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Feature article

Parthenon from Acropolis entry gate Athens:

Architectural Image: Fact or Fiction

A recent photo shoot for a residential project in North Carlton had me wondering about the relationship between the architecture and its photographic representation which – given its private nature – would be our dominant experience and engagement with the project from that day forward.

Shortly after the completion of the project our client had moved overseas on an academic post and had rented it out to four university students. They had come together from separate households, each with a full complement of furnishings which had been crammed into every square centimetre of space.

This necessitated several hours moving furniture, kitchen appliances, tools, and sporting equipment, to anywhere that would escape the frame of an extreme wide angle camera lens.

Fuelling these thoughts was a remarkable exhibition of photographs I had seen a few months earlier by the Berlin based artist Thomas Demand. His photographs recreate real scenes at specific – often historically significant – moments in time using detailed physical models typically made from paper, which are photographed and then destroyed. A key ingredient in the power of Demand’s images is the dawning realisation of what it is you’re actually looking at: a painstakingly detailed facsimile of a real life scene made for the sole purpose of creating a single photograph of it. This lends an elevated value and purpose to the resulting image whilst calling us to question the content and authenticity of our image obsessed contemporary world.

Parallel to this is the artifice of film making or studio photography where sets are made, decorated and styled for the sole intention of producing images through filming or photographing them. Components are added only to create the desired illusion and narrative, so we would not be surprised to find a tap without water or a roller door with no garage behind it. Architecture has to perform a multitude of functional requirements as it expresses its artistic intent, which is a difference and not a similarity, but in this some questions begin to emerge.

To what extent is the act of making architecture a mimic of this process, a glorified stage production for the primary purpose of creating a set of idealised images? Does the lure of the image push architecture toward image-making at the expense of problem solving? Are idealised architectural images an act of deception, or are they a legitimate form of representation that distils a piece of architecture to its pure essence and intent? As is often the case with such questions the answer is probably all of the above, in varying measure, depending on the architecture and the images in question.

Residential project North Carlton by Workshop Architecture, Photographs: Shannon McGrath

Side view of Weisman Art Museum Minneapolis by Frank Gehry

Iconic view of MTC Theatre Southbank by ARM, Photograph: John Gollings

An often maligned aspect of architectural photography is the exaggerated viewpoint of the extreme wide angle lens. Is this a deceit or does it give a better cognitive understanding of a building or space in the frozen image? While a ‘normal’ lens most closely replicates the perspective of the human eye, a photo with this lens is denied the spatial experience formed by our peripheral vision and also the fact that we experience a space by looking around, taking it in and stitching the experience together in our minds. It is therefore arguable, that if judiciously used, the extreme wide angle lens gives the best overall representation of the complete architectural experience after all?

I also got thinking about Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The idealised images of a building have the potential – if the building exists in a remote location, remains inaccessible to the public or has been demolished – to subsume reality and in doing so remain forever young. Much like the anonymous wedding photo of a now ageing or departed couple, the image becomes the dominant reality and defies the ravages of time.

This led me to a further thought regarding the nature of the ‘artistic product’.  In film, this is the edited film reel (or these days a digital file), in writing, the words alone – but in music there is an ambiguity. Is the ‘artistic product’ the live performance or is it the highly constructed and heavily edited studio recording? The answer it seems is both, and whilst the dominant ‘artistic product’ in architecture would typically remain the real building – performing its designed function on one hand and presenting a public face on the other – additional ‘artistic products’ exist in architecture as they do in music.

Still images of buildings are one, cinematic representations of buildings another – so what is the real artistic product, what is the dominant artistic product and how should we equate the value of each? I once worked on the fit out of the television recording suite at the Docklands AFL football stadium and it had me thinking: Is this building a live venue to watch AFL football or is it in fact a glorified television studio with a studio audience capacity of 50,000?

The answer again is both but of the two ‘products’ on offer – the live football experience and the televised football experience – which is the dominant experience and which is the dominant experience of the building?. Whilst hard to equate, with 50,000 at the game and a million or more watching remotely on television, there’s a strong argument to suggest that the dominant ‘product’ here is actually the television experience.

In considering famous pieces of architecture, I wonder how many architects have actually experienced Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in Chicago or Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in Paris compared with how many have appreciated, studied, thought about and learnt from these buildings remotely via images drawings and writings alone. I feel confident that, like with the football stadium, the larger audience is the remote one. So one would have to say that architectural images are a significant and valid ‘artistic product’ – or at the very least ‘by-product’ – of architectural endeavour, maybe even the dominant one in certain circumstances.

Once you get to thinking about this remote audience idea, it begs the following question: Is there a role for architecture that is built with its remote audience as a dominant factor in design decision making and if so, could there be more parallels between the film set and the act of architecture than would first meet the eye? Let’s use the previous two examples to investigate the idea further:

This raises further questions. Is the existence of this remote audience for architecture changing the way we conceive architecture? Is there a proliferation of buildings which exploit the idealised view and ignore anything outside of this view, and if so, is this a new phenomenon accompanying the advent of photography and mass communication, or has it always been with us? There are certainly contemporary examples which could be accused – or credited – with exploiting this phenomenon.

Are these cynical examples of an architecture designed with only the promotional image in mind or are they clever examples that strategically deploy limited resources to achieve maximum architectural effect? Whilst I would argue the latter in these two cases, there may just be a bit of both, and one would have no trouble in these times to find lesser examples where the cynical viewpoint could be well substantiated.

The thing about buildings of course is that they are typically both large and spatially complex and can rarely be taken in and absorbed as a single holistic piece. As a result the experience of a building is, more often than not, an unfolding collage of many visual and spatial experiences which successful architecture choreographs with careful construction  and sophistication.

The point being, that this unequal distribution of architectural expression is as much about the nature of architectural experience as it is about the obsession with the image in the contemporary world. Or perhaps it demonstrates that we’ve always been somewhat obsessed with the image in architecture but have simply found new and effective ways to propagate these images beyond the visual experiences of the eye, recorded and catalogued in our memory. Many historical examples of architecture could be used to support this view.

In the case of the Parthenon, the famous curated view from the Acropolis entry gate is no accident. It controls our first impression of the building by framing a particular viewpoint and as we all know, first impressions count. In the other example, little or no attempt is made to hide the reality beyond the skin deep art deco façade. Instead it’s in full view, a blatant and conscious strategy; acknowledgement and contentment with the fragmented visual experience. Venturi’s decorated shed in opposition to Pallasmaa’s architecture of holistic sensory experience.

In the end this relationship between building and image seems to come down to the intellect of the architect and the sentiment they bring to their architectural endeavours but don’t be fooled, these positions are not mutually exclusive. The plant rooms and car parks in a Peter Zumthor building are as bland as any other whilst the signature spaces of a Frank Gehry building are rich in sensory experience.

As the pendulum continues to swing between these poles of architectural intent, this conscious engagement with the image in architecture would appear – in some form at least – to be as old as architecture itself.