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How Photographers Make People Fall In Love With Buildings

A new exhibition at the Barbican explores the intimate relationship between photographers and architects.

Most of us recognize by sight buildings that we will never visit. The non-jetsetters among us form judgments based on photography more than than the experience of walking through a building. (Especially in the modern world of blog-side architecture criticism–your very own favorite design site included.) Which gives architectural photographers extraordinary power over how we perceive much of the built environment.

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Thankfully, we’ve been in good hands over the years, with the likes of Julius Shulman and today’s prolific Iwan Baan. Shulman and Baan are two of 18 architectural photographers on display as part of an upcoming exhibit at the Barbican Art Gallery in London. The photos span from the 1930s to the present–from Berenice Abbott’s early documentation of the first skyscrapers rising in New York to Nadav Kander’s images of modern Chinese urbanization. The exhibition argues, according to the gallery’s press materials, that these photographers “have changed the way we view architecture and think about the world in which we live.”

Atlanta, Georgia. Frame Houses and a Billboard, 1936© Walker Evans Archive,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Architects and photographers have long worked together in symbiosis. It’s in part due to Ezra Stoller’s classic shots that modern masterpieces like the Seagram Building attained iconic status. Today, Baan is the go-to photographer for many starchitects, including Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, and Steven Holl. Photographers can show buildings in their literal best light, highlighting the clean lines and dramatic spaces the architect no doubt envisioned at the drawing board. Yet photographers also grapple with the reality of architecture as it lives in the world, rather than as it appears in renderings, showing the gritty reality of towers appropriated as informal settlements and the ugliness of suburban thoroughfares.

Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age is on display at the Barbican between Sept. 25, 2014 and Jan. 11, 2015.

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About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.

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