].  Indeed, it is difficult to think anything of critical substance written by architectural photographers since Eric de Maré and Julius Shulman’s expositions of their work in the 1960s and 70s [13].  All the while and to this day, architects and academics from diverse backgrounds have had much to say on the topic. But rarely if ever have they done so with any photographic understanding. For that reason, this paper attempts to make a step towards one such articulation, and focuses on atmosphere in the photography of architecture as a means of doing so.  In order for that to happen the following questions must be addressed:

Given the diversity of the world architectural photography represents, is it not strange and intriguing how often the same atmosphere in such photographs is repeated?

What would happen if new options were pursued as a means of representing an architectural work instead of sticking to conventional practices?  What would the images look like and how would the industry react?

Lastly, are the photographs in question atmographs or archmospheres? Two clumsy neologisms require definition [14]:

Atmographs: via this means of depiction connotation creates the atmosphere perceived in a photo. This sort of photograph might attempt to reveal the invisible or overlooked, challenge or confront statements made by the architect or simply reinterpret existing forms of representation [15].  Here the goal is to look beyond the clues given by the architect in the interview.

Archmospheres: denotation and standard architectural photographic tropes are employed here but the focus has shifted somewhat. Might it not be possible to centre the photograph less on the material object depicted and more on the atmosphere the architect indicated as relevant and significant in the first interview of this process?  The intention of the architect is relevent here because their commercial practices are significant to this study – this is not fine art work but rather a fusion of commission-based art practices with artistic research practices.

A final question of course is: can you do both?

Can you synthesize one proposition with another (the photgrapher’s and the architect’s) to create a third? Can you perhaps extend the working relationship extant between client and commissioned artist by applying this method?  MIght it prove possible to create a new sort brief influenced by the method of the dialectic? Field-testing was conducted on the basis that you can – but not without dialogue. Interviews took place before and after photography in search of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.  Whilst far from falling neatly into each of the three categories, images were produced with the hope that a half way point between photographic and architectural practices might produce new sorts of images, some atmographs, some archmospheres, surprising to client and artist alike. This idea of a dialogue between architect and photographer, where propositions are synthesized to produce unanticipated images instead of the standard proposition of the commercial brief where novelty, innovation and surprises are anathema to good commercial practice, is the second main idea offered by this paper.  I introduce the terms dialectical interview and feedback loop in order to discuss that idea, which will be returned to later.

This article is seeks to share the results of an experiment, which is one of three parts of a doctoral thesis on the subject of the hinge that links architecture and photography. Findings take the form of interview responses and photographs. The discussion assesses the value of both method (dialectical interviews and an attempt to produce images with a focus on atmosphere), findings (the work produced and industry response) and the future viability of each outside of this experiment. It is there that some value may be found. Due to the length of this paper, only excerpts will be provided.

Three images are offered in a slideshow below as the first example of what different atmospheres might look like: three representations of one aspect of the same object. The documentary qualities, or photographic denotation, share in common the object depicted: the subject of the photograph, insofar as the subject is presumed to be the building. The views are essentially the same: distance, vantage point, camera angle, lens and depth of field are similar in each. However, by introducing changes in the time of day when the building is photographed or attention to human behaviour in and around the building, an attempt has been made to draw attention to the atmosphere in which the building sits, and not merely the building as isolated object. The object, plus light events are hence the subject of the building – the atmospheric envelope. These three examples are chosen for their similarity.  Viewed one way, they are of a similar type or taxonomy; viewed with another set of criteria (shifing from object to atmosphere) they appear somewhat different from each other. This is subtle variation, like shades of one colour.  An example of more radical depictions through connotation is offered on the title page and further examples are explored later on in this paper. Yet it is the position of this paper that almost any variation on conventional architectural photographic practices is radical:  the inclusion of people and objects which “obstruct views”, the deviation from 2-3 accepted weather and light scenarios, the use of black and white and blatant postproduction are all currently viewed as inadmissible means of representing architecture. Or so the rule of thumb would have it. Research was conducted through photography to find out whether or not that rule holds up to testing.

It seems worth saying a word or two more about the differences of this process as experienced in Finland and Denmark.  In the latter, it took nearly a year of phone calls and emails before it became possible to speak with anyone from any of these three offices.  In the end, it was only through personal contacts used as a form of reassurance that eventually made the meetings possible.  However, once the initial meeting took place, all architects were extremely open, helpful and dedicated to the project.  They were thoughtful and insightful in the interviews and eager to help in any way possible to make the project possible.  The experience in Denmark was diametrically opposed.

After a one week visit to Copenhangen, I managed to meet with all of the major architects there:  BIG, 3XN, Henning Larsen, SHL, Dorte Mandrup, CF Møller, PLH, KHR and COBE.  All were very interested in the project and agreed to collaborate with me.  Then they all disappeared.  BIG and COBE eventually took the trouble to email saying there had been a change in their policies, after several inquiries from me; Henning Larsen had a shake up in their staff, Dorte Mandrup and SHL simply vanished.  In the end I did half a shoot of Henning Larsen’s IT campus, half a shoot of KHR’s school (because the staff forbid me to shoot after the architect had agreed) and a great deal of time was spent in 3XN’s school and riding the metro from one PLH station to the next.

Ultimately, these factors had much to do with the selection process of partners in this experiment.  I mention them in an attempt to articulate the mundane and pragmatic elements that Christopher Bedford calls for, as they have as much to do with the final outcome of a project as any creative decisions.  They are all too rarely discussed.  Are they considered unseemly or just unimportant?

Materials and Methods

To field-test the dialectical process, photographic experiments were conducted over the course of a year 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 photography 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. The method of investigation combines artistic and ethnographic research with discourse analysis. All of those terms require some unpacking to make sense within the context of this study.

In my project photography plays three roles: photography as a research object, photography as research method, and photography as research result. In a sense, all three could be said to apply to this work.

1. Photography creates a focal point to allow for discussions about conventional practices in the architectural press versus an atmosphere-centred alternative at the earliest stage of field work: interviews with experts. The advantage of using images to this end has been demonstrated by advocates of photo elicitation. In practice, it facilitated discussion especially where the person interviewed was not comfortable speaking in English.

2. Photography is also used as a research method. The idea is that there is important knowledge stored in artistic practices, knowledge that can be shared through a close study of methods and practices. In order to do so, new work had to be produced. As commission based photography is the concern, it was understood that the interviews would act in place of standard photographic briefs which stipulate under normal circumstances the number and type of images to be taken by the photographer. The interview enacts the dialectical process normally lacking in commissioned photography.  Hence both the process of commissioning and that of producing commissioned work is altered by the dialectical process. A feedback loop of ideas and interests replaces the one-way street of client/artist commissions.

3. Photography is also an important nexus between artist and viewer at the final stage of the project.  In order to continue the process of dialogue with a greater audience, an online gallery, which is currently under development, will allow readers to view the photographs and judge for themselves whether or not they agree with assertions made about the value of atmosphere and the validity of it’s reification through images produced. The images will be shared both printed publications and via an interactive website. The link to the website in its current, preliminary phase is: www.archmospheres.com.  Fine art exhibition is neither relevant nor sought.

Ethnography is crucial to the study in order to gain additional knowledge about one half of the field of enquiry: architecture. Not an architect myself, the interviews act as method to gain insight from working experts. Ten years of work as an architectural photographer allow you to understand what is expected of you as a commissioned artist. They do not really allow you to understand what is expected of architects. Reading is a useful means of understanding architectural concerns, often unsympathetic to photographic practices, as in the case of Juhani Pallasmaa and Neil Leach [16].But interviews proved an invaluable method for enriching mutual understanding of practices and points of focus. In order to set them up, an email with a link to a Prezi presentation was sent to approximately 10 Finnish and 10 Danish architects. 6 case studies were eventually selected out of the 20 initial contacts.

Finally discourse analysis plays a final crucial role in the process [17]. Frequently, one encounters differences between what is asserted through text and the images that support them. One cogent example is the frequent discussion of people-centred buildings and the human scale in architecture, illustrated by images without people in them. In this sense too, interviews with architects were a valuable tool to etch out a map of their work and wish list of ideas about how to represent it. Simultaneously, it was hoped, the sort of rhetoric they were influenced by would emerge in the course of discussions. In short, it appeared meaningful to ask: what do you believe and how would you show it? The second round of interviews involved questions that would solicit responses to both sort of images: archmospheres (illustrations of asserted interests and wants) and atmographs (images not asked for but possibly of interest). In this way, the client might serve to test the aspirations and the rhetorical field in which the photographer works, and vice versa. It was also hoped that methods to develop a third way would emerge.

Images result from two interviews with Finnish architects AOA, K2S and JKMM and Danish Henning Larsen, 3XN, KHR and PLH. The first round of interviews was conducted before any photography took place, the second after one year of visiting and photographing the chosen site. The first round consisted of four main questions with a series of sub-questions connected to each. They were as follows:

• Do Images make buildings?

• What is an atmosphere?

• What was the role of architectural photography in the birth of modernism; what is it now; what do you predict it will be in the future?

• What images would you specifically like to see of this project?

The second round of interviews involved looking at photos of each project and discussing the results. The first part used photo-elicitation techniques for looking at photographs of each project. The architect was asked to do the following:

• Choose the preferred image in a category or theme of architecture from 3 atmospheric options.

• Potentially distinguish between images they liked and images they would purchase.

• Choose 2, 4, 5, 10 images through which to tell the story of the project.

• Show a favourite image of architecture (not from this project and not from of their own).

It is here where attempts are made to analyse potential slippages between the subject’s voiced opinions and their, perhaps ingrained, business sense of what is suitable.  Drawing attention to preferences versus purchases, it was hoped some light might be cast on core beliefs about the use of images, thereby problematising them and raising awareness about decisions that result from those beliefs.

The interview also included an evaluation of the effectiveness of key concepts: dialectic, conventions, atmosphere.

The main part of one such interview is included below.  Certain repetitions have been omitted in the interest of brevity.

It seems worth saying a word or two more about the differences of this process as experienced in Finland and Denmark.  In the latter, it took nearly a year of phone calls and emails before it became possible to speak with anyone from any of these three offices.  In the end, it was only through personal contacts used as a form of reassurance that eventually made the meetings possible.  However, once the initial meeting took place, all architects were extremely open, helpful and dedicated to the project.  They were thoughtful and insightful in the interviews and eager to help in any way possible to make the project possible.  The experience in Denmark was diametrically opposed.

After a one week visit to Copenhangen, I managed to meet with all of the major architects there:  BIG, 3XN, Henning Larsen, SHL, Dorte Mandrup, CF Møller, PLH, KHR and COBE.  All were very interested in the project and agreed to collaborate with me.  Then they all disappeared.  BIG and COBE eventually took the trouble to email saying there had been a change in their policies, after several inquiries from me; Henning Larsen had a shake up in their staff, Dorte Mandrup and SHL simply vanished.  In the end I did half a shoot of Henning Larsen’s IT campus, half a shoot of KHR’s school (because the staff forbid me to shoot after the architect had agreed) and a great deal of time was spent in 3XN’s school and riding the metro from one PLH station to the next.

Ultimately, these factors had much to do with the selection process of partners in this experiment.  I mention them in an attempt to articulate the mundane and pragmatic elements that Christopher Bedford calls for, as they have as much to do with the final outcome of a project as any creative decisions.  They are all too rarely discussed.  Are they considered unseemly or just unimportant?

Results – Finland

The following 2 pages contain a selection of images produced during the course of this investigation. Images are presented in slideshows, each corresponding to a different collaboration with an architect. They are a very small part of total images produced, and aim only at giving the reader an idea of some of the diversity aimed at once the project is fully edited. The final deployment of the decisive selection of images will be entered into in some detail in the discussion section at the end of this paper. However, it does seem relevant to mention here that the separation of Finnish and Danish projects over two pages is for the reader’s comfort (to avoid putting too much information on one page) and is not intended to suggest some drastic difference of type. There were certain differences working with Finnish and Danish architects due to things like the size of organizations, climatic differences at different times of year, internationality and the existence of open versus closed networks. Again, these differences will be touched on in the discussion. But the separation should not be taken to indicate a categorical difference in the type of findings. The interview process and subsequent photography produced was largely of a similar nature.

Texts are included in an attempt to shed some light on the context in which they were produced, the background which informed the image making process, any key issues connected to each site, reactions of architects to the images and conclusions drawn about those reactions. They are not intended as an artist’s statement, caption or gloss.

In a talk given at the architecture school of Aalto University and later during our interview, Vesa Oiva, half of AoA architects mentioned the importance of atmosphere repeatedly: “[In Kaisa Talo, the University of Helsinki’s new library] there are three different voids, each with different atmosphere which changes on each level due to spatial relationship of floor. The goal was to create the best atmosphere possible for learning: several different atmospheres are employed to suit the varied needs of visitors.” The low ceilings common to this sort of building are punctured by three parabolic voids, creating a stark contrast from the square geometry of the walls, floors, shelves and books. The building is large, changes from one level to the next and is very different on each side: one facing the 18th & 19th century neoclassical quarter designed largely by Engels, which feels studenty, peaceful and reminiscent of the days of empire, the other facing one of the busiest and more urban parts of what is ultimately rather a quiet, empty city, is the entrance to a busy metro sation, is crossed by cars and trams and filled with shops.  The building was shot several times during the winter of 2011 while still under construction and finally during the first week of its opening in September 2012.  All of this will be reflected in the eventual selection of photographs and is perhaps hinted at here to some extent.

My interview with Samuli Miettinen, partner at JKMM, was one of the longest, most indepth and engaging. It was also one of the first. Perhaps the process of asking the same questions over and over again during the course of several months means the interviewer is less engaging, too. But for the two hours we spent discussing the topics of atmosphere and architecture, architecture and representation and architecture in Finland, we were each very focussed on the discussion. Atmosphere was of particular significance to the project Samuli presented me with: a crèche providing day care for babies and children up to the age of schooling. He had very clear ideas about how the school might be looked at with a focus on atmospheres: “I would like to see some key moments producing atmospheres: children eating breakfast, taking off outdoor clothes after getting dropped off and putting them on to go out to play, children doing things under skylights and in playground, the chaos of life and work.” This message was a clear one, and I think the key moments and the chaos of life were obvious and easy to translate from word to image. Some of the other suggestions he had were that “photography needs to reach the other senses: touchable surfaces, acoustic surfaces, soft/hard, hot/cold.” Again, sensorial indicators like these transfer well, showing that photography is not just a visual medium, but rather one engaged through the eyes but which can activate the other senses, particularly touch and sound. There are noisy images and quiet ones, hard surfaces and soft ones. All of this quite clear without actually visiting the location.  Photography, Samuli helped me to understand, is more than a visual medium. Herein lies the idea behind the embodied image.

Lunch with the 3 partners of K2s was thoughtful, chatty and very encouraging. From the outset they made statements that piqued my interest in their work and our collaboration, such as their interest in the “trend to get rid of the boundary between art photography and architectural photography.”

They were openly aware of the importance of connotation when producting architectural photographs. The standard statements about objective, neutral depiction were nowhere to be found in the course of our discussion.  Instead,  “With the web, the magic you create through official photos is taken down by the kind of…snap-shots you see taken by other people.”

And when it came time to suggest future trends in photography they could see developing or discuss the type of images they would like to see more of in the future, again they were full of ideas, pointing to the lack of sponteneity, and the need for more “eventful lively photography.”

However, when asked whether the rise of cheap, high quality video would mark the end of photography’s role as the primary means of representing architecture, they were sceptical: “You have to somehow reduce, and photography is still a good way of doing that.”

Lastly, when asked if it is possible to convey the atmosphere of a work of architecture in a photograph, all three partners replied: “Definitely. Helene Binet’s photos of Zumthor’s spa are an example of that.” So black and white images of selective, evocative parts of the building, unusual points of view and an openess to spontaneous happenstance were all part of the ideas floating around the back of my mind whilst at work. Interestingly, though, when they contacted me or when and photographer Tuomas Uusheimo for images to publish in Japan Architect and the Mies Van der Rohe Award, they reverted to standard architectural photography.  What conclusions can be drawn from that discrepancy? Perhaps the desire is there but not the will? Perhaps a sea change is yet to come.

The interview with Kim Nielsen lasted just 30 minutes and was very intense. He had clearly spoken a great deal about this project over the years, and the goal was to get him think beyond the sound bits he produced at the beginning. He talked a lot about the space as a stage for young people to show off: “Girls and guys are standing around the hand-railing looking…the girls are standing up there using the staircase as a catwalk where they walk up and down. This where you have the chance to show yourself where the audience is standing around watching.” This statement clearly aligned itself to Gernhot Bohme’s essay about the atmospheric qualities of the theatre. However, the function of the building was also discussed: “I think one thing you have to know, the building is designed for 800 students and now there’s 1200. That again can be used in photos to get the atmosphere of the building.  Our intention was to make an indoor village.” Lastly, we discussed the intended audience of his photos.  Whilst he recognised the continued importance of reaching other architects, he also had much to say about the important role of the internet: “social media, pages like Facebook, is now one huge blog.  So now the audience is younger, and you never know who their connections are. It is a lot bigger audience.”

I pointed out to him that their motto, architecture shapes behaviour, you need people to show that beviour being enacted, not just the architectural mold to shape it in, yet their pictures of the school were for the most part empty.  He agreed with me once the recorder was switched off and subsequently ordered a dozen pictures of the school filled with students.

Torben Hjortsø is one of the partners of PLH and has been with the company for several decades. His answers immediately took us down the well-beaten path standard architectural dogma, appearing cautious and not wholly engaged or convinced by the questions he was being asked: “When we designed the metro stations, we had several things in mind. First of all, pure functionality. It’s got to function, that’s why we redesigned the original design.”

The purpose of these interviews is neither to confirm or disprove the value of atmosphere in architectural photography nor seek controversial statements. Atmosphere is a topic that was hoped would provide a new focal point away from architectural and photographic cliches, a means of opening up the conversation, a neutral common but foreign ground. Transparency was a notion that emerged thanks to repeated attempts to speak about atmosphere.  For the designer it is a key aspect of the programme and hence part of the funtion; for the photographer transparency is a keyword to direct the process of capture and edit.

“Passenger flows, the relation to the outskirts and neighbouring buildings the relation to the streets that pass through it.  We introduced another way of doing the stations because the client wanted a more transparent design so people would feel safe in an open environment.  We analyses the situation to use the eyes of the daily user, the girl standing there alone at midnight.  We tried to make the design as transparent as possible…you can see what is in front of you always so you feel more secure.”

This idea of transparency was incredibly freeing, as it meant that the photographs could really concentrate on what it is like to be on the platform looking out or what the area surrounding the platform looked like from the ground. To do this, I photographed each station from the platform and at ground level repeatedly at various times of day. In doing so, I was able to get to know and visually summarise the area – Ørestad – in which all of the Danish project were located. The metro came to act as the proverbial red thread.

The issue of beauty was also an important one. Architects seem nervous about using the word in their designs but are very keen to make sure that it goes into the photographs of their works. The metro is noisy, cuts a line like a scar through the middle of the neighbourhood and the stops are quite desolate places. Yet they are easy to photograph and represent as graphic, beautiful and inviting. This paradox is a central concern to the critics of architectural photography – Neil Leach and Juhani Pallasmaa, to once again name the same two.

When asked what he thought of Ørestad and the metro, Mikkel Beedholm, partner at KHR didn’t mince words: “Everybody is tied up by a client and the contract.  I’ve been here for two years and I get more and more angry.  In my generation hundreds architects have really missed every opportunity.”  He said that each was, in a word, a disaster.  Having said that, he was a very warm and positive person to interview and spent 2 hours showing me around his building with obvious pride affection.  One main point is particularly relevent here: the importance of framing views.  He expressed this repeatedly, both as a first-hand, lived experience and as a mediated, photographic one:

“The three main things we have tried to do.  There’s always a view.  There’s the warmth and there’s a cave everywhere.”

Atmosphere is considered here, by Beedholm, as a sensual experience, at once visual with engaging views and at the same time a corporeal experience – one of warmth and the feeling of being enveloped. Beedholm expressed repeated the importance of fuction and aesthetics and that each of these should be encountered and appreciated by all visitors, not just trained specialists. The photograph was, for him, a sort of litmus test of that experience:

“The role of the photographer for me, or the picture?  I would hope anybody could take a picture of the experience of it [ie, the building].  Anyone taking a picture [inside or outside the building] can see any image they think is interesting.”

This idea that anyone can take a good picture if your building looks good enough posits photography as a net used to catch butterflies.  All you need in order to be successful is a net without holes and a good set of reflexes.  Techonology certainly brings architects nearer to achieing that desire, as cameras get easier to use and high resolution becomes democratically priced.  If photography is hunting, that dream will eventually come true in most areas where photography is used instrumentally, as a means to an end.  If photography is a means of research, an end in itself, perhaps not so.

In the process of producing this work, statements were used as the means to formulate a thesis from which to derive the initial images.  After that, an opposite proposition was actively sought. In some instances, this meant extreme distortion of the thing photographed, such as in the images comprised of several captures put together with each layer at 20% transparency.  Other attempts included the inclusion of coloured light forms in nocturnal photographs, a popular internet meme, or the simple deployment of non-standard vantage points.  Minimalist high and low key shots of buildings and models together with a fusion of photography and 3d renders will complete the process.

Complete pdfs in their current state can be found at :  www.archmospheres.com . The site is only a temporary one put in place to share the work as it evolves. Eventually, the current site will be replaced by one that allows for flexible interaction with the visitor who will act as an avatar comparing different images and creating their own categories and clusters of images in order to further this investigation into the photographic representation of architectural atmospheres.


A common element running through all of these interviews is the openness on the part of the architect to ideas presented. Much as with Juhani Pallasmaa, I had expected opposition to atmosphere-centred photography and received instead a nuanced version of my own thoughts and interests. I wondered about a statement made by Pallasmaa during our interview that “[t]he photograph always transcends its essence and becomes a world,” and what it might mean in the course of this study. For it suggested that all photographs should be placed on even footing as a sort of document of the world, a source of data that was not merely physical but tied to memory and the senses. Yet, photographs were not viewed in that way at all (hence, for example, the statement about snap shots made by K2S). Pallasmaa, spoke of “the power of certain iconic photographs” that had moved him, and this sentiment was repeated by nearly every architect interviewed. In short, the architects  were intrigued, optimistic at the outset, and highly enthusiastic about the results. Moreover, they were critical of the standard depiction of architecture found in the press, nostalgic for the “iconic” imagery of the 30s and interested in new trends. They claimed to be ready for a change.

It seems safe to assert that there were some contradictions in their way of seeing photography: on one hand as a source of data, an impartial, objective document and on the other a compelling means of persuasion and seduction. Perhaps these contradictions are due in part to the relatively unanalysed nature of architectural photography within the frame of architectural representation and as part of a larger frame-work of photographic media, whether commercial or fine arts in nature. Off the cuff responses often did not match up with commercial practices, suggesting perhaps a slippage between the two. That slippage might open up a space for new practices.

At stake here is a paradigm shift according to the Kuhnian model. That shift is already taking place, as evidenced by the extraordinary popularity of the photo journalistic elements of Iwan Baan’s work and the great success of Dead Pan: the representation of architectural spaces created by countless artists from Andreas Gursky to Agata Madejska [18]. Ultimately, it is a shift from an object centred depiction that is similar to still life photography of commercial products. This shift is important because images not only define professional practices and beliefs, but also shape reality and inform human actions:  “the imagined will soon lead us to dictate what others should be imagining” [19]. They are not just models of reality, but models for it: creating ideals but that they are dependent upon a rhetoric that is already there, prior to the viewing of individual images. Rhetoric is more than representation, it is a system that either assures or denies the force of argumentation before any argument is articulated.

Manfredo Tafuri, in the 1970s, and Roger Connagh, twenty years later, addressed the issue of representation that is central and crucial to the practice of architecture. Each is damning in his own way of the isolationist practices of the architectural community, specifically where the creation and deployment of images is concerned. Connagh, who practiced in Finland for several years, writes: “Over the last thirty years of the twentieth century, very little in thearchitectural publishing scene actually helped the nonprofessional readingof images. Mostly, the ways of seeing architecture through photographyremained in the private and privileged world of the architects themselves” [20].  Mafuri, sounding much like an angrier version of Connagh, continues: “since the 30s architectural culture has preferred to deduce from its owncentre what could have only been found by a complete and unprejudiced analysis of the ways in which the mythical society being addressed decodes, distorts, transforms, makes factual use of the messages launched by the builders of images. And this is a sign of the insecurity ofarchitectural culture itself” [21]. Connaugh focuses the issue specifically to architectural photography: “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” [22].

Is this a call to action? I have certainly taken it as such. But it is reformation not revolution that has inspired this study. We do not need another great clearing of the forest, only to produce a void to be filled by the opportunistic. A feedback loop of artistic and commercial knowledge is sought through a dialectical process. Strengths and weaknesses of that process are several, however, and will be addressed below. One final aspect of the study must be addressed first, however.

An important motivation for this investigation is the desire to share new knowledge, and new tools are a key part of that process. Through the means of an open website, mentioned earlier, it is hoped that navigation of images will take place instead of the structured sequenced presentation print and the internet usually offer. The site will host an interactive tool on the home page that will allow visitors to shuffle categories of images from the outset. Keywording will play an important part in the development of that part of the website.  From there, it will be possible compare alternate representations of a building or site and/or compare similar atmospheres of different locations. Through these means it is hoped it will also be possible to consider the implications of atmosphere in the understanding of space and the deployment of visual rhetorical devices not currently offered via photography and architectural websites.  Research must be done into the deployment of images and not just their content.

It is relevant here  to question the claim that there is a feedback-loop taking place at all. Is this really a dialectic approach? A limited dialogue through meetings, interviews and subsequent emails has certainly taken place. But is there a synthesis of ideas at the end? It is difficult to measure to what extent that might be true, until you contrast this experiement with conventional practices. The differences between the standard way of working versus the feedback-loop of the dialectic might be illustrated as follows:

The idea is a simple one: dialogue between different professions problematises the default assumptions of each, thereby requiring increased dialogue (hence connections between the different nodes of the illustration) diversifying and enriching the practices of all parties involved.  Photographers, publishers and architects give each other more to think about, and through that exchange, richer, more complete depictions of the world are achieved.  In this feedback loop where image makers influence designers directly and vice-versa, variety in depiction is achieved by opening up the notion of the brief.  In this sense, also, I argue that there is a form of dialectic taking place that goes beyond negotiation as I understand it. In the Socratic tradition, questions are asked to upset core beliefs – in this case industry conventions – in search of a new belief which could not have been arrived at without agreement to enter into questioning those beliefs with the sole intent of examining the position of either side. In this dialogue, both photographer and architect learn from each other; in this negotiation, neither position is at stake (each are relinquished by entering into this process) and only an understanding of core beliefs is sought. Upon the basis of that understanding, each side walks away with a new proposition – in this case a new way of thinking about images. New questions are asked next time images are commission or produced. This feedback loop of ideas is a reconfiguration of a very old, Socratic, method [23]. And photographs are used partly in place of words (though words are clearly also employed during interviews and in this analysis). When asked whether they considered this method viable and useful, all participants replied that they did.  The key feature in the “Socratic method” is the suggestive guidance that makes Socrates into a kind of facilitator of discovery and self-learning. Which raises an important question: who is Socrates in this case? The photographer or the architect?  I would argue that the answer is neither; much like Plato, we’ve had to invent him as the raison d’etre of the dialogue.  He facilitates discussion and discovery by questioning common sense beliefs and rules of thumb.  Whether or not he is real is besides the point, but he is certainly not the voice either side of the dialogue, mererly the facilitator.

So much for the strengths, what about weaknesses? [24]

Problems are several, but scale and eternal recurrence are two of the most significant. At the scale of a research project, and with the added benefit of funding, neither time or money – the two limits of all business practices – are particularly pressing. It has taken a year of repeated visits to 6 locations to produce this work. Surely travel, accommodation and time spent working would need to be factored into the cost of a commercial commission.  It could easily be argued, then, that this approach cannot be scaled up to meet the needs of companies or to evolve into a viable photographic company.  It might also be asked whether the additional costs were justifiable given the results: how will this process avoid eternal recurrence?

Nietzsche’s term is used here to raise the obvious question: for all the innovation – new ideas and images – at the outset, you wind up where you started with a repetition of these until they become part of established practices. What is to say one set of images, practices and ideas will not simply replace another? Is that not the end result of all revolutions, scientific or otherwise, even on the scale of reform and paradigm shifts as has been suggested?

To answer each question, one final term and concept must be introduced:  the hinge. Apart from a simple machine which connects doors and windows to supporting structures, a hinge acts in this context as a concept for explaining what atmosphere is: in photography, as a dialectic in commercial production, as connection between education and industry, as a technology – allowing for free, unstructured, personalised interaction with images.  In short, with the image of the hinge, we might summarise all of the above mentioned arguments concerning established conventions in publishing, atmospheres as an alternative, artistic research as a teaching model and link to industry.

At stake are future practices in architecture and photography: two hinged creative commercial practices with a long history together. But beyond that is the issue of whether the built environment should be deployed and defined by the tactics of still life photography and hence understood as a system of objects, or if indeed in might not be possible to represent and share it as part of the lived world with all its richness. It is hoped that a focus on atmosphere might be a step in that direction. The enthusiasm of architects interviewed suggests that step might be possible. The shift from architectural to an environmental way of seeing is really something more of a great leap.  The strength of artistic work when put side by side with the planning work cannot be overestimated. Plans only refer to a world that is 2 dimensional in the exact sense: not having an environment nor an arrow of time. Artistic work is able to make the real appear, not only because of colours, lights, and perhaps even human beings and animals, plants, but because of unique moment that cannot be copied or modelled in anyone’s mind. Artistic work is a way to create and share atmospheres through which architecture can be appreciated and understood.  But that artistic work needn’t exist in a vacuum or be shared exclusively through the gallery system.  Where professionals that commission artwork are willing to enter into dialogue instead of holdfast to conventions for the sake of them, artistic creation, artistic research and commercial art may all find themselves tightly hinged together – not nailed in place, but free to swing back and forth.


Bate, David. Photography: Key Concepts (Oxford: Berg, 2009)

Baudrillard, Jean. The System of Objects (London: Verso Books, 2005)

Bedford, Christopher.  “Qualifying Photography as Art, or, Is Photography All it Can Be?” Klein, Alex (Ed.)  Words Without Pictures.  (New York, Aperture Foundation, 2010)

Böhme, Gernot. “The art of the stage set as a paradigm for an aesthetics of atmospheres” Available at: <http://www.cresson.archi.fr/PUBLI/pubCOLLOQUE/AMB8-confGBohme-eng.pdf> . Date accessed: 1 November 2012.

Böhme, Gernot. “On Beauty” The Nordic Journal of Aesthetics, 21 Aug. 2010. Available at:<http://ojs.statsbiblioteket.dk/index.php/nja/article/view/3001/4595>. Date accessed: 27 Nov. 2012.

Böhme, Gernot.  “The Space of Bodily Presence and Space as a Medium of Representation” Available at:<http://www.ifs.tu-darmstadt.de/fileadmin/gradkoll/Publikationen/space-folder/pdf/Boehme.pdf>. Date accessed: 27 Nov. 2012.

Böhme, Gernot. “Die Kunst des Bühnenbildes als Paradigma einer Ästhetik der Atmosphären”. Ralf Bohn,  Heiner Wilharm (Ed.): Inszenierung und Vertrauen. Grenzgänge der Szenografie. pp. 109-118. (Bielefeld 2011)

de Maré, Eric.  Photography and Architecture, The Architectural Press, London, 1961

Connah, Roger. How Architecture Got its Hump (Boston: The MIT Press, 2006)

Chakravorty Spivak, Gayatri.  “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Available at:<http://www.maldura.unipd.it/dllags/docentianglo/materiali_oboe_lm/2581_001.pdf>. Date accessed: 27 Nov. 2012.

Kriebel, Sabine T. “Theories of Photography: A Short Story”.  Elkins, James (Ed.) Photography Theory. (New York: Routledge 2007)

Leach, Neil. Anaesthetics of Architecture. (Boston: MIT Press, 1999).

Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Embodied Image. (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2011)

Pallasmaa, Juhani. “Space, Place and Atmosphere – Peripheral Perception in Architectural experience”, The Finnish Journal of Architecture, 5 March, 2011. Available at: <http://www.ark.fi/index_eng_article.php?id=917>. Date accessed: 1 Nov. 2012.

Shulman, Julius. The Photography of Architecture and Design: Photographing Buildings, Interiors, and the Visual Arts. Whitney Library of Design / Watson-Guptill, 1977.

Tafuri, Manfredo “Toward a critique of architectural ideology”, Hays, Micheal.  (Ed.): Architecture Theory Since 1968(Boston: MIT Press, 2000)

Varto, Juha.  A Dance with the World (Helsinki: Aalto University Publication series, 2012)

Zumthor, Peter. Atmospheres: Built Surroundings – the Things Around Us (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2006)


[1] Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (London: Verso Books, 2005) pp. 26-28.

[2] Ibid., p. 49.

[3] Gernot Böhme.  “The Space of Bodily Presence and Space as a Medium of Representation” Available at:<http://www.ifs.tu-darmstadt.de/fileadmin/gradkoll/Publikationen/space-folder/pdf/Boehme.pdf>. Date accessed: 27 Nov. 2012., p. 5.

[4] Gernot Böhme. “The art of the stage set as a paradigm for an aesthetics of atmospheres” Available at: <http://www.cresson.archi.fr/PUBLI/pubCOLLOQUE/AMB8-confGBohme-eng.pdf> . Date accessed: 1 November 2012, p. 3.

[5] Ibid., p. 3.

[6] Peter Zumthor. Atmospheres: Built Surroundings – the Things Around Us (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2006),  p.13.

[7] Ibid., p. 21.

[8] Chakravorty Spivak, Gayatri.  “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Available at:<http://www.maldura.unipd.it/dllags/docentianglo/materiali_oboe_lm/2581_001.pdf>. Date accessed: 27 Nov. 2012.

[9] David Bate is quick to make this point but chooses not to develop it: “A study of photography…conducted through investigating the key institutions that use it…might reveal the systems by which photographs are produced, the arteries of power and decision making, or even the creative space that photographers are supposed to occupy. Such a project is probably urgently needed” David Bate. Photography: Key Concepts (Oxford: Berg, 2009), p. 1.

[10] Where images are used. He also of course argues that images are over used and we are over-reliant upon vision.  Juhani Pallasmaa. The Embodied Image. (Chichester:John Wiley & Sons, 2011).

[11] Juhani Pallasmaa. “Space, Place and Atmosphere – Peripheral Perception in Architectural experience”, The Finnish Journal of Architecture, 5 March, 2011, pp. 21 – 25.

[12] Christopher Bedford. “Qualifying Photography as Art, or, Is Photography All it Can Be?” Klein, Alex (Ed.)  Words Without Pictures.  (New York, Aperture Foundation, 2010).

[13] See for example:  de Maré, Eric.  Photography and Architecture, The Architectural Press, London, 1961; Julius Shulman. The Photography of Architecture and Design: Photographing Buildings, Interiors, and the Visual Arts. Whitney Library of Design / Watson-Guptill, 1977.

[14] Neither category refers to a snapshot, which is what academics normally mean when they talk about photography. The articulation of professional photographic practice (commission based, especially) is almost wholly lacking from theoretical discourse which enter into semiotic debates but often lack first hand knowledge about how images are actually made.  This point is made by Sabine T. Kriebel in “Theories of Photography: A Short Story”.  Elkins, James (Ed.) Photography Theory. (New York: Routledge 2007).

[15] David Bate writes about still life images in a way one might easily apply to the architectural photograph: “Different objects are shown from different angels but there is hardly much range between products and they are almost always systematically photographed in the same ways” Bate, David. Photography: Key Concepts (Oxford: Berg, 2009).

[16] For a scathing attack on the evils of photography, read: Neil Leach. Anaesthetics of Architecture. (Boston: MIT Press, 1999).

[17] One might quite rightly ask, how does this differ from iconographic methods or semiotics, particularly as images are not generally considered discursive?  However, it is the institutional practices, the core beliefs and the default behaviours that are at issue here. Why do photographers shoot the way they do? Why do architects commission as they do?  What influences the belief that one sort of photo, is correct whilst another is not?  Are there photographs which the client might like personally but see as unfit for commercial practices? The objective with the second interview was to begin to open up a discussion about potential discrepancies between preference and purchases, and in doing so open up a discussion about the discourses that influences certain commercial practices and the rhetoric that influences them.

[18] For a dicussion of Dead Pan photography, see: Cotton, Charlotte. The Photograph as Contemporary Art, (London: Thames & Hudson 2004).

[19] Varto, Juha.  A Dance with the World (Helsinki: lto University Publication series, 2012), p. 38.

[20] Connah, Roger. How Architecture Got its Hump (Boston: The MIT Press, 2006),  p. 57.

[21] Tafuri, Manfredo “Toward a critique of architectural ideology”, Hays, Micheal.  (Ed.): Architecture Theory Since 1968ss, 2000), pp. 103 – 104.

[22] Connagh, p. 72.

[23] Socrates is chosen over Hegel, Marx, Adorno or other thinkers here for three main reasons: brevity, simplicity, broad familiarity. Any of the others require specialist knowledge and would extend the length of this paper unnecessarily, given the topic at hand. Socrates is perversely so familiar as to seem like common sense to the public at large, more doxa than episteme, no doubt much to his eternal chagrin.

[24] As must be obvious from the slideshows presented here, this photographic experiment is still very much a work in progress. Research involves hit and misses. So many of these photos stick closely to existing, familiar tropes, whilst others fail for the simple fact that they lack the visual impact and appeal that would make them desireable to a client. Hence many of the pictures shown are not commercially viable. But using them as research has allowed me to take pictures I would never have otherwise considered. That process of opening up to new possibilities is what I believe this approach offers. It means you won’t always get the “money shot” that many of the people interviewed mentioned. Aesthetics and spectacle are often the reliable components of such an images, hence the pursuit of such an image amounts the standard formulaic response to preconditioned desires. It is a form of visual morality, for it depends on safe, clearly established mores. Can the world of architecture open up to more than familiar repeated typologies? Can it branch out,  and can photographers provide ideas for that growth?

research log: answers to second interview

Partners of K2S architects, Chapel of Silence:


Partners of JKMM architects, daycare centre:


Partner of KHR architects,  Orestad school:

KHR answers

PR admin at Orestad High School:

3xn.questionnaire_Pernille Boelskov

PR manager at 3xn Architects, Orestad High School:

3xn Didde F Pedersen

Partner at AOA architects, Kaisatalo:


Lawrence King Publishers:

Lawrence King 1

Lawrence King 2


diary: personal photos definitely more expressive

The response to these has been massive.  When viewed alongside the personal photos I took upon moving to Finland, I think I make my point: different places should not look the same.  Part of that difference is down to the built environment, the architect’s, builder’s, investor’s and local authority’s responsibility.  The other part is the representation of that space which is the responsibility of the photographer that takes the pictures the architect that ultimately buys them and the editorial decisions of the publisher.

diary: personal photos more expressive

i’d say these have more evocative atmospheres than the work i do for commission because i can put the camera in funny places, like the floor, shoot with shallow d.o.f., move the focal point around and stitch the image together with multiple points of focus, shoot really dark images.  that is, do what i like as i like.