Revealing the Cracks in Modern Architecture

Jesús Vassallo, Seamless: Digital Collage and Dirty Realism in Contemporary Architecture

Park Books, 208pp, £30.00, ISBN 9783038600190

reviewed by Christo Hall

We’re all staring at 2D images. Despite the tricks, cues and illusions that are fooling our brains to think otherwise, when we look at a photograph, digital or print, it’s a flat world brought to life by adept photographers and our imaginations. This illusion of depth perception has deadened us to the reality that if we navigate Times Square on Google Street View or wade through belfies on Instagram in order to daydream over #roomwithaview, we’re still staring at an oblong screen in our pyjamas.

A photograph can’t replace our natural spatial experiences but it does the job, so well in fact that architectural practices and photographers of architecture understand that we’re far more likely to see a building online, in a magazine or in a photo-book than we are to come across it in the flesh. This mediated relationship to how architecture is experienced has changed not just how buildings are photographed, but how a building is designed. The Swiss architectural pioneer Le Corbusier’s relationship with photographer Lucien Hervé has been described as ‘symbiotic’, while the same can be said of Aldo Rossi and Luigi Ghirri or of Zaha Hadid and Hélène Binet. Elias Redstone, curator of the Barbican’s 2014 exhibition Constructing Worlds noted in an interview that it was ‘unavoidable’ for Hadid to have been influenced by her long-time photographic collaborator.

While no doubt this reciprocal process of influence between architects and photographers has been an ongoing pursuit since photography’s inception, it’s been in the main an unconscious pursuit on behalf of the architect. It may have been unavoidable that Binet’s delicate and harmonious images had affected Hadid, but it’s not clear that Hadid, in designing new buildings, sought her participation. In a new book that attempts to address that uncertainty, Jesús Vassallo’s Seamless: Digital Collage and Dirty Realism in Contemporary Architecture finds its evidence in a small collection of slightly younger architects and photographers whose collaboration is as conscious as their awareness of the power of image. Throughout, Vassallo is at pains to make clear that the necessary collision between the two disciplines, especially in a context of abundant digital reproduction of architectural imagery, has incited a creative and unpredictable relationship between them.

In the use of the term seamless Vassallo refers to another collision, that of the forged yet harmonious collage of images in what resembles fiction. It’s no doubt that the digital image has facilitated the modification and enhancement of a photograph which has in turn bolstered the relationship between architect and photographer, because in an industry where the dissemination of work and its resultant reception relies upon publications and inevitably social media, the ability to portray an architect’s work in the best light, from its best angle, is imperative.

The three photography/architecture collaborations that Vassallo focuses on, Filip Dujardin and De Vylder Vinck Taillieu, Philipp Schaerer and Roger Boltshauser, and Bas Princen and OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen all exhibit elements of this fiction, of creative processes that are responding to the often inauthentic practice of architectural photography, but also to its place in art history. Vassallo presents these photographers as documentary photographers, collage artists and crucially as makers in their own right. These aren’t photographers who have specialised in architecture but rather photographers and artists with an architect’s eye, and in Schaerer’s case an architect with an eye for photography.

In one passage Vassallo asks whether ‘the emphasis on action and process in these projects really stem from an ethos of bricolage,’ or does it in fact ‘borrow from the tradition of conceptual art’? Particularly in Dujardin’s exhibitions, which are in his words translations of his ‘2D imagery into 3D installations’, we see architecture melting into art, and it is not hard to imagine Frank Gehry as Picasso’s successor or Rem Koolhaas as Henry Moore’s, perhaps Dujardin as John Stezaker’s. But it would be too neat to conclude, and Vassallo is careful not to, that these collaborations are multidisciplinary in their approach – it would be a leap to say that these architects are drawing on the experience of photographers or artists outside of their discipline, what we see instead is an internalisation of photography into architectural practice, or the reappropriation of photographic and artistic techniques for their own means by their own team.

The second of Vassallo’s terms, dirty realism, which he says reacts in opposition to the ‘sleek aesthetic imposed by the establishment of architecture in its service of global capital,’ reminds me again of Hélène Binet who once said that ‘digital has made architectural photography very slick – sometimes you don't know if it’s a photo, or if it’s a rendering, and that I find very disturbing.’ In collecting examples of dirty realism, such as Bas Princen’s photographs of the liminal zones between and behind buildings, or his hinterlands that adolescents sneak off to to swim in quarries or do donuts with cars on brownfield land, Vassallo articulates these collaborations’ attempts to unpeel the paper that covers the cracks.

In using collage, and with a thirst to display the dirty forgotten bits of a building or landscape, we find an art and a spirit of protest in these collaborations. Artists such as Hannah Höch and Nancy Spero are examples of a reappropriation of images that destroy or interfere with the agenda of the original artist. We see it in Höch, as we see it in Guerilla Girls, and as we see it in a Donald Trump mash up. It’s this tradition, carefully ironed out by the photographer and architect working together that is represented in the book. And although not mentioned by Vassallo, of all the collage artists working with architecture as a subject it’s Sabine Bitter and Helmut Weber that stay most truthful to that tradition, pointing out inconsistencies and the illustrations of a past recycled, developing a narrative of the cyclical nature of history pockmarked in the shiny surfaces of modernity.

The theory that the book hinges on is not new, the innovation is in the practices that he gets up close with, and in making references to the social media age of image dissemination. Vassallo does a brilliant job of describing Schaerer’s Bildbauten, an artful series of photomontages and digitally-induced fantastical architectures, as a sort of clickbait parody in architecture for an attention-deficit generation – ‘Schaerer’s voluntary omissions can then be read as intentional, capitalizing on a cultural condition of shrinking attention spans and prevalent loss in translation in order to generate a new aesthetic of simplicity.’ Despite that, it’s this subject I’d like fleshed out in more detail. Are architects trolling their buildings’ hashtags to see how their creation is being visually interpreted? Are there signs that the portfolio-based tradition of the architectural monograph will be replaced by something more progressive?

If you take Instagram as a measure of architecture’s photogenicity, it appears users bypass the bog standard architect making bog standard housing developments or commercial units in favour of the visionary and eccentric structures. But is it a universal eye for aesthetic or difference that necessitates that? Or is there something in the complexity and the abstraction that make us revere intellectual architecture? Vassallo’s response to a tension that exists in architecture today, that photography is being used in ways that is motivated by marketing or consumption, is to celebrate these particular collaborations which through layered meaning and conceptual art protest the status quo, but this does little to solve the embarrassment that the creation of buildings for people to experience isn’t top of a list of priorities, or at least not through the prism of consumption. Without the clarity of understanding that a building’s end-user is a person, Vassallo’s implied solution to an “establishment of architecture in its service of global capital” is one that is remote and academic in its pursuit.

In a review of the Barbican exhibition, Constructing Worlds, Olivia Arigho Stiles writes that the architectural photographer Richard Schulman’s images ‘allude to the process of inverse reification by which the image of the building, in effect, replaces the physical building itself in the public psyche.’ In a space of consumption where the ‘real’ is subsumed into the image as an accompaniment to the photographer’s creative intention, we see the translation of a 3D world into 2D not as a struggle but as a freedom.

Perhaps soon, with the abundance of virtual reality technology, that freedom will exist no longer. Instead, the representation of other senses like touch and smell, and the completion of our retreat from the world of substance will concern us. And if these are solved, what will a building mean when you can experience it without being in it? It’s in this context that you see how troublesome photography first was for architecture as a discipline, and how the will to internalise photography in the practice has formed in reaction.