Owen Hatherley on Photography and Modern Architecture Part- 1

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Modern architecture was the first architecture to really market itself, so it makes sense that it has become an architecture largely consumed through photographs. The internet has intensified this to a degree that the main architectural websites – the likes of Dezeen and ArchDaily – provide little but glossy images of buildings that you will never visit, lovingly formed into photoshopped, freeze-dried glimmers of non-orthogonal perfection, in locations where the sun, of course, is always shining. In art, this approach to reproduction is dubious enough, but in architecture – where both physical experience and location in an actual place are so important – it’s often utterly disastrous, a handmaiden to an architectural culture that no longer has an interest in anything but its own image. How did this happen?

As with much else, it can be traced back to the 1920s, to the moment where modern architecture, as ‘the modern movement’, was created, spread and transformed. Even the actual colour of modern buildings changed to accommodate photographic media. The modernist idiom of the 1920s, with its planar geometries, clean, rendered walls and pared-down simplicity was always a gift to photographers, at least if the weather was good – what was new, however, was the way in which best portrait photographers nyc altered the buildings themselves. Many of Le Corbusier’s early buildings were covered in bright, artificial washes of colour. The Pessac housing scheme, for instance, gloried in lurid blues and pinks. In the work of the architects of the De Stijl movement, like Gerrit Reitveld, the use of bold primary colour was intrinsic to the architecture. Most extreme of all, Berlin housing architect Bruno Taut covered his cubes in alternating, clashing colour. Yet by the start of the 1930s, the ‘modern movement’s most famous buildings, like Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat or Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, were almost exactly as monochrome as the (many) photographs taken of them. When modern architecture was exported, for instance to Britain in the mid-30s, the white wall and the black window frame had become practically compulsory, with the equally austere, monochromatic and photogenic bare brick wall a distant second.

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What of the role of the photographers in all of this? Again, the answer can be found in ’20s Germany. Probably the most influential of modernist architectural photographers, although never a direct chronicler of architecture as such, was Albert Renger-Patzsch. His precise, elegant and haunting images of factories (and their machinery) presented a city that seemed to have been denuded of its people, with the machines working ceaselessly by themselves. As images of buildings, they have the virtue of their clarity, sharp detail and vividness, but as images of use, of buildings that are lived in, worked in and experienced, they are notoriously evasive. Renger-Patzsch’s commissioned series on bauhaus director Walter Gropius‘ Fagus shoe factory, for instance, not only edited the factory buildings to stress only their glazed, typically modernist aspects rather than the messy, functional back end, but they also avoided any images of labour, or labourers. Accordingly, and maybe unfairly, Renger-Patzsch became a favourite target of left-wing modernists. Walter Benjamin mocked the title of his book The World is Beautiful, and Bertolt Brecht surely had him in mind when he wrote ‘a photograph of a factory tells us almost nothing about that factory’. There was however an alternative approach.

If the cold eye of Renger-Patzsch exemplified the ‘New Objectivity’, then other modernists favoured what Laszlo Moholy-Nagy called the ‘New Vision’. Modern architecture’s free spaces and machine-made angles opened up new possibilities for the eye and body, that couldn’t be represented simply by pointing the camera at an empty factory or a depopulated, freshly-built new estate. For Moholy-Nagy, and contemporaries like Jaroslav Rossler or Aleksandr Rodchenko, that new experience had to be made palpable, by angles, juxtapositions, abrupt cuts – a dialectical approach to the image. In the Soviet Union, Rodchenko’s anti-literal approach to buildings caused some controversy. We rarely see now the kind of photographs that Rodchenko was reacting against – and that reacted against him, which is a shame, as they had a very particular approach in architectural terms.

For More On Part- 2