Barbican Arts Centre, London

Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age
Barbican Art Gallery

A comprehensive survey of photographs of buildings starting with a selection of Berenice Abbott’s dramatic photographs of a dynamic New York City and moving through to near-contemporary photographs of construction in China and destruction in Iraq; finally, celebratory, hopeful pictures of humans living despite architecture in Caracas, Venezuela.

These are largely the photographs the architects want us to see, photographs which communicate the vision. So we see Le Corbusier's work through the lens of his preferred photographer, Lucien Hervé. Viewed as a group from afar, these high contrast prints are reduced to records of the implementation of the design concept rather than dwelling places for real people.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s large format, out of focus images (that he calls “beyond infinity focus”), really benefit from large prints to communicate in a way that doesn’t come over in magazine or book reproduction. They are but blurred echoes of huge buildings but are conveying the essence of the architect’s dream. A very ephemeral concept but just as much part of the architecture business as Lucien Hervé’s superficially precise photographic records and catalogue for Le Corbusier.

Lucien Hervé’s photographs use people simply as props for scale, it strikes me that their humanity is irrelevant, which is somewhat of a contradiction to the architect being revered (at least in France) for the human scale and functionality of the dwelling places, such as La Cité Radieuse in Marseille, famously constructed by assembling blocks, each of the size of a family unit. Similar brutalist architecture in the UK is being demolished, modified or softened, not least here in the UK;  see my picture above of the Barbican Centre, home of this exhibition.

Similarly Luigi Ghirri’s photographs of Italy are distant from humanity; described in the exhibition blurb as in the “European lyrical tradition” these images strike me as architecture without hope. His lack of humanity and lack of scale, eg the furniture set out formally, a school changing room looking clean and clinical or a photo of a school building surrounded by weeds that make it looks like a prison tower. Strong images evoking a strong reaction  but I don’t think it is the one the architect intended.

Berenice Abbott did clearly offset and balance the rigid geometric shapes of early skyscrapers and bridges with anonymous humans (or curvy automobiles) and seems to have developed a language of the interaction between the grand architecture and the progress of commerce driven by humans. This conveys a sense of thrusting dynamism both to individual images and in the totality of the collection displayed here. Incidentally it is a huge visual treat to see photographic prints of these images made from large format plate negatives. Her famous image of Manhattan at night, an exposure of fifteen minutes made from the height of the Empire State Building, reveals glorious shadow and resolution detail and subtlety which are never apparent in reproductions.

But these unquestioning photographs omit any discussion about whether these places are fit to live or work. The exhibition addresses this by featuring relatively contemporary work where the images have a pejorative or moral tone.  Thus Nadav Kander’s photographs of the Yangtze river in China show an architecture imposed on people. The large scale of the huge prints is particularly effective, the pathos of people swimming or fishing in a lake which has submerged their former homes is understated by the huge concrete structures pictured towering above the water: bridge, dam etc. Completely in contrast to the dynamism of New York City in Berenice Abbott’s photographs. And oppressive air pollution showing as murky skies like a faded Cibachrome print from the 1980s.

Iwan Baan’s photographs make a hopeful final exhibit. Documentation of the unauthorised population of an abandoned development in Caracas Venezuela: celebratory interactions of people with the built environment of concrete. People living on the edge with no safety rails. Pictures full of hope and life. A fusion of documentary and architecture photographic styles. Celebrate!

A couple of individual exhibits which do not particularly fit my perception of the general narrative of the exhibition:

Bern and Hilla Becher’s photographs of water towers. A striking exhibit of twenty-one  images of water towers photographed with a forensic observation style and displayed in a grid like an biological taxonomy. Impressive inhuman and geeky this makes a striking exhibit, unlike printing the images on successive pages in a book. The impression I was left with was “I wonder what they talk about over breakfast”!

And Stephen Shore’s road trip photos. Much appreciated and fine in fresh big bright prints but I’m not entirely sure these picture justify a place in this collection. He also rarely includes people: his interest seems the variety of colours and shapes. His work would have been revelatory at the time of his road trip but now in the age of a camera on every smart phone you have to wonder whether his work would stand out if he made the same trip today. The National Geographic style  - with more extreme angles and insistent human interest - seems more relevant to a road trip. Shore hails from a gentler more naive age when simply capturing images of interesting things in good colour was sufficiently innovative.


Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age - Barbican Art Gallery

Constructing Worlds  brings together eighteen exceptional photographers from the 1930s to the present day who have changed the way we view architecture and perceive the world around us.

From the first skyscrapers in New York and decaying colonial structures in the Congo, to the glamorous suburban homes of post-war California, and the modern towers of Venezuela, we invite you on a global journey through 20th and 21st century architecture.

Featuring over 250 works, this exhibition highlights the power of photography in revealing hidden truths in our society.