A think piece on my own professional journey so far
Commodity, Firmness and Delight?
I am resolved that this post should not be self-indulgent, yet the risks are there. I am writing about my evolving contribution to the world around me. We all make a contribution in our lifetime. Mine, to date, has been striving to make environments better for people through making buildings, reconfiguring bits of cities and advising people on these things. In 1989 I completed the formal part of my education as an architect. 14 years were then consumed understanding how things get done out in the swirling reality of real estate, planning, constructing and conflict, attempting to push through all of that my ‘needle carrying the thread’ of the best one can do in terms of making a decent and dignified design. Latterly I have been more of a conductor than composer; influencing, managing, pushing on with projects and helping people achieve goals. In all of this the abiding message, from the first week of University in 1982, were the words of the professor who told the impressionable first year students that soon “you will never be able to look at a building the same again”. He meant knowledge and study would inform our eye.
Making my way through the second of a series of modules on the masters degree in photography at Falmouth University means I now can’t look at a photograph the same again. I see context, subject, policies, style, history, coding, references, suggestion, implication and manipulation. To name a few.
So is there a juicy sweet spot in the overlapping venn diagram of photography and architecture? My instinct tells me there is, but I thought it would be helpful to map out the actual, to seek for facts and explanations. It is timely as concepts have been revolving mentally and it is time to draw out these onto this blog. Does Vitruvius apply to both when he coined his expectations regarding “Commodity, Firmness and Delight”?
My enduring observation is that architects are, and always have been, image makers. From quill to pen to digital to CGI, they make an image of what they envisage, of what is not there. They craft and beguile, flatter, impress, suggest and seduce. The creative mind of the architect is bred to show the art of the idea but also the science of the possible. They think but they also make. They invest much applied intelligence to shaping a brief and listening to the needs, desires, aspirations, economy and timescales of a client. That brief is then pushed through an iterative wheel of development and review, of gathering, drawing, talking, redrafting, costing, engineering and collaborating until the outcome is made out in the field, the final bespoke product; the making of the edifice that was imagined.
As a photographer, there is an almost reversal of this process. My practice is divided into two; the opportunistic images that result from just existing, the iPhone generated moments of real life; the other, the planned series of images and work. The latter require an idea of a series, a concept, but never knowing just how the images will look and be. Instead the planning goes into research, persuasion, access, budgeting, creating or receiving a brief, convincing people that it is okay to enter almost forbidden spaces. Making choices about the most appropriate and sometimes pragmatic technical equipment to finally achieve the series of shoots that can impact on the quality of the outcome. Then finally the images are captured, produced and seen. I make images of made architecture, architects make images to make architecture.
The most important configuring factor in design is context. So it is to image making. Context is a constraint. Constraint makes for great work. Both architects and photographers deal with history, politics, societal expectations, economics, the preciousness of time, style, place, precedents and peers. Work is made in context and is shown in context. Architecture is made to be tangible but is often private, remote, inaccessible, yet made accessible via books and galleries, models, images, narrative is made available to everyone that wants to experience vicariously. Photography is only the trace of what was observed, but the photobook, gallery are the fodder for the viewer. There is a very close familial feel between both artistic endeavours, founded on the image.
Ruthless discrimination is essential to making great work. The lateral thinking brain and the lateral seeing eye is imagining and seeing a gushing stream of everything. Thus exclusion is as important as inclusion. Doing away of what is not to be seen is the essence of finding and making the exquisite. The frame takes in, but it takes out. For an architect, the framing of the brief, the framing of the structure that is fundamentally the skeletal spine from which spaces hang and the constructing of the core is about economy; make what you need, discard what you do not. From this framing reference the spaces are defined and populated with the necessary forms following function.
The photographer is equally ruthless. The framing is a highly conscious process of capture. The essence of the subject, the message, the angle, the light, the movement, the compression of a million shapes, colours and successes and failures are banked in the grey matter memory bank and with super rapidity brought to the fore, to the eye, to the finger that will depress the shutter button at the moment the frame is the best it will be.
“Every line matters. Don’t draw what does not have meaning”. Every architect needs to heed this mantra. The architect should be and most often is obsessive about clarity. The architect will synthesise the brief, the whole design team’s efforts, the town planner’s advice, the client’s foibles and create an imprint of these things into a plan, elevation and sectional series of drawings. This flows into the worlds of juxtaposition and context but also into the micro-world of materiality, texture, surface, interface. To these add the dynamic natural ingredients of sunlight and shadow. The caress of light, of summer brightness and the low winter beams are a natural commodity to harness and offer people serenity, the awareness of nature’s hand caressing the human crafted surface.
Here is the clue to how I work on my series photographic practice. After all the negotiations and access permissions, I will view the piece, the building the place in its context. The plan may be surveyed from a hill, a window placed nearby, or just imagined, but most importantly the elevation is captured in its settings. I am watching for people, light, depth and figuring “what was the intent?” I am now reading the codes, the information the building is offering me or that I am having to mine with my eye to configure. I seek out doorways, scale, humanity, messages of stature, ego, primacy and community. The designing of architecture is heavily laden with coding, a mixture of many things that can include the culture, material, history and climate of the vernacular to the pervasive international style of global commerce and masculine phallic fallacy. Buildings may welcome you, buildings may fend you off, the signals will always be there. I am mapping the place by looking, concentrating my gaze. I then proceed to feel the intimacy, I walk inside, climb stairs, drop into cellars, sneak out onto rooftops, talk to people who may be there, touch walls and columns, windows, floors with my fingers. The tactility of the material. Then I look for light, the means to harness my micro views of what it is this place is made of. I am distilling all of the time, looking for how a wall meets a stair, how glass permits the two way conversation from inside to outside and vice versa. In buildings that have suffered the all too often the ill-informed refits, refurbishments and crass alterations, you can almost always find the hand of the architect and constructors in a staircase, the surviving, untouched vertical stack of intent, it may be raw, unloved and spurned by the lazy, lift loving occupants but it will offer the photographer the clarity of the original.
Achieving the making of buildings takes all too often an herculean effort. The day of completion the work will be captured for the architect’s archive. The future finger-marks, scuffs, dirt, rain, natural deterioration and spider’s webs will not be there. The commissioned photographer will snatch that moment between polished finish and occupancy; the image files made for the next round of marketing the designer’s skills.
The delight I take in finding and re-seeing buildings and places that manifestly wear temporality, capturing with as much honesty and clarity as I can. I search of the minimal with the patina of life smeared across. Often the unexpected, like a pink bin in a grey room, abandoned but jazzy and jarring. I deepen my purpose my showing spaces that are neglected, unwanted, devoid of humanity and at the end of a life cycle of sadness and the act of deliberate decrepitness. The delight in visual discovery is, like the architect’s seductive imagination that led to its birth, gripped by the wrecking ball of death. Vitruvius’ validation of architecture is appropriate, the question for my practice is can I reverse the phrase to validate my practice; from delight in the image of the firmness of place can the commodity of value emerge?
“I call Architecture Frozen Music”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 1749-1832
“Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still”
Dorothea Lange 1895-1965