Modern architecture was the first architecture to really market itself, so it makes sense that it has become an architecture largely consumed through photographs. The internet has intensified this to a degree that the main architectural websites – the likes of Dezeen and ArchDaily – provide little but glossy images of buildings that you will never visit, lovingly formed into photoshopped, freeze-dried glimmers of non-orthogonal perfection, in locations where the sun, of course, is always shining. In art, this approach to reproduction is dubious enough, but in architecture – where both physical experience and location in an actual place are so important – it’s often utterly disastrous, a handmaiden to an architectural culture that no longer has an interest in anything but its own image. How did this happen?
As with much else, it can be traced back to the 1920s, to the moment where modern architecture, as ‘the modern movement’, was created, spread and transformed. Even the actual colour of modern buildings changed to accommodate photographic media. The modernist idiom of the 1920s, with its planar geometries, clean, rendered walls and pared-down simplicity was always a gift to photographers, at least if the weather was good – what was new, however, was the way in which photography altered the buildings themselves. Many of Le Corbusier’s early buildings were covered in bright, artificial washes of colour. The Pessac housing scheme, for instance, gloried in lurid blues and pinks. In the work of the architects of the De Stijl movement, like Gerrit Reitveld, the use of bold primary colour was intrinsic to the architecture. Most extreme of all, Berlin housing architect Bruno Taut covered his cubes in alternating, clashing colour. Yet by the start of the 1930s, the ‘modern movement’s most famous buildings, like Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat or Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, were almost exactly as monochrome as the (many) photographs taken of them. When modern architecture was exported, for instance to Britain in the mid-30s, the white wall and the black window frame had become practically compulsory, with the equally austere, monochromatic and photogenic bare brick wall a distant second.
What of the role of the photographers in all of this? Again, the answer can be found in ’20s Germany. Probably the most influential of modernist architectural photographers, although never a direct chronicler of architecture as such, was Albert Renger-Patzsch. His precise, elegant and haunting images of factories (and their machinery) presented a city that seemed to have been denuded of its people, with the machines working ceaselessly by themselves. As images of buildings, they have the virtue of their clarity, sharp detail and vividness, but as images of use, of buildings that are lived in, worked in and experienced, they are notoriously evasive. Renger-Patzsch’s commissioned series on bauhaus director Walter Gropius‘ Fagus shoe factory, for instance, not only edited the factory buildings to stress only their glazed, typically modernist aspects rather than the messy, functional back end, but they also avoided any images of labour, or labourers. Accordingly, and maybe unfairly, Renger-Patzsch became a favourite target of left-wing modernists. Walter Benjamin mocked the title of his book The World is Beautiful, and Bertolt Brecht surely had him in mind when he wrote ‘a photograph of a factory tells us almost nothing about that factory’. There was however an alternative approach.
If the cold eye of Renger-Patzsch exemplified the ‘New Objectivity’, then other modernists favoured what Laszlo Moholy-Nagy called the ‘New Vision’. Modern architecture’s free spaces and machine-made angles opened up new possibilities for the eye and body, that couldn’t be represented simply by pointing the camera at an empty factory or a depopulated, freshly-built new estate. For Moholy-Nagy, and contemporaries like Jaroslav Rossler or Aleksandr Rodchenko, that new experience had to be made palpable, by angles, juxtapositions, abrupt cuts – a dialectical approach to the image. In the Soviet Union, Rodchenko’s anti-literal approach to buildings caused some controversy. We rarely see now the kind of photographs that Rodchenko was reacting against – and that reacted against him, which is a shame, as they had a very particular approach in architectural terms.
Rodchenko’s architectural photographs were mostly at their best when depicting fairly prosaic buildings – the famous, vertiginous image of the balconies on his Moscow tenement, for instance – but when faced with a talent equal to his own, they faltered. The Rusakov Club in Moscow, a striking, tense piece of architecture, was complex enough when baldly shot face-on, but when wildly tilted in Rodchenko’s shots of it, it became illegible. He abstracted the pilotis of Moisei Ginzburg‘s Narkomfin apartments in a way no contemporary architecture magazine would tolerate. These were noble failures, attempting to photograph modernism in a modernist way, and as a Marxist, Rodchenko would have appreciated the fact that the dialectical tensions in his modernist photographs of transformed 19th century cityscapes carry more vigour and drama. If you compare them with the recently republished photographs of Naum S Granovsky, like ‘Urban Landscape at Night’, of the Vesnin brothers’ ZIL Workers’ Club in Moscow, you can see why this happened. This 1934 photograph is a perfectly clear image of modernism, with a harsh, bright light shining out of its glass expanses. But the photograph’s composition is entirely traditional, a panoramic, architecturally informative view. It has atmosphere in abundance, but its main function appears to be one of record, not experience. But in both Rodchenko and Granofsky’s architectural photography, we seldom see people, except sometimes a lone figure in counterpoint.
Today, this depopulation is echoed often in the many photographic books on Soviet and East European modernism – from Richard Pare’s The Lost Vanguard at the scholarly end, to the melodramatic socialist schlock of Gabriele Basilico’s Veritiginous Moscow or Fredric Chaubin’s CCCP – Cosmic Communist Constructions. Roman Bezjak’s Socialist Modernism is an interesting outlier in this, both in the way he shows the unsympathetic alterations, adverts and clutter the buildings have attracted, and the people who work in or live in and around them – and in the knowing way in which he then bathes the images in a sepia-like yellow glow. The blocks that appear and reappear in the photographic work of artists like Nicholas Grospierre or Cyprien Gaillard form part of an aesthetic as stark, blank and monumental as the buildings photographed. Is there another possible approach, one where buildings appear as used?
Some of the photographers associated with the ‘townscape’ movement in British architecture tried to combine their humanist, tamed version of modernism with an appropriate photographic approach, which probably reaches its peak in (professional) Eric de Mare and (non-professional) Ian Nairn’s images for the latter’s book Nairn’s London, where a moment in both social and architectural history is captured with equal acuity. The opposite approach is taken to its furthest extent in the truly monumental urban landscapes of John Davies, whose images of the modernist rebuildings of Sheffield or Birmingham provide the planner’s eye view – or at least they at first appear to, until you peer closer and find loiterers, drivers and even football players lurking in the shadows of his concrete monoliths. As recommended by Brecht or Benjamin, they manage to approach a way of making social processes visible.
There is a hint of this, too, in the work of Rut Blees Luxemburg. In something like her image of the Westway, ‘London – A Modern Project’ she approaches modernism without concern for ethics or moralism. She never appeared to be interested in modernism as utopianism, totalitarianism or an emblem of stalled social progress – it was just ‘there’, not a subject for hand-wringing or celebration, but portrayed coldly as an amoral and thrilling landscape. Interestingly, her long-exposure work on London tower blocks was recently echoed by the Australian artist Simon Terrill, in a specially commissioned photograph of Balfron Tower, Erno Goldfinger’s tower block in the East End of London. He managed to get most of the tenants to appear in it, by asking them to leave their lights on, or wait at their balconies or on the walkways. It’s a remarkable image of a building and its users, for sure, but also of a building which was about to be denuded of that community, ‘decanted’, by the housing association who own the building – who also commissioned the image in the first place. It’s complex, uncomfortable events like this that make architectural photography uniquely slippery – and which makes the seamless, conflict-free world of architectural pornography all the more seductive.
Owen Hatherley is the author of the acclaimed Militant Modernism, a defense of the modernist movement, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain and A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britiain. He writes regularly on the political aesthetics of architecture, urbanism and popular culture for a variety of publications, including Building Design, frieze, the Guardian and the New Statesman.