Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age

Art, Photography
5 out of 5 stars
3 out of 5 stars
(3user reviews)
Stephen Shore (Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California, June 21, 1974)
Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California, June 21, 1974Image courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York and Sprüth Magers, London. © 2014 Stephen Shore
Iwan Baan (Torre David #1, 2011)
Torre David #1, 2011Image courtesy of the artist and Perry Rubenstein Gallery, Los Angeles
Iwan Baan (Torre David #2, 2011)
Torre David #2, 2011Image courtesy of the artist and Perry Rubenstein Gallery, Los Angeles
Julius Shulman (Case Study House #22, 1960 (Architect: Pierre Koenig))
Case Study House #22, 1960 (Architect: Pierre Koenig)© J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute
Lucien Hervé (High Court of Justice, Chandigarh, 1955)
High Court of Justice, Chandigarh, 1955The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2002.R.41). © J. Paul Getty TrustWith permission from Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris and Judith Elkan Hervé. © 2014 DACS
Luigi Ghirri (Cemetery of San Cataldo, Modena; the ossuary in winter, 1986)
Cemetery of San Cataldo, Modena; the ossuary in winter, 1986Courtesy of the Luigi Ghirri Estate and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York. © 2014 Eredi Luigi Ghirri
Nadav Kander (Chongqing IV (Sunday Picnic), Chongqing Municipality, 2006)
Chongqing IV (Sunday Picnic), Chongqing Municipality, 2006© Nadav Kander, courtesy Flowers Gallery
Nadav Kander (Chongqing XI, Chongqing Municipality, 2007)
Chongqing XI, Chongqing Municipality, 2007© Nadav Kander, courtesy Flowers Gallery
Berenice Abbott ('Night view, New York City', 1932)
'Night view, New York City', 1932© Berenice Abbott, Courtesy of Ron Kurtz and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
Guy Tillim ('Grande Hotel, Beira, Mozambique', 2008)
'Grande Hotel, Beira, Mozambique', 2008© Guy Tillim. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg
Iwan Baan ('Torre David #10', 2012)
'Torre David #10', 2012Courtesy of the artist and Perry Rubenstein Gallery, Los Angeles.
Walker Evans (Atlanta, Georgia. Frame Houses and a Billboard, 1936)
Atlanta, Georgia. Frame Houses and a Billboard, 1936Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection. © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Walker Evans ('Frame Houses. New Orleans, Louisiana', 1936)
'Frame Houses. New Orleans, Louisiana', 1936© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

‘The long exposure time required by the first cameras favoured the static attributes of buildings, making them a far more reliable subject than the human figure,’ reads the dry introductory text to this extensive and actually quite moving show of photography from the past 80 years. The statement is true, up to a point. Barring disaster, buildings don’t tend to move. But the effects of light, weather and most noticeably, human activity, make architecture anything but a static subject.

A case in point is Berenice Abbott’s most famous photograph, ‘Night View, New York’ (1932). She worked out that, in order to get the shot of the illuminated city she was after, she had a small window of opportunity: it had to be dark, but the image had to be taken before 5pm, when people began to leave work for the day and turn off their office lights (those were the days), while leaving enough time for a requisite 15-minute exposure. Abbott realised that 4.30pm, during the week before Christmas was her only option.

Like Abbott’s electrified city night-scape, humanity courses through this show. As German photographer Thomas Struth says, buildings ‘express pride, anger, ignorance, love – everything that humans are capable of expressing.’ What these photographs mostly reveal, though, especially en masse, is the space between architectural fantasy and lived reality. Julius Shulman’s ‘Mad Men’-era images of gleaming West Coast modernism peddle a (long lost) lifestyle fantasy and Lucien Hervé’s shadowy photographs of Le Corbusier’s Indian dream city Chandigarh, taken in the 1950s, are like beautiful futurist paintings in which humans appear like willing parts of the machine.

In stark contrast is Bas Princen’s 2009 shot of Mokattam Ridge, Cairo, known as ‘Garbage City’ for the refuse sacks that festoon every balcony and rooftop, and Guy Tillim’s 2006-7 series focusing on the crumbling remains of government buildings and luxury hotels built in post-colonial Africa. Both reveal how architecture often winds up being used in ways that its designers could never have foreseen.

There are notable omissions – including William Eggleston and Roberts Adams – as well as some unnecessary inclusions (Walker Evans’s portraits of Depression-era sharecroppers seem superfluous). Apart from Struth’s 1977 shot of a desolate Mile End terraced street there’s no London architecture on display, which seems odd, especially given Barbican’s iconic status. Look around you, though, and the gallery itself becomes an integral part of the show. Walls have been extended to make dramatic double-height spaces and apertures have been created to frame extraordinary glimpses of both the pictures on the walls and the Barbican’s unflinchingly modernist interior. As well as being one of the best photography shows in a long time, it must also be one of the most photogenic – just as long as you like concrete.

Martin Coomer


Average User Rating

3 / 5

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8 people listening

@kombizz - poor to give a rating despite not visiting the exhibit. The exhibition demonstrated a great range of architectural perspectives from well-chosen photographers. Definitely worth a visit. 

@kombizz Not sure giving an exhibition you haven't even seen 1 star is the best way to complain about the commercial aspects of art. I thought the exhibition excellent, beautiful and thought-provoking photographs. Allow a couple of hours at least.

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Because of recession in my pocket as well as in the world, I do not have enough change to pay for this exhibition. In my humble opinion, exhibitions should be free for all and the expenses should be paid thru adverts and council of art subsidy.