Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age

Some thoughts on the exhibition at the Barbican.  Constructing Worlds is on the photography of architecture, and it does indeed excel in capturing the relationship between two dimensional pictures and architecture, how photographs can reveal not just a new vision of our built environment, but an aid to experiencing our vision of it differently. As a whole this  inspired me to go out into London and take pictures again, to see my city in terms of shapes and shadows, surfaces and depths. To pay attention to structures and the space that they create. It has been so long since I’ve just taken my camera out, and with a camera in hand you see the city in a very different way. The next day walking in Lambeth, I thought to myself of Lucien Hervé, with his studies of shadow and light. Staring at the estate on my corner it came in and out of phase, from blocks of space to details of material and lived-in-ness to blocks of space. Gave me chills. I like that form of seeing, but only in combination with other forms of seeing. Just as I would have liked this exhibition more if it had combined the western white male gaze with others, incorporating more diversity of not just subject but also of viewer. There were four women featured here, one Indian, one white South African and another born in Nigeria, and one Japanese photographer.

I am so tired of the ubiquity of this gaze that rests on the structures of privilege: who gets to become a ‘photographer’, who amongst those are considered an artist, who gets shown in galleries, who can earn their living this way if they need to. I didn’t really bother once going to exhibitions, because what do those people have to do with me? And then I would go because I realised that at their best they make me think and see new things, and I’d shrug off the uniform nature of the artists because that’s how the world is. Now I sometimes go (but sometimes I just don’t) and usually emerge thinking new things, but also a little upset.

Anyway, that critique aside I would still go again. In the Barbican’s own words:

Constructing Worlds brings together eighteen exceptional photographers from the 1930s to the present day who have changed the way we view architecture and perceive the world around us.

From the first skyscrapers in New York and decaying colonial structures in the Congo, to the glamorous suburban homes of post-war California, and the modern towers of Venezuela, we invite you on a global journey through 20th and 21st century architecture.

Featuring over 250 works, this exhibition highlights the power of photography to reveal hidden truths in our society.

And it did that, but again I ask, who gets to change the way ‘we’ view things? Those looking at photography in the Barbican aren’t generally the group I am imagining when the words ‘we’ leave my mouth. For example, the three public school youths clearly just there because a fairly stunning arty girl said she wanted to go. How much are they really challenging our view of society? I wonder.

But the photographs were wonderful. Just some notes about some of my thoughts on the artists in the order you find them in the exhibit, I definitely hope to follow up with more on their work at some point:

Thomas Struth: He set up his tripod in the middle of the street each time, and tried to create a set of pictures that removed the focus from composition, allowed for a ‘more scientific grid’. The best you can see here on his website, they are oddly compelling. Across time and space the pictures here gave you a sense of some of the differences between Chicago, NY, Berlin, Naples, Tokyo. Pyongyang, Rome, Lima, St Petersberg, Beijing, Geneva.

View of Exchange Place from Broadway, New York, 1934

Berenice Abbott: Oh man, these made me fall in love with NY all over again, and like Walker Evans, only exist as part of the New Deal programs to put artists to work. I love the New Deal, wish the US still had those programs in place because they opened up art for a little while. Of course, she’d been already been the proteget of Eugene Atget (considered the grandfather of photographic modernism? For further investigation) in Paris and brought back his archive to the US in 1929 before being hired by the Federal Art Project. This long thin amazing view between skyscrapers with people down below is one of my favourite pictures of the exhibit (so so few of these pictures contained people, as if spaces were pure, to be seen and aesthetically enjoyed as separate from being lived in). There was another of a man reading his paper with a cat which I loved, and a picture of the first model tenement house in NY with rows upon rows of washing. Extraordinary.

Walker Evans: I liked that he was included here because these were pictures of cities and towns of the South, and I liked the Barbican applying the term architecture to them — from steel mill towns to the ‘Negro’ section. There was a wonderful series of wooden frame churches, almost exactly alike and differentiated by only small decorative details and amount of peeling paint.

This was followed by Julius Schulman, a little Southern California modernism as the photographer for mostly L.A. architects of note and merit. The Stahl House for example, is stunning (but oh. my. god. when you go from black and white to orange and white in colour!). I liked this set up, with the case study home program, the set of magazine articles the pictures appeared in in glass cases in the middle. Of course, these pictures would go on to define the ideals of wealth and suburban living, and I wish I had had them for my thesis. Modern architecture. Women in the kitchen. Swimming pools. Refined parties with guests reclining on expensive furniture. Entirely white, as any self-respecting suburb was given the harassment ranging from eggs to bombs keeping non-whites out. But that’s my thesis. I just don’t think that part of ideal should be left unsaid.

Haute Cour à Chandigarh, © 1955, Lucien Hervé
Haute Cour à Chandigarh, © 1955, Lucien Hervé

I think Lucien Hervé impressed me most, at least his mastery of showing mass and space, shadow and light stuck with me. I am also fascinated by his relationship with Le Corbusier, their partnership which brought these two mediums together in a very different way than the other photographers. I’ll be coming back to Le Corbusier, his visions for society and the city, the visions he built in Europe but on such a larger scale in Chandigarh and Ahmedebad. I find them extraordinary. In many of these latter pictures (and I loved the  showing of the annotated contact prints) the human use of the space returns without losing the architectural sense of the space. The re-appropriations (to the extent possible) of these huge brutalist symbolic spaces of government by the poor I found inspiring to some extent, and very curious about the role of government, the functioning of government in this kind of space.

Ruscha’s photographs of LA parking lots were…no, I didn’t much like them. I did like the images of industrialisation by Bernd and Hilla Becher, the idea of industrial archeology. I loved an entire wall of the most amazing water towers. The collection from Stephen Shore was all right, looking at his website I actually feel that his work loses some of its impact just focusing on those that arguably deal with architecture. I love the moments, people, everydayness that he captures and the way that he captures them, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m from Arizona and that’s a lot like Texas. I did laugh with joy to see the wigwam motel though.

That’s the top floor, by then I was seriously losing steam, just as I am now. The bottom floor was more modern, more installation based, only a few pieces for each artist. Luisa Lambri’s interior didn’t really work for me, but the smudged iconic shapes of Hiroshi Sugimoto I liked. Luigi Ghirri‘s photographs were tiny and exquisite, I would have liked more. Hélène Binet and more wonderful use of darkness and light and describing architectural photography as a pas de deux between building and camera. The monumental and amazingly detailed photo of collective behaviour enclosed in space of Andreas Gursky. Bas Princen with an extraordinary view of garbage strewn across the complixities of slum rooftops in this place geared to living off of the recycling of waste. Guy Tillim walking through Patrice Lamumba’s dream in the Congo. That hurt my heart, but the pictures are incredible. Simon Norfolk’s pictures of war’s effect on architecture — both in terms of destruction and speculation. You should go just to see the wedding cake building.  Nadav Kandar, who combined people’s everyday lives as lived underneath and around the huge bridge across the Yangtze. And the best way to end? Iwan Baan, because I loved the subject. A huge flagship building in Caracas, never completed and then squatted, and these pictures show the world created there by its inhabitants. Such vibrant re-appropriations of space, they made me so happy, and their own views through glass-free ‘windows’ onto the incredible cityscape sat in my head alongside those of the staid Stahl house looking out over L.A.

Torre de David, Caracas, Venezuela, 2011 by Iwan Baan.
Torre de David, Caracas, Venezuela, 2011 by Iwan Baan.
stahlhouse
Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22, Julius Shulman

The photographs are wonderful. Go see it, or check them out where you can.

Featured photographers

  • Berenice Abbott
  • Iwan Baan
  • Bernd and Hilla Becher
  • Hélène Binet
  • Walker Evans
  • Luigi Ghirri
  • Andreas Gursky
  • Lucien Hervé
  • Nadav Kander
  • Luisa Lambri
  • Simon Norfolk
  • Bas Princen
  • Ed Ruscha
  • Stephen Shore
  • Julius Shulman
  • Thomas Struth
  • Hiroshi Sugimoto
  • Guy Tillim

Also includes the work of iconic architects

  • Le Corbusier
  • Frank Lloyd Wright
  • Minoru Yamasaki
  • Luis Barragán
  • Aldo Rossi
  • Pierre Koenig
  • Charles and Ray Eames
  • Daniel Libeskind

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