On Architectural Photography Today
As my readers know I am writing a book on network culture* this year. In writing about architecture under network culture, it struck me that the role of architectural photography has changed.
During postmodernism it seemed to observers that architecture was being produced more and more for photography. Kenneth Frampton dubbed architectural photography "an insidious filter through which our tactile environment tends to lose its responsiveness" and complained that the actual buildings that looked so seductive in photographs often were poorly detailed. Fredric Jameson suggested that "it is the value of the photographic equipment you consume first and foremost, not its objects." Under network culture, architecture photography becomes freed from architecture.
To be sure, photographers, particularly members of the Frankfurt School such as Andreas Gursky, Laurenz Berges, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth (and with even if he is an exception due to the constructed nature of his environments, Thomas Demand), have given new, sustained focus on architecture as a subject. Architecture, in this sense, becomes not a matter to represent, but rather a way to represent the delirium of globalized space today. As they do so, these photographs also allude nostalgically to the ambitions of modernism—many of these photographers directly invoke the modern past with their subject matter—and to a time in which architecture was our primary spatial experience of the world, grounding us.
Still, architecture itself seems to have worked free of architectural photography. No new generation has come up to replace the great late modernist architectural photographers: Marvin Rand, Julius Schulman, and Ezra Stoller. The architecture of network culture has a certain hostility to the photograph, generally refusing—even more than modernist works—to allow for a single viewpoint. The well-worn patch of grass at the Villa Savoye, is foreign to structures like Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, FOA's Yokohama Terminal, or OMA's Casa da Musica at Porto. After all, the Bilbao-Effect only works on such structures if they are visited in person whereas many of the icons of postmodernism were private structures and museums had not yet understood the potential of a global tourist draw.
Thus, if the architectural photograph is still necessary so that such works can appear on front page of the New York Times, its less of a self-sufficient sign and more a pointer, an advertisement. This is not to say that the architecture of network culture is not designed on the screen. After all, it but the postmodern role of the fixed architectural photograph as a driver for building design is over.
*I am also excited to be teaching a seminar on the topic at Columbia this fall.