Architectural Photos vs Reality
8th July 2015I have recently started reading a book called “The Future of Architecture in 100 Buildings” by Mark Kushner. I would definitely recommend it as despite its low price and short length it makes you think and is full of interesting inspiration. You can watch a related TED Talk by the author here. In the introduction to the book, Kushner outlines how nowadays everyone is an architecture critic. Whereas in the past only experts would travel the world to see and critique buildings and establish trends, the modern advances in communications and cheap transport have allowed opinions on the built environment to be shared more easily and widely than ever before. Of course photography has played a large part in thrusting architecture into the public eye, and in my opinion whilst this wide exposure is generally positive, there are some underlying problems with analysing architecture from photos that sometimes go unrecognised.
I only reach for my camera after getting to know a building. Photo by Florence AntiaAs soon as you begin architecture school you realise that architecture is not primarily the creation of solid forms, but the creation of space, which is enclosed with walls and roofs etc.. The space is dictated by a number of factors, such as function, aesthetic, climate, site attributes and many more. When viewing a photo of a building there is a rarely a detailed description of all the factors which have influenced its design, especially on fast paced social media platforms, for example Twitter and Instagram, where being concise is key. This often leads to casual observers of architecture only assessing the aesthetic portion of the design, and whilst this is a valid point of judgement it is far from the whole story.
Architecture should be experienced first hand as well as photographed. Photo by Barney Sheppard Touch the architecture, feel the architecture. Photo by Barney SheppardAnother marker which cannot be recognised from a photo is the ambience of a building. The experience of architecture is complex and fascinating. The approach to a building might present it in a completely different way to the feeling evoked by the interior, and even inside some spaces may be light, welcoming and expansive and others purposely detached and uncomfortable. An intelligent architect will be capable of playing with the emotions of the user to create the desired effect, enhancing the narrative behind the building. Architectural photos do not conjure emotions that are anywhere near as intense as experiencing a building first hand. The only senses that are excited are the eyes, and only in two dimensions. Therefore aspects such as the texture of a material, sounds of the surroundings (or lack of) and temperature or scale of a space cannot be felt. This leads to only a basic understanding of a building in which key design decisions may not be known and as a result cannot be appreciated.
A number of modern buildings are criticised for lacking in contextual suitability, often appearing as though they have been designed in a studio before the architect has even been approached by the specific client, then dropped into their site without responding in any way to their location. This occurrence has been encouraged in some ways by architectural photography. If a casual passerby likes the aesthetic of a building, they will photograph that building, perhaps without considering how it sits in its wider context. At university a sensitive and interesting relationship with the surroundings is one of the most respected aspects of a building design, so architects learn how to develop creative narratives with the building’s location right from the start of their education. Therefore it is a shame that architectural photography has contributed to this consideration in the design being forgotten.
Overall I am glad that architectural photography is booming, as it is helping expose the profession to the masses and allowing them to interact with and explore building projects around the world. Despite the wealth of positives, in my opinion photography only represents a simple baseline of architectural knowledge. Architecture is a lot more than the aesthetic that a 2D photograph shows, it is linked to space shaping, emotion, senses and context. People often question “what does an architect actually do?”, and the growth of architectural photography in mainstream media may not help demonstrate the complexity of the architect’s job.