PRINT May 2018



Balthazar Korab, TWA Flight Center in JFK International Airport (Queens, New York), 1964, gelatin silver print, 11 x 14". © Korab Image.

“THIS WILL KILL THAT!” So proclaims Archdeacon Claude Frollo, the villain of Victor Hugo’s Gothic romance The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Standing before the titular cathedral, he brandishes a cutting-edge device: a book. Though the novel takes place not long after the invention of the printing press, Frollo presciently understands that this revolutionary new technology will obviate architecture’s role in acculturating and indoctrinating the masses. But by the time Hugo published the novel in 1831, his compatriots Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre had already produced the world’s first photographs, setting in motion a series of at least equally cataclysmic shifts that would, in time, render the printed volume as quaint as an edifice of hand-carved stone.

These days, books are the least of architecture’s worries. How can the field keep up with the graphic effects that allow Hollywood studios to conjure entire cities as quickly as a CGI alien invasion can spectacularly annihilate them? How can it compete with the online networks that sweep buildings and monuments up into an endless stream of pictures and videos that can be pinned, liked, searched, and shared with a global reach and inconceivable rapidity that would make André Malraux’s head spin? And let’s not even talk about virtual reality, which promises to absorb not only our gaze but also the entire horizon of our experience. In the face of this explosion of new technologies for the production, reproduction, and dissemination of images, architecture’s material assemblies and spatial organizations can only seem static, rudimentary, obsolete.

Yet those who would lament architecture’s fate in this brave new world would do well to look back more closely at the field’s encounters with earlier forms of media. Hugo, after all, managed to declare architecture long dead even as he found it a perfect subject for his novel. And it’s telling that many of Niépce’s and Daguerre’s first images—including the oldest surviving camera photograph, View from the Window at Le Gras, created by the former in 1826 or ’27—were views of the city, since buildings were an ideal subject for early cameras requiring exposure times measured in hours or days. Architecture never quite fades from view, in other words; every time the latest media threatens it with destruction, it manages to persist as subject, or substrate.

“Image Building: How Photography Transforms Architecture,” currently on view at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York, maps out a key stage in this ongoing development by outlining photography’s shifting relationship to architecture over the past century. Guest curator Therese Lichtenstein has judiciously selected fifty-seven works by twenty-one practitioners, with the earliest from the 1930s and the most recent from 2016. The wide range of works on view collectively offers a sense of the mutability of photography’s relationship to the built environment and contextualizes that evolving relationship within culture. The story, then, is not only about photographs and buildings, but also about art and architecture more broadly.

Ezra Stoller, Seagram Building, Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson, New York, NY, 1958, gelatin silver print, 20 x 16". © Estate of Ezra Stoller/Esto.

Lichtenstein begins with the period of modernist architecture’s ascendancy. As a true “international style” emerged in the years following World War II, enterprising architects were quick to see the potential of photography, which, in that golden age of magazines, had come into its own as mass media. Visitors are reminded of this era’s vibrancy by a vitrine full of classics like Arts & Architecture, Time, and Sunset magazine alongside a selection of images from three of the most important architectural photographers of the day: Balthazar Korab, Julius Shulman, and Ezra Stoller. While there’s little question that here the primary focus is on the buildings (in most cases these photographers were working for the architects themselves), photography’s power to transfigure the architecture it documents also comes into focus. Consider Korab’s photograph of the interior of Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, taken in 1964, two years after the building opened. Saarinen used thin reinforced concrete shells in his audacious design to give the structure a soaring, birdlike geometry. Korab placed his camera near the ceiling, so that the arcing spine of the roof dominates the top of the frame, but then pointed his lens down on the diagonal, so that the floor itself—which Saarinen of course had to leave flat, the one normative surface in a building that otherwise strains to break all of architecture’s rules—swoops up toward the viewer, its suddenly expressive geometry merging with the spiraling curves of a stair and its railing. Stoller’s image of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York, taken in 1958, the same year the building was completed, operates in a similar way. The skyscraper’s full height and elegantly slender proportions are difficult to fully appreciate from the street level, so Stoller captured the image from another building across the street. A long, early-evening exposure emphasizes the transparency of the structural frame, its interior columns blending into the mullions on the exterior and a warm glow emanating from its taut glass skin, as if Mies had managed to create an architecture not just of steel and glass but of light itself. These are poignant images: Stoller and Korab have rendered these buildings impossibly weightless, impossibly fluid—more modern than architecture ever really could have been.

Within a decade, a new generation of photographers was taking a decidedly more critical look at architecture. Younger figures like Ed Ruscha saw themselves as artists, rather than photographers per se, and found in architecture a subject through which they could reflect and amplify (not without irony) the concerns then preoccupying so many of their peers. Deadpan photographs of cookie-cutter suburban homes and endless subdivisions resonated with the serial logics and simple grids of Minimalism and Conceptual art; documentation of roadside kitsch evoked the commercial and vernacular flavors of Pop. Ruscha’s classic Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966, is on view here, as are four acerbic images from Lewis Baltz’s series “The Tract Houses,” 1969–71. Any number of other examples could have been included—Dan Graham’s Homes for America, 1966–67, would have been a particularly good fit—but the point is clearly made: By the ’60s, the respective avant-gardes of architecture and photography had parted ways, and artists were more interested in depicting architecture not as it wished to be but as they found it.

Thomas Struth, Las Vegas, Nevada, 1999, C-print, 55 3/4 x 80 1/2".

This divergence was taking place just as architecture was losing its own way. By the early ’70s, modernism was increasingly discredited as inhumane, inaccessible, out of touch—too much in thrall to its own image. Architects responded by trying to make their work more accessible, more human, more everyday. Ironically, though, their return to the everyday was mediated by photography, and often specifically by the artists who had just preceded them on the same track. Though none of their buildings are pictured, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown—lovers of billboards, decorators of sheds, and vanquishers of modernism—loom large here. They explicitly borrowed Ruscha’s panoramic technique for their epochal Learning from Las Vegas, published in 1972 (Scott Brown in fact visited Ruscha’s LA studio in 1968 with the pair’s students on their way to Vegas to gather material for the book). And they hired Stephen Shore—whom Lichtenstein has included with two views of small-town America from a 1974 road trip—to take the photographs for their 1976 Smithsonian exhibition “Signs of Life: Symbols in the American City.” (Luigi Ghirri, represented here by several views of modest shop fronts and facades, mostly in his native Emilia-Romagna, was commissioned to photograph the buildings of Aldo Rossi, the Italian postmodernist, in 1983.) But Venturi and Scott Brown, like the postmodernists that followed on their heels, missed the wit of Ruscha and the melancholy of Shore, while also taking them too much at face value, engaging with vernacular structures and everyday spaces primarily through these images rather than through the actual built environment. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that Venturi and Scott Brown traded up from the Sunset Strip to the Strip, since the crass commercialism of Las Vegas already presaged the echt-pomo construct of hyperspace—a sense of flatness characteristic of environments that are so visually confusing that the spatial relationships among objects are impossible to understand. In this way, they facilitated the reduction of their own architecture into image. It was almost as if they could only see the world around them through photographs, and so began to conceive of their work as a kind of built image in turn. This constituted a retreat from many of the matters with which architects had traditionally been concerned, limiting the postmodernists’ purview to designing signs and facades and ceding control of what happens inside their buildings to developers, retailers, or office planners.

Lewis Baltz, Tract House #8, 1971, gelatin silver print, 5 1/2 × 8 1/2". From the series “The Tract Houses,” 1969–71. © Estate of Lewis Baltz.

Arguably, architecture never recovered from this turn. Long after the postmodern style became passé, the fascination with images remains: Architects today are often more concerned with how their buildings look than about how they work or what they do. But the more architecture itself becomes a kind of constructed image, the richer a subject it seems to offer artists, who find much to unpack in this delirious fabrication. While many of the photographers who turned to architecture in the ’60s and ’70s are still relatively unknown (e.g., Ghirri, who has only recently received serious attention outside of Europe, or Baltz, who remains something of a cult favorite), architecture is the subject of many of the best-known photographers working today. Lichtenstein makes this point by leaning heavily toward the Düsseldorf School. Thomas Struth’s 1999 image of the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas suggests that learning from that city circa Y2K entailed some dispiriting lessons in advanced neoliberalism. A garish, Disneyfied pirate town in the foreground catches the viewer’s eye, suggesting that the vast, grim hotel facade looming in the background is just as artificial. Andreas Gursky created Avenue of the Americas, 2001, just a few blocks from where Stoller shot his iconic image of the Seagram Building, but here the architecture is anonymous, reduced to a shimmering mosaic of dark glass and fluorescent lights. In fact, the architecture is a composite, unreal, for Gursky produced this piece, like many of his large-format works, by digitally combining source images. Beyond the Düsseldorf cohort, Hélène Binet’s black-and-white images turn buildings—including, here, one by Swiss starchitect Peter Zumthor—into lush abstractions, while Thomas Demand and James Casebere (whose Yellow Overhang with Patio, 2016, provides the show’s chronological end point) dispense with real buildings entirely, working from models to probe the ways in which architecture lodges itself in our memories and our psyches.

Iwan Baan, Torre David #1, 2011, C-print, 72 x 48".

This most recent work is troubling in its implications for contemporary architecture. Iwan Baan’s Torre David #1, 2011, appears to be a harmlessly derivative makeover of a Gursky photograph like Avenue of Americas, but it’s one of the more unsettling images in the show. The rigid grid of a building’s facade rises in the near distance, practically flush with the picture’s frame. We are looking at what is, effectively, the world’s tallest favela, a skyscraper in Caracas that was abandoned, mid-construction, during an economic crisis in the early ’90s and occupied by squatters beginning in 2007. (The Venezuelan government evicted and relocated most of the residents in 2014.) By photographing the building in this way, Baan has reminded us that the material and spatial problems of the real world don’t go away simply because architects stop engaging with them—but he has done so inadvertently, by blatantly eliding those problems. The Torre David represents the profound disappointments of contemporary architecture, and by aestheticizing and “humanizing” its material realities, Baan is covering up these failures. (Readers who doubt that such a blunt reduction could possibly be Baan’s intention are encouraged to view his TED Talk on YouTube, “Ingenious Homes in Unexpected Places,” billed as a presentation of “glorious images celebrat[ing] humanity’s ability to survive and make a home—anywhere.”) Small wonder, then, that he is one of the most sought-after architectural photographers in the world today, employed by everyone from Elizabeth Diller to Rem Koolhaas, and that his images of the Caracas tower were part of the project that was rewarded with the Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.

And yet, it still cannot be said that photography has been bad for architecture, any more than print has been. In fact, the birth of architecture itself, as a discipline and discourse, and of the architect, as distinct from the craftsman, can be traced to the rise of other forms of media and image-making technologies in the early modern period, most crucially wood-block printing and orthographic drawing. It was these innovations that allowed buildings to become ideas and that enabled architects to send drawings from one city to another, rather than remaining indentured to a single construction site as the medieval master mason had been. The image has always been a means of building, in other words, and problems only arise when the feedback loop between image and materials collapses into an endless cycle of image-making. Contemporary architects cannot ignore digital photography and image production any more than they will be able to ignore the new media of the near future, nor should they. But they would do well to remember that architects have long used images not only as a way of representing our world, but of reframing and ultimately rebuilding it.

“Image Building: How Photography Tranforms Architecture” is on view through June 18.

Julian Rose is a senior editor of Artforum.