Photographic Architecture in the Twentieth Century by Claire Zimmerman
Photographic Architecture in the Twentieth Century by Claire Zimmerman
Accounts of modern architecture's intermediality—or the way in which buildings are represented—could constitute a veritable romance novel replete with a series of turbulent highs and lows. Kissing flirtations, fetishes, paranoid surveillance and publicity stunts are but a few of these tales. Previous narratives have often been perfumed with an air of new historicism (an “eau de Foucault”) in their descriptions of how various media have informed, reformed and deformed the making and interpretation of modern architecture. Yet despite its elaborate history of intermedial intermingling, architecture is a figure that remains unsettled: accounts of this relationship have consistently revolved around the impasse between architecture and its mediatic other, known otherwise as the lacuna between sense and signification.
The most recent chronicle in this saga, Photographic Architecture In The Twentieth Century (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), builds upon the legacy of architecture’s intermedial liaisons, offering an episodic account of disciplinary co-dependency. The book’s framework aims to re-present the canonical objects of modern architecture anew, as commodities supported by an inconspicuous mediatic web, thus unveiling photography’s seemingly innocuous presence in architectural history. Yet this relationship is presented in Claire’s Zimmerman’s book as a rigmarole of needs and services, reinforcing the age-old presupposition that, like mismatched lovers, architecture—an elusive and complex spatial construct—has never been fully compatible with its two-dimensional compeer.
Organized in nine chapters across three sections, common themes such as translation, documentation and circulation are connected to architecture’s material and technological histories. The book begins with a broad smattering of case studies that examine the tension between representation and tectonics. Zimmerman assembles a number of German examples, from early twentieth century studies in architectural “image surfaces” (Bildarchitektur) to the photography-reliant reconstruction efforts of Mies van der Rohe’s 1930 Tugendhat House, to discuss the distinct formal vocabularies between the two disciplines. Common concepts such as surface, construction, depth and abstraction are shown to denote wildly different meanings for both fields when examined through technological changes in the building and imaging industries.
The book then turns to explore the impact of photographic codes and formats on the dissemination and alteration of architectural ideas, prior to and following WW1. A dutiful overview of the professional conventions of architectural photography in Germany forms a backdrop to case studies that appraise the utility of publications and exhibitions respectively. We are asked to consider how publicity materials, like those used to advertise Walter Gropius’s 1926 Bauhaus building in Dessau, functioned to brand and circulate commercial architectural practice and how exhibitions used photography to inform and broadcast the ideological and aesthetic campaign of modern architecture within and beyond the German context.
The final section of the book focuses more explicitly on architectural photography’s alteration of architectural aesthetics. Postwar Britain becomes the locus for another set of well-known projects. Alison and Peter Smithson’s 1954 Hunstanton School offers an example of how architecture consciously assimilated the “superficial” and rhetorical function of photography to become a representational cipher for a range of political and economic debates. Likewise, in a meditation on James Stirling’s output, we witness architecture simultaneously internalize and recycle its own propagandistic narratives and iconicity to produce the methods of historical quotation characteristic of postmodern design.
Despite this effort to equalize the narrative, the picture that emerges throughout the book is of an arranged marriage between two disciplines: photography is frequently positioned at the service of architecture as a device for its documentation, interpretation and dissemination, with little reciprocal reward. This is perhaps due to the lopsidedness in Zimmerman’s account of the parallel history between two disciplines. Astute insights pertaining to architectural history and technology are intermittently interrupted by descriptions of photography’s professional history and techniques that are less refined. There are, for example, frequent reminders of the photograph’s veracity—that, indeed, “photographs conceal as much as they reveal,” echoing debates that dominated photographic discourse in the late seventies. Pithy summations of photographic theory, such as the section on photographic abstraction, are comparatively underdeveloped.
Still, one feels compelled to overlook these moments when the book seduces with its patent command of early twentieth century German architectural history. The first chapter contains some of the book’s most compelling observations, when Zimmerman draws upon her expertise to recuperate an array of marginalized examples, and in the brief yet precise reflections on photography’s relationship to architecture’s technological history populated throughout. Flashes of frisson are kindled when the book’s tendency to lean towards a narrative of methodical opposition is complicated and actually undone by the author’s extensive research, as it, at times, points to sympathetic technical and philosophical interests.
These episodes beg us to ask why this relationship has been presented so tidily as a clashing union, so unnecessarily bound to past traumas of disciplinary-specific insecurity, and why the book frequently feels obliged to recapitulate this story. Like most accounts, Photographic Architecture presents a version of photography that is an accomplice for architecture’s preoccupations, an apparatus whose presence is so available that architecture cannot help but absorb and take advantage of its many competent qualities, despite its objections. But, perhaps, other possible narratives might emerge.
Glimpses of a new approach--that contributes insights to not only architectural history but also the realm of media studies— populate the text. Take, for instance, Zimmerman’s discussion on architectural surface, which suggests that pivotal episodes in building history—such as the point at which exterior cladding became liberated from structure--enabled architecture to adopt a proto-photographic outlook and perform in increasingly representational modes. When the author sidesteps staid comparisons of form, rigid oppositions between architecture and two-dimensional media are subtly recalibrated. Instead, we are rightly challenged to probe why shared epistemological concerns between the two disciplines may have arisen at particular historical junctures.
Though Zimmerman seems beleaguered by defending the relevancy of a historical project like this today, the material offers its own riposte when it loosens its grip on positioning architecture and photography as stratified modes of production bound by differences in form. Like any dalliance, the book’s focus on the ambiguous grey zone of the body/eye conundrum offers the most original contributions to an ongoing conversation about architecture’s expanded field. Moments such as the identification of the photographic archive as a site of omission, rather than information—and its power over our understanding of architecture—call for new modes of methodological prowess. In these instances, a new form of historical investigation begins to take shape, one that is neither instrumentalized nor instrumentalizing, imbuing the historical project with significant theoretical stakes and possibilities.