Constructing Worlds: a new exhibition at the Barbican gives architectural photography the exposure it deserves
Considering that the world’s very first photograph – or rather, the earliest known photograph made with a camera, the View from the Window at Le Gras by French scientist and inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niéce – was famously an architectural one (taken in 1826 or 1827), it’s surprising that this is the first major London exhibition to focus specifically on the extraordinary, ongoing relationship between photography and architecture. ‘Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age’ opened this week at the Barbican Art Gallery in London, as an ode to architectural photography and its power to change the way we see buildings, urban environments, and even, consequently, the world.
It’s a relationship born, though, of more pragmatic impulses. ‘At first it was for purely practical reasons,’ says the Barbican Art Gallery’s associate curator Alona Pardo. ‘Buildings provided a static object necessary for long exposures. Photographers then sought to record and interpret architecture.’ Architects themselves have also understood the power of the right photographic image to communicate their ideas and concepts, with the International Style being a prime example of an architectural movement that travelled the world via the lens of a camera. Good photography can vastly influence a building’s public standing.
Co-curated by Pardo and author and curator Elias Redstone, ‘Constructing Worlds’ was born out of the latter’s research for his book, Shooting Space: Architecture in Contemporary Photography. The exhibition touches on the work of a carefully chosen group of 18 leading photographers and artists, whose work examines architecture in different ways and across the globe. Having looked through countless images, the team is presenting 250 works that show the photographers’ aesthetically striking and visually distinct portrayals of architecture, and also hint at its symbolic qualities.
‘The artists and works in the show tell a global story and look at the world with a modern gaze,' says Redstone. ‘The exhibition presents a broad spectrum of photographic approaches. We’ve also brought together our own curatorial interests.' The architectural subjects are equally diverse, ranging from Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright classics to humble vernacular buildings. Still, themes do emerge. Urban and suburban landscapes, the city and street life, the iconic and the mundane, military architecture and the architecture of authority, mass urbanisation and globalisation all figure as topics in the show. Similarly, the impact of the car is addressed in several artists' works, such as Ed Ruscha’s Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles.
Redstone explains that the exhibition – designed by Brussels architect from Office KGDVS, with graphics by Atelier Dyakova and Stef Orazi, the latter also designing an accompanying book – has three distinct chapters: the fascination with vernacular architecture in the 1960s and 1970s; responses to and collaborations with individual architects and buildings; and photographers’ takes on globalisation and urban growth in China, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. The works are shown in chronological order, starting with Berenice Abbott’s seminal Changing New York project, Walker Evans’ documentation of local building typologies in the deep south, Julius Shulman’s iconic images of the Case Study Houses and Lucien Hervé’s images of Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh.
This exhibition aims to inspire, inform but also to pose questions. ‘Why do streets look and feel the way they do?’ asks Pardo. 'What does a soaring skyscraper reveal about our society?’ So many of our encounters with great architecture happen through the printed pages of a book, magazine or the vast visual resources of the digital world, and the command photography has in shaping our perception of the built world is undeniable. A visit to ‘Constructing Worlds’ will help explore this fascinating bond.