Picturing buildings and people

Simon Keane-Cowell, editor-in-chief of Architonic, considers the changing view of architecture through the photographer’s lens

3 min read

“Hell is other people,” Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote.

The enforced sharing of space is something that most of us don’t relish, which may be one of the reasons why architectural photography has traditionally chosen to show spaces that are evacuated of the users for whom they’ve been designed. Browse through an online architectural blog and you’re more often than not presented with images of interiors and outdoor spaces – both private and public – devoid of people. It’s easier to find the photograph of a building or an environment seductive when it’s presented as a fantasy space ready for the viewer to occupy mentally.

Le Corbusier’s oft-cited maxim that the house should be “a machine for living” becomes more than a little ironic when its visual dissemination through photography chooses to promote the built realm as an uninhabited landscape. The modernist movement of the early- 20th century embraced the photographic medium as a key means of communicating its ideas, but what this chose to show, for the most part, were interiors and exteriors unaffected by human presence.

Not so the work of feted American architectural photographer Julius Shulman. Credited with having immortalised mid-century US modernist architecture (and, indeed, helping position architectural photography as a discipline in its own right), Shulman, who worked closely with many of the leading exponents of the contemporary architectural style that was to become synonymous with California, put people in the picture. What’s being sold here, however, is as much the highly contrived fantasy of a particular contemporary, sun-drenched lifestyle as the credentials of the architect whose work forms the platform for such California dreaming. In a word, it’s propaganda.

Architecture is seen as a series of contexts or sites of negotiation – places that are given meaning through the way in which they are used

If there’s one photographer whose work eschews the staged, in favour of showing in an objective way as possible the real relation between people and the built environment, it’s Iwan Baan. The internationally celebrated Dutch image-maker, shuns the term “architectural photographer”, arguing that it is limiting given his concern not with architecture as a set of sacred spaces, but rather as a series of contexts or sites of negotiation – places that are given meaning through the way in which they are used. He chooses to “stay in the background and document the things that are happening in front of my lens”.

Baan’s photographs of modernist Brasilia and Chandigarh examine the, at times, striking disparity between Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier’s urban schemes as architectural manifestos and the unscripted reality of their day-to-day use, while his Torre David photographic project documents downtown Caracas’s half-built, 45-storey commercial tower block turned vast vertical squat, where dispossessed locals have created a ‘living organism’, as the photographer describes it, full of adapted spaces, found materials and pride.

Hell may be other people, but these pictures show a community gazing at the stars.

Iwan Baan, Braisilia - Chandigarh Living With Modernity, Lars Muller Publishers, 2010

Iwan Baan, Braisilia – Chandigarh Living With Modernity, Lars Muller Publishers, 2010

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