Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age

by Olivia Arigho Stiles

A new exhibition at the Barbican explores the relationship between photography and architecture in the epoch of modernity. It is testament to the enduring power of the city in the artistic imagination, exposing the aching desolation of the urban landscape, inhuman and austere – but also, conversely, its site as a crucible of resistance.

The exhibition is well overdue. Critics and artists have long noted the symbiotic relationship between photography and architecture, especially against the context of modernity. Writing in the Art and Architecture journal, the photographer Fiona Hackett historicises this relationship, observing that 'photography embraced architecture as a symbol of modernity and architects commissioned photographers to disseminate their designs and structures through the photographic image.' Within the exhibition, Berenice Abbot, Walker Evans and contemporary Hiroshi Surigoto's works most clearly emerge from the crystallisation of this relationship between photography and architecture.

Yet increasingly, cities have also become strategically crucial arenas in which the neoliberal project has been most ruthlessly articulated. The spectre of gentrification that lurks behind modern urban planning remains largely unexplored by the exhibition's curators, and it is not always clear what deeper themes or overarching narrative link this impressive variety of works.

Coming at the end of the chronologically arranged exhibition, Iwan Baan's 2011 photographs of Torre de David in Caracas, Venezuela underpin the resilience and dynamism of ordinary people's resistance to the worldwide crisis in affordable city housing, highlighted so forcefully by the recent Newham E15 women's housing campaign. Famously, Torre de David is the 45-story office tower in Caracas designed by the Venezuelan architect Enrique Gómez which was almost complete when it was abandoned following the collapse of the Venezuelan economy in 1994. It has since become a vertical home to more than 750 squatting families.

Baan's photographs brilliantly capture both the precariousness and vitality of quotidian life in the unfinished block. A barber's shop and lace cloth-covered kitchen tables coexist with concrete staircases and exposed steel girders, reflecting a bottom-up resourcefulness to Caracas's scarcity of housing and to the vicissitudes of the global economy.

Yet elsewhere in the exhibition, irreverence and resilience are notably absent. One might even argue that the exhibition deals with the postmodern, rather than the modern age. This is echoed in Guy Tillim's work which portrays Mozambique's storm-battered, dilapidated tower blocks, symbolising the degeneration of the pan-African decolonisation movements of the mid-20th century and the ideologies which propelled them. Meanwhile, Nadav Kander documents the wistful haze of the Yangtze river bank where a family sit cheerfully eating at a picnic table in the shadow of a looming steel bridge.

The political implications of modernist architecture are most apparent in Julius Schulman's works, which illustrate the designs of architect Pierre Koenig. Under a vast canopy of Californian sunshine, the modernist luxury apartment offers panes of gleaming glass and a shimmering swimming pool. A besuited man reclines in his urban utopia. A slim housewife in an immaculate kitchen scene evokes a clichéd post-war domestic ideal before The Feminine Mystique (1963) shattered the illusion. Here, West Coast modernist architecture embodies a lifestyle, a mentality, and ultimately the power struggles at the heart of the modern age. Schulman's work extols the virtues of capitalist, patriarchal white supremacy before its rupture by the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s. The distant sprawl of the Los Angeles night skyline beneath the luxury apartment unfolds as tantalising dark matter, presaging a decade of seismic social unrest.

Schulman famously photographed the structures designed by celebrated architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, in an artistic and commercial relationship underpinned by the belief that ‘[t]o enter architectural discourse a building must be photographed and repeatedly published in widely read design magazines, or else it will be forgotten and never exist in the reader's consciousness.’ Photography in the modern age hence becomes of critical importance for the dissemination of architecture in the era of mass media and post-war consumerism. Schulman's photographs 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.

Also drawing on themes surrounding the commodification of culture in urban space is Berenice Abbott in her images of Depression-era Manhattan. Between 1935 and 1939, she chronicles the rise of the skyscraper, adorned with mass advertising, as the city's defining iconography.

While undoubtedly no exhibition on modernist architecture could be complete without Le Corbusier, his overall presence in Constructing Worlds is kept to a minimum. It centres on his designs of Chandigarh, the first planned city in post-independence India. Le Corbusier was commissioned by Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, to build a city suffused with a spirit of modernity, progressivism and national affirmation to replace Lahore after partition in 1947. As icons of European architectural modernism, Le Corbusier's designs seem incongruous, almost alien in the Indian landscape. The photographs serve as a reminder of the postcolonial implications of architecture in the global South, as well as architecture's significance as a site of postcolonial cultural contestation within India.

Fiona Hackett argues that in general, contemporary photography has been more inclined to chronicle interior spaces, conscious of these areas as theoretical sites of debate over power and performativity. Indeed, most of the exhibition's works depict exterior not interior spaces. It is Baan's Torre de David images which most strikingly repudiate this interior/exterior binary, lacking glass in the window frames, even walls at all in places. They represent an ironic perversion of Le Corbusier's belief in the necessity of glass and light for the modern age, reflected in his proclamation, 'I can state that glass will be a characteristic feature of building in the new machine age because it is the most direct means by which we can find one of the essential conditions for life: sun and light.'

The curators Elias Redstone and Alona Pardo have employed an imaginative use of space throughout, especially in the rotunda which encompasses Luigi Ghirri's stark photographs. Global in focus, the Barbican's exhibition showcases a poignant if occasionally contradictory series of reflections on the complex and shifting ties between photography, architecture and the modern world.

Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age is at the Barbican Gallery from 25 September 2014 to 11 January 2015.