On Architectural Photography Today

As my readers know I am writing a book on network culture* this year. In writing about architecture under network culture, it struck me that the role of architectural photography has changed.

During postmodernism it seemed to observers that architecture was being produced more and more for photography. Kenneth Frampton dubbed architectural photography "an insidious filter through which our tactile environment tends to lose its responsiveness" and complained that the actual buildings that looked so seductive in photographs often were poorly detailed. Fredric Jameson suggested that "it is the value of the photographic equipment you consume first and foremost, not its objects." Under network culture, architecture photography becomes freed from architecture.

To be sure, photographers, particularly members of the Frankfurt School such as Andreas Gursky, Laurenz Berges, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth (and with even if he is an exception due to the constructed nature of his environments, Thomas Demand), have given new, sustained focus on architecture as a subject. Architecture, in this sense, becomes not a matter to represent, but rather a way to represent the delirium of globalized space today. As they do so, these photographs also allude nostalgically to the ambitions of modernism—many of these photographers directly invoke the modern past with their subject matter—and to a time in which architecture was our primary spatial experience of the world, grounding us. 

Still, architecture itself seems to have worked free of architectural photography. No new generation has come up to replace the great late modernist architectural photographers: Marvin Rand, Julius Schulman, and Ezra Stoller. The architecture of network culture has a certain hostility to the photograph, generally refusing—even more than modernist works—to allow for a single viewpoint. The well-worn patch of grass at the Villa Savoye, is foreign to structures like Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, FOA's Yokohama Terminal, or OMA's Casa da Musica at Porto. After all, the Bilbao-Effect only works on such structures if they are visited in person whereas many of the icons of postmodernism were private structures and museums had not yet understood the potential of a global tourist draw.

Thus, if the architectural photograph is still necessary so that such works can appear on front page of the New York Times, its less of a self-sufficient sign and more a pointer, an advertisement. This is not to say that the architecture of network culture is not designed on the screen. After all, it but the postmodern role of the fixed architectural photograph as a driver for building design is over.   






*I am also excited to be teaching a seminar on the topic at Columbia this fall. 



car commercials

gehry, foa and oma are hostile to the photograph but perfect background for car commercials- for the past 10 years more or less, no? although not sure if their buildings are part of network culture or rather the tail end of pomo.

actually, i thought photography and film were modern media, and tv and video were postmodern. as much as modernist works might have refused photography, le corbusier and mies were obsessed with it.

I'm fascinated that a huge

I'm fascinated that a huge proportion of car commercials are set on Grand Avenue in Los Angeles, right in front of MOCA. It's not the most glamorous strip. 

also, funny that a recent

also, funny that a recent mercedes commercial actually crashes into un studio's museum.

lacuna in your thesis?

something essentially common to the Bechers , and in a distended, sense, even Gursky: the focus is not just any striking structure: it is an industrial object, typically a factory. No accident that earlier than Frankfurt, Le Corb et al. found Mendelsohn's early photos of American grain elevators powerful inspiration for their later functionalist urban home design. I've always thought the way the grain elevators in particular so purely encapsulate simple Newtonian principles at work in the production of foodstuff for the masses that they were near irresistible as modernist iconography for 'design for living' imagineers (and that in some important way the Bechers' work is a 'quotation' of those early 20th C. American industrial landscapes - as you say above. But since this industrial focus naturally disdains decorative detail, such as the 'naturalism' run wild in Art Nouveau at the end of the 19th C., it goes some way to explaining the lack of detail which you find wanting, rather than the reason you give. After all I don't think the Art Nouveau buildings were produced with photography in mind, though they do have a greater degree of implied tactility than the sleek monoliths which grain elevators offer themselves up as even today - because the cities which once boomed because of them are now too depressed to fund their demolition.


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