The primary value of architecture lies in the experience of the built environment.
As an architect, however, it is difficult to personally experience numerous interesting buildings as we are limited by geography and access. While one can experience many intriguing architectural and urban environments, much of what is produced in contemporary architecture will only be accessible through ‘mediums’ (print, digital, video etc.) We have, however, unprecedented access to content through these mediums, most of which is curated and controlled.
We live in a culture of excessive visual consumption and shrinking attention spans, and these patterns of content consumption have changed drastically in a very small time. It is thus important to analyze these mediums, and when we deal with mediums we have to understand two critical roles on either side of the content chain: the creator, and the consumer.
The architect makes buildings but he may not be the creator/presenter of his buildings in many cases. We know the works of many architects from the eyes of photographers and through the words of historians and critics. This introduces a third person in the conversation, and the vantage point of this individual homogenizes the perspective.
However, this means that most of the buildings we celebrate are only known to us through the eyes of a very few photographers. All iconic images – from the photographs of Julius Schulman to those of Iwan Baan – present the work of architects from their individual positions and lenses. This can be problematic as these perspectives are highly controlled, curated and edited. This pattern of consumption of content has affected the way we produce content and sadly, the way we produce architecture – it’s a negative feedback loop.
In my view, what we are experiencing now is not photo-shopping the image of architecture, but producing architecture as a photo-shopped image.
This is perhaps why we are no longer interested in discussions on a human scale – on the ambience of the space, on the organization of place and on the thinking and drawing of architecture – as our engagement with content is momentary. In that moment, if the image seduces us, we might want to know more and maybe engage with the work; this has reduced many talented architects to creators/producers of that seductive object that hooks our attention and invites us to explore more, but in the process of production of this image, the value of content in architecture is lost.
The fallacy does not lie with the medium – the photograph does not lie; the photographer does, and so does the architect. The curator/presenter of the content controls the way in which it is to be presented and in the process, creates the fallacies.
I like to believe that the appeal of architecture that is designed for the seductive image is limited and wanes over time. While all architecture has an ocular bias, the buildings that resist image-making by prioritizing the experience of the built space contribute to a longer and deeper conversation about architecture. This is perhaps why architects like Alvaro Siza, Rafael Moneo, Herzon & De Muron and Alejandro Aravena have been more successful in the long run, and architects like Patrik Schumacher, Eric Oven Moss and Daniel Libeskind find most of their work to have a momentary shock value but fail to engage the attention of other architects, critics and the public for a sustained duration. Ideas take time to develop and one can run out of images.
At Matter., we have not previously commissioned a photographer to document our work. I like the photographs that I, or people from my office, take for the documentation. This helps us see the building from multiple eyes – and while most of the photos are banal, once in a while you receive an image that is beautifully composed and captures the ‘atmosphere’ of the moment. Because we have experienced the building ourselves we know this moment, and we archive that photograph. I think it is important to see our work from the eyes of a photographer, when the time is right. This is perhaps why some photographers make very few moves and their images seem to be true. There is no exaggeration of light and no manipulation of colour. I like such images.
Such images may perhaps become timeless. One can see this quality in Iwan Baan’s documentation of Brasilia and in Helene Binet’s photos of Bijoy Jain’s Palmyra House. The photos of Ram Rehman, Dashrath Patel, Clair Arni and Joginder Singh have that quality. Recently, I saw some early images of Charles Correa’s work by Bharath Ramamrutham. I have been to these buildings, and there is no sense of anti-climax – that is the consequence of an honest image.
An honest photograph captures the essential quality of a building and the environment it encloses. Thus, when one actually encounters the architecture presented in the photograph, the experience is enhanced and the reading of the work is much greater than the sum of its photogenic parts. This invariably happens in the works of many good architects.
While a photograph (or a photo-manipulation) may convey a wrong – and sometimes, dishonest – aspect of a building, it does not survive beyond a momentary glance in the magazine or on the website. It does not become timeless. Timeless photographs record timeless events. The medium cannot replace the subject.
As architects, we are used to talking in images. We discuss architecture in images – abstractions like drawings help us understand the building, and photographs help us appreciate the quality of space and environment the architecture generates. We cannot disregard the value that architectural image-making adds to the discussion on architecture. In the same narrative, we cannot discard the critical significance of drawings as a tool to communicate architectural intent. Although we have been conditioned to consume architectural content in fleeting images, I think in the longer run the integrity of the work stands for itself, irrespective of the way it is plated. This is perhaps why the works of Geoffrey Bawa have endured in architectural discourse despite very few images that introduce us to his work.
After all, the primary value in architecture lies in the experience of the built environment.
Ruturaj Parikh is Architect & Partner at Matter. an architecture, design and content firm he established with Maanasi Hattangadi. He is the former Director of the Charles Correa Foundation. He has worked with I.N.T.A.C.H and was an editor at IA&B Magazine in Mumbai. He has been involved in architecture, urban design, planning, curatorial and social projects. He regularly writes about contemporary works and ideas on architecture relevant to India and its subcontinent. He initiated and curated the Z-Axis Conference, The Merit List, Practices of Consequence and multiple architectural initiatives in the public domain. Ruturaj designs and writes from Goa.