Alexandra Lange | Essays

Buildings That Aren't There

Look at this photo. This is an actual building. Or at least, James Russell’s review of the new Apple Store in The Architect’s Newspaper tells me it is. Since I try to avoid going to the Upper West Side, I may never know that for a fact. My eyes aren’t telling me this building exists.

More and more I find myself squinting at the tiny credits on pictures of architecture. If it says DBox I know it hasn’t happened yet. If it says Esto, as this does, it has. But the two images look practically the same. Esto’s may have the dirt on the pavement, the ugly Ollie’s sign next door, but other than that, the same. If you look at the other photos in this story, the child approaching the glass staircase (and I would be chasing down my child at this point) could be PhotoShop: pink is just the sweater color I would have chosen, a spot of pop in a purposely austere environment.

I think this confusion is a problem. The concerns I have about most architecture being judged from afar in rendering form is a subject for another post. But the confluence of architectural photography and renderings is the subject of this one. Esto, which dominates the architectural photography market, is a company founded by Ezra Stoller, the mid-century photographer who, along with Hedrich-Blessing, Joseph Molitor, Julius Shulman, created the style of photographing architecture we now call architectural photography: crystalline, weightless, with endless linear recession and crisp intersection of planes. I think the endless reproduction of Stoller’s images in black-and-white (though he often shot alternates in color) has helped to repress the history of decorating in modern architecture. Who knew the sofa was vermilion? When digital renderings became part of the sales pitch, who else were renderers to imitate? They made new Stollers of buildings that weren’t there. But since Esto (and Hedrich-Blessing too) still has a stable of photographers working in the Stoller manner, real and fake, built and unbuilt all started to look the same.

Alan Rapp (whom I taught in D-Crit, and who acquired my D/R book at Chronicle) has a post on his blog Critical Terrain today asking whether architectural photography is art. He showcases the work of Tim Griffith, whose photographs definitely look like art to me. But they don’t look like architectural photography, not as thought of by the profession. No architect wants to see his (or her, sometimes) building as a ruin. And there are plenty of other art photographers (especially all those Germans) who do the opposite, and make architecture look like candy.

The split between the photographers for architects, and the photographers of architecture goes way back. There were plenty of photographers taking art images of mid-century architecture. W. Eugene Smith, of all people, did a series for the AIA in the mid-1950s that included misty bucolic visions of the Connecticut General headquarters by SOM. Charles Eames photographed the work of his friends in a jaunty, apparently casual and experiential manner that would be perfect on a blog. Andre Kertesz shot for House & Home. I’ve always wanted to write a book on architectural photography that included this work in.

I guess what I am trying to say is, the two sides need to come together. Otherwise architects may discover they never need their buildings photographed. Photography needs to prove itself again as an interpretive medium for architecture (there was always a debate about this in regards to Stoller’s work) somewhere this side of art. I think I should be able to tell what’s real and what’s still a dream.

Posted in: Architecture, Photography

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