The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age

Barbican Art Gallery

Reviewed by Alan Ainsworth

This recent exhibition at the Barbican presented nineteen leading photographers whose work explores the idea of architecture as a process that crucially shapes modes of human existence. It offered an affirmation of architectural photography while at the same time posing fundamental questions about its traditional practices – and, by extension, about those of architecture itself.

As David Campany argues in his introduction to the catalogue, architecture and photography soon became complicit, and ‘conventional’ architectural photography is challenged – one way or another – by most of the photographers included. Not all of them, of course, because the curators (perhaps rather obviously) chose Julius Shulman as the exemplar of conventional practice. His alluring images of sleek modernist 1950s Californian homes, with their carefully arranged people and objects, were conscious attempts to sell a ‘dream lifestyle’ – complicit, certainly, but extremely successful at the time and initiating a visual language which resonates still.

However, signs that photography could say more than this had long been in evidence. In the 1930s, Berenice Abbott tellingly juxtaposed old and new in her portrait of New York modernity, and Walker Evans brought a dispassionate viewpoint to his frontal photographs of clapperboard houses, garages, chapels, black people’s dwellings and roadside shops. With an eye for contemporary street iconography such as advertising hoardings and signs, the exhibition showed how Abbott and Evans laid the basis of a modernist photographic language to describe the built environment of contemporary America.

Even while Shulman was glorifying Californian modernism, Lucien Hervé was reinterpreting in starkly mono tones the work of another modernist master. His high-key images of Le Corbusier’s work in Chandigarh zooms in on the master’s concrete forms, dramatically fractured, cubist-like, by shafts of light. Like other emigré Hungarians, Hervé deployed a photojournalist’s eye for detail with the compositional facility to know precisely when to use the human figures in counterpoint.

Fine art and conventional practice were now set on diverging paths. In the 1960s Ed Ruscha made a series of aerial photographs of parking lots around Los Angeles whose patterns demonstrate a brutal intrusion unseen from the ground. His consciously artless ‘Los Angeles apartments’ was Ruscha’s counterblast to the Shulman school. Images by Bernd and Hilla Becher (exhibited in series, as they intended) rigorously document industrial structures in the 1970s and 80s. Their unpopulated, decontextualised images of water towers, blast furnaces and chimneys form a coherent taxonomy, part documentary, part industrial archeology and part aesthetic of function.

Indeed, function was the new aesthetic. Stephen Shore’s images of street mundane in Texas, Los Angeles, New York and other cities imported a postcard aesthetic to built environment photography. Andreas Gursky is represented by two monumental images – São Paulo train station and an apartment block in Montparnasse – which he digitally manipulated to show more clearly the control and order imposed on people and places by built structures.

Thomas Struth’s views of unpopulated streets – from New York, Chicago, Dusseldorf and London to Pyonyang, Beijing and St Petersburg – are essentially those of seemingly consistent and unchanging spaces framed by buildings. Appropriately located in their own enclosed spaces, the work of Hélène Binet and Luisa Lambri mount a challenge to architecture and conventional photography from the inside. Binet’s work deploys light and shadow to define internal space, fragments of structures animated by light as if they were a performance stage; while Lambri’s attraction to interiority is self-consciously that of a female photographer – a response, as it were, to the male bombast of external forms. In similar vein, the Barbican presented Hiroshi Sugimoto’s enormous blurred images of famous buildings: hugely evocative, they are the ultimate triumph of impression over detail.

More recently, photographers have seen the decay or even the destruction of buildings as signifiers of architecture’s massive impact. The curators’ choices were first rate – Simon Norfolk’s pictorialist-inspired photographs of war-torn Afghanistan in the glow of dusk, Bas Pincen’s huge images of marginal city areas and Guy Tillim’s evocations of the decay of post-colonialist modernism in francophone Africa. Nadav Kander evokes an impressionist aesthetic (compare Yibin I (Bathers) with Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières), juxtaposing old and new to explore the effects of China’s rapid industrialisation in an impactful if melancholic fashion.

When a 45-storey tower in Caracas was abandoned mid-construction in 1994, it was colonised by 3,000 homeless people who reconfigured, decorated, and now maintain and police the building. The Barbican’s most telling challenge to architecture, and to conventional architectural photography, was in the work of the Dutch photographer Iwan Baan, who found the soul of this building in its messily populated yet vibrant interior – surely a world apart from the pristine, unpopulated exteriors of conventional practice.