Framing the Debate. Architecture and Photography.


On a Saturday morning in September, queues are forming in front of doorways across London. The crowds can be seen all over the city, people patiently waiting in Whitehall and Wapping, in Bloomsbury and Beckenham. Their locations are apparently random – at the foot of the newest glass towers in the City, outside old school buildings, in front of national embassies and old pumping stations, and lurking about private houses in London’s residential streets, too. Although the British public are acclaimed queuers, it’s obvious that something out of the ordinary is going on here, on a city-wide scale. All of these people are waiting for their opportunity to see something they usually can’t – and that something is simply the interiors of the buildings among which they live.

This is all due to Open House London, an annual city-wide initiative that encourages London’s private buildings to open their doors to the public for one weekend each year. Running since 1992, the initiative has become something of an event in the city’s cultural calendar, with over 850 sites participating and drawing tens of thousands of visitors across the capital.  Bookings and even ballots are mandatory for many of the most sought after experiences, which this year included 10 Downing Street, the Shard and the Bank of England. Browsing the vast listings for Open House, you begin to realise just how little of your city you really know; or perhaps even could know, if you wanted to. You also begin to comprehend that the nature of the weekend’s most popular buildings – governmental, corporate, and private – gives a decent impression of London’s landscape of power, and the public’s usual limited-to-none access to most of it.

Open House is actively engaged in broadening dialogues about the public sphere, and encouraging democratic empowerment through a ‘direct experience’ of architecture and space. But as their website makes clear, this ‘directness’ is apparently something strictly separate from other ways of experiencing our surroundings:

Core to our beliefs and values is having direct experience. You can’t make an informed decision merely through abstract images, such as photos and illustrations. You need to be engaged with the space in question to know what the reality is.

Yet a cursory search for #OpenHouseLondon on Instagram tells a different story. Of all of the genres of image making to have been revolutionised by mobile technology and photo sharing networks (the self-portrait comes to mind), architectural photography is arguably undergoing something of a transformation. In fact, looking over the vast cache of images made collaboratively over that weekend in September – openly accessible to anyone, anywhere, it’s worth adding – it soon becomes clear that Open House London is something of a city-wide photo op. New rooms and new views are point-and-click bait for every kind of photo sharer: plentiful are the saturated panoramas, the moodily filtered geometric meditations, and a few shameless selfies thrown in for good measure. Above all though, here are thousands of interesting and thoughtful visual reflections of people’s experiences and memories, in the places that Open House London opened up to them. Only the most dedicated to either photography or architecture would have been prepared to make these images ten – even five – years ago, let alone share them: to do so today requires only a couple of swipes of the finger. Growing exponentially, in virtual space, is the most collaborative, populist, and accessible bank of images that has ever existed about the places where we live.[1] The optimist in me likes to think that this sudden surge of images – and of image makers – might encourage new kinds of engagement with the spaces we live in: one that exemplifies the difference between seeing and its more thoughtful, considered cousin, looking.

Never stop looking up! You would miss that… #skyscraper #London #theCity #gherkin

A photo posted by my Architectural Visits (@helenariza) on


At Barbican Art Gallery, in one of London’s key architectural landmarks, the recent exhibition Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age has explored exactly this phenomenon; the ways in which looking at architectural space offers a means of both showing but also reading our surroundings. The show brings together an impressive roster of photographers from the last 100 years whose work has been consciously implicated with architecture and the built environment. One of the advantages of photography exhibitions is an ability to bring together images made for entirely different purposes, and Constructing Worlds surveys a range of artists and photographers who have all used architecture in their work according to their own objectives. Among the eighteen photographers whose work is on display, this show brings together commercial practitioners such as Julius Shulman, the documentary styles of historical giants of the medium like Walker Evans and Berenice Abbott, through to the conceptual cool of 1970s artists like Bernd and Hilla Becher. That the show has somehow managed to be both chronological and thematically organised gives some indication as to how our interactions and interpretations of architecture have evolved over the course of a century.

Although the exhibition begins somewhat abruptly with Berenice Abbott in 1930s New York, under examination here is a singular and rich relationship that exists between photography and architecture, and one that is woven deeply into the history of the medium. Exactly what or which is the first photograph ever made has always been debated; that it was an image of a building is almost certain. The stillness of our buildings and the stillness of photographs were seemingly made for each another, and architectural studies were ideal for early photographic technologies that demanded long exposure times. Architecture was not only a subject made of clear and recognisable lines, but more importantly one that would keep still for as long as you needed.

Given the wealth of what comes before the 1930s it seems a shame to start so far into the history of photography, yet Abbott’s photographs of rapidly changing New York are an exhilarating starting point for this show, arriving as they do at one of architecture’s most compelling historical moments when New York emerged, literally, as the world’s first city of sky-scrapers. Alongside this architectural revolution, New York was the epicentre of photography’s revaluation as a medium at the time; modernist artists, photographers and writers were experimenting and reconsidering what the camera was capable of. There is a true sense in the monumentality of Abbott’s New York photographs that only the camera could ever have captured the scale, the geometry, and the electric luminosity of Manhattan’s modernity. Arguably her best known image, ‘Night View, New York City’, is spellbinding in a way that only a photograph can be: densely detailed, intricately composed, deceptively simple.

New York Nightview
Berenice Abbott, Night view, New York City, 1932

Much of Abbott’s desire to capture New York came from a documentary impulse. It was Abbott who returned to America from Paris with a horde of Eugène Atget’s haunting, proto-surrealist photographs of empty streets in a quickly changing 19th century Paris, and which provided much of the impetus in her own desire to capture what would soon disappear in New York. In rapidly changing cities and cultures, photographs become invaluable historical and social documents, a kind of collective social memory for what would otherwise be lost to the past. Walker Evans’ photographs of the vernacular architecture of the American Deep South, images that have been a seminal influence on 20th century photography, come from the same documentary angle while demonstrating an entirely different approach with the camera. Whilst Abbott’s photographs accentuated the impersonal, faceless life of the big city, Evans’ work documented unflinchingly but humanely a rural American life of the same era in all of its poverty and sordidness. Evans began to photograph the architecture in these communities in much the same way he would take a portrait; imbuing the shotgun shacks of the South with the same significance we read in the eyes of their residents.

12. Walker Evans
Walker Evans, Frame Houses. New Orleans, Louisiana, 1936

Evans’ characteristic style would become a lasting influence on 20th century photography, and his one man show in 1938 at the MoMA – the first ever for a photographer – also signalled photography’s migration into the museum and into a more established position within artistic practice. The generation of artists and photographers that followed Evans would co-opt his deadpan style to address their own questions about their surroundings. The work of Bernd and Hilla Becher is a clear inheritor of Evans’ style, all the while taking photography into new conceptual realms. Their typological grids of industrial structures – always the same, always different, but somehow still thrilling after nearly half a century – arguably form a kind of template for the postmodern adoption of the camera and the photographic image. The Bechers’ work embodies so much of what photography offered to a generation of conceptual artists in the 1970s – a very postmodern fondness for typologies and sequences (one that has arguably never gone away), but above all a cool detachment that the camera alone could offer as a mode of representation. By its unique conflation of objective and subjective realities, photography could take centre stage in the wake of the death of the author.

22. Bernd & Hilla Becher
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Goole, Great Britain, 1997

There is a notable absence of people in the photographs that occupy the middle part of this Barbican show – focus shifts onto the man-made, and the unconscious impulses that shape the built environment. Ed Ruscha’s aerial photographs of Los Angeles are still mesmerising in their simultaneous simplicity and complexity; his photograph of the Dodger’s Stadium from above is utterly deadpan, yet somehow supercharged with uncanny power and force. Waves of abstracted, radial traces left by something as banal as a carpark are transformed into something like the Rorschach pattern of a civilisation. Ruscha drove along LA streets photographing every single building long before Google Street View, and the wave of photographers and artists alongside which he emerged – Stephen Shore and Thomas Struth are also present in this show – taught viewers to re-evaluate what was worth their attention. Walter Benjamin observed as early as the 1930s that the camera “introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses”,[2] but it was arguably not until the 1970s that artists managed to truly extract the medium’s potential to such ends.

27. Ed Ruscha
Ed Ruscha, Dodgers Stadium, 1000 Elysian Park Ave., 1967/1999

The melting of boundaries between photography and other forms of visual art has made it increasingly slippery and difficult to delineate as a medium. Many of the contemporary photographers on show at the Barbican operate either between, outside of or simply wilfully ignoring ideas of genre. Work that would once have been classed as photojournalism – and printed exclusively in magazines – now occupies museum and gallery walls, fuelled in part by the monumental print sizes now available to photographers. Nadav Kander and Simon Norfolk stand out here as practitioners who are able to make series that are as edifying as the best photojournalism, while at the same time integrating the complexity and ambiguity that would once have been associated only with great painting. If globalisation is the overarching narrative of our time, then series like Kander’s Yangtze: The Long River or Norfolk’s Afghanistan photos are some of the finest examples of the ways in which photography and architecture are complementary, universal, languages capable of communicating the latent conflicts and histories embedded in a landscape.

Faced with the wealth of photographic history on show in Constructing Worlds, the incredible saturation of today’s visual culture with images seems to be both problematic and propitious for the status of photography going forward. To think of it as a medium in its own right is increasingly difficult, as photography collapses under the weight of its proliferation and ubiquity. The more that our lives are mediated through photographs – think of every image you see each day online, in adverts, on television – their power to command our attention in any serious way ebbs away. Yet this show is a timely reminder of the irreplaceable role that the photograph has played in revolutionising our ways of seeing; its ability to show us what is otherwise ignored, and to bring to our attention what has often been hiding in plain sight. Photography has been a democratic medium in which amateurs have flourished from its very inception, and the #OpenHouseLondon photographers show this to be as much the case now as it ever was. Open House is absolutely right to assert that our engagement in communal space is more vital than ever; perhaps, too, they’re right about what we see when we look at photographs: we look the other way – another way.

[1] The problematic point of the corporate power bound up in these images (for Facebook and Instagram) is not lost on me. For the sake of this piece, however, I am only concerned with levels of access to image making and sharing.

[2] Walter Benjamin – The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, sct. 13 (1936; repr. in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, 1968)

Max Vickers graduated with an MPhil in European Literature and Culture from Darwin College, Cambridge, in 2013. He is currently working on Christian Marclay at White Cube Bermondsey.