Coming into the post-war period, ‘Constructing Worlds’ moves into the seductive world of colour, exploring how the widespread use in the subject of architecture began to promote, not only the reality, but the lifestyle to go with it.
Still upstairs in the exhibition and still in America, Julius Shulman (1910-2009)’s iconic images for Arts & Architecture Magazine in 1945 offered the industry and public a series of standardised Modernist housing designs as part of the Case Study Houses series. The magazine ran this series for over 21 years and over its run gathered contributions from the key figures in architecture of the time; Ray Eames, Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig and Eero Saariinen to name just a few. The prototype houses (of which 24 were finally realised) were photographed with scenes or scenarios constructed and played out within them and so we see chromogenic prints showing a glamourous couple relaxing by the pool (Case Study House #20) or a fashionable housewife preparing dinner in her kitchen (also #20). This is a Mrs Robinson world of endless days in the pool, cocktail parties and inertia. Copies of the original magazine articles are displayed in glass cases in the centre of the gallery.
The glass box of the Stahl house is shown in both colour, black and white and blown up life-size on the gallery wall. Perched on a cliff overlooking the lights of LA, two girls sit waiting for the party to begin or to be picked up to go out into the city. Now used for filming and fashion shoots, the Stahl house is also an architectural tourist attraction (weekly tours are available) which rather point to this building ending up as a sexy architectural novelty rather than any kind of workable prototype.
The life-size image is a version without the girls but with a lone man and the glow of the house against the dark painted Barbican walls give a cosy feel to the image. The viewer feels he could step right into this lifestyle, as if my magic he would have a career as a disc jockey and mustard might become a good option for a bathroom colour. Play Misty for Me.
Heading downstairs in the Barbican we also, finally, head out of the USA. Iwan Baan’s images of the Torre de David fill another darkened space within the exhibition. The 45-storey steel and glass office block Torre de David in Venezuela was designed by architect Enrique Gómez. The building was in the final stages of completion when the developer died and the country’s banking crisis hit, causing the skyscraper to be abandoned along with its half-finished elevator shafts, balconies, heli-pad and views of the mountains. In subsequent years Torre de David has been occupied by, what is known as, the largest vertical squatter community in the world and home to over 750 families who self-organised into a fully functioning micro-society, re-introduced basic services such as electricity and water. If you want to find out more about the Torre de David there are some really good videos and documentaries available on youtube.
Baan’s larger grid images are reminiscent of Gursky with their endlessly replicating windows rendering them as abstract compositions, the internal shots, however, are much more intimate as we see residents interacting with the reality of an office block, domesticating even the most stark of concrete and functional brutality. There is life here and vibrancy. Bann’s section ends on a less positive note as the wall text tells us that in 2014 the Venezuelan government began to evict the first families from Torre de David, resettling them outside of the city.
Nadav Kander’s 76-print series 'Yangtze – The Long River' (2006-7) explore the scale and scope of Chinese development over the last 10 years. Tracing Asia’s longest river from its mouth in Shanghai to its source in remote Tibet, the banks of the river are home to a population exceeding that of the entire USA.
Kander’s photographs show the huge scale of change in the area. Several images, for example, look at the Three Gorge’s Dam project in Hubei Province, China, which involved the displacement of over a million people in the area. Numerous historic and archeological sites were also subsumed in the construction of the dam which caused controversy although in the flooding of the system several new sites were also uncovered. There has also been unexpected results of the project on certain heritage sites; the famous hanging coffins left behind by the Pu and Bo people found along the Three Gorge’s Dam can now actually be seen more clearly as the water level of the Gorge’s is dramatically raised due to the dam system.
Moving past Simon Norfolk’s images of Afghanistan, Bas Princen’s Dubai and Beirut and Hélène Binet’s black and white abstractions of Berlin’s Jewish Museum we come to case upon case of Lucien Hervé’s contact sheets. In 1955 and 1961 Herve had travelled to Chandigarh, India, to photograph an ambitious civic commission. Le Corbusier had been invited by the first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, to design the whole city which was intended to replace Lahore (lost to Pakistan after Partition) – a city for the future.
Hervé arrived in the city to document the construction and completion of Corbusier’s vision and the resulting black and white images show a show-city, without many people, formal lines in concrete stretching to the sky, grids arranged like a puzzle ready for deciphering by their future inhabitants.
In one photograph of the High Court of Justice, a man leans on the structure which could be a modern ruin of an abandoned office block. A solitary tree is seen on a small hill in the background. Rather than showing nature and the city sitting harmoniously alongside each other there is an ominous feel about the image, as if the tree is in fact a portent for some future horror.
Continuing with this unsettling feeling ‘Constructing Worlds’ finishes on my personal favourite of the exhibition, a series of images from Hiroshi Sugimoto who began his Architecture series in 1997 wanting to “trace the beginnings of our age via architecture”. The photographer creates silver gelatin prints using a late-nineteenth century camera and adopting the working practices of earlier pioneers such as Ansel Adams and William Henry Fox to create images of architecture that appears blurred, as if seen from a dirty contact lens or through thick atomic bomb fug. This is a Twilight Zone world seen by the man who smashes his glasses on the library steps.
Sugimoto achieves this blurred affect in his photography by setting his camera to what he calls ‘twice infinity’ which softens the brutal angles of the modernist world around him. One of the most obviously striking images is of the Twin Towers in New York, recognisable but also already phantoms of themselves, a memory now dust.
'Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age' closes on Sunday