Architectural Photography and why it’s much more than just an image of a building

By Franzisca Moeller

26 August 2020

Architecture is the physical trace of our presence on the planet, one that usually endures much longer than we do. Consequently, architecture has been a popular subject for photographs for centuries, which has influenced our perception of buildings and even the way architects and designers work.

In a photograph, architecture can either act as the backdrop, a silent witness, or the protagonist. Most commonly, architectural photography is thought to portray buildings as the latter, often not featuring any trace of human presence. However, it does not only document the built environment but has the power to reveal something about who we are, the world we are constructing, and the future we are constantly shaping. The understanding that architectural photography has the ability to communicate wider truths about society stands in direct opposition to the conventional assumption that it is merely supposed to show a building in its best light, soberly and objectively, and portray it as accurately as possible.

In fact, ‘Constructing Worlds’ was the title of an exhibition on architectural photography that I visited at the Barbican when I studied in London for a semester in 2014. The exhibition, featuring a number of exceptional photographers who concentrate on the lived experience and symbolic value of our 21 century's built environment, has hugely influenced me and sparked my interest in architecture and photography.

Even though I absolutely loved the entire exhibition, perhaps the two photographers that stood out most to me were Luisa Lambri and Julius Shulman. Just like architecture, photography is an art form and thus highly subjective. Different photographers assign importance to different aspects of a building; while some seem to detach themselves and focus on portraying acclaimed facades from the best angle to produce images that will be admired by a broad audience, others look more closely to capture a building's spirit and elevate the lived reality above the architect’s intentions or society's expectations.

Luisa Lambri’s photography emerges from a curiosity about how people inhabit modern buildings, as well as from the desire to underline the female gaze on a world mainly built by men. Her photos can often be read as self-portraits, focusing on her individual perception of movement through a space. Confidently and almost a bit defiantly, she weaves her own narrative into her portraits of famous buildings made by iconic male architects, as if she refuses to grant the building (or its creator) any superiority. If one wanted, one could even interpret socio-critical aspects in her photos. Her rejection of celebrated and remarkable exteriors of buildings in favour of presenting unfamiliar and often overlooked aspects of their interiors leads to an unconventional reading of space. Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Californian Hollyhock House, for example, is narrowed down to a single surface - a wall painted in glistening gold, maybe because this is what she thought to be the most beautiful part of the house.

In a wider sense, her style reminds me of our approach to building engineering; focusing on what is often unseen, and making sure architecture serves its inhabitants rather than the other way around. 

Image credits: Luisa LambriLuisa Lambri, Untitled (Hollyhock House, #01)2007

Unlike Luisa Lambri’s subtle photographs that are barely identifiable as icons of the built environment, Julius Shulman, who was a photographer and advocate of Southern-Californian Modernism, is famous for his zeitgeist-defining captures of modern Los Angeles architecture. Some of his most iconic images show the ‘Case Study Houses’, a series of low-cost, modernist housing models that embodied a new post-war American lifestyle. Over its intermittent 21-year existence, the Case Study House program commissioned eminent architects such as Charles and Ray Eames to design and build inexpensive and efficient model homes. 36 prototypes were designed and 24 were realised, of which Julius Shulman captured most.

Although quite different in approaching it, Julius Shulman attached great importance to the human aspect in his photography as well. Carefully placing characters that represented the 'ideal' of the current time – smiling housewives, elegant dinner party guests - in his images, he humanised the buildings’ sharp edges and contributed to demystifying the sleek, relentlessly minimalistic architecture that was so far ahead of its time. His most influential photo was the one he took of Case Study House No. 22, the ‘Stahl House’.

From the moment I first saw this image, this has become my most cherished building. Taken just as the sun was setting, two glamorous women in cocktail dresses are captured in a glass corner of the house that effortlessly floats above the lights of the city. Inside and outside, day and night are blurring in this picture; there is almost something transcendental about it. The inhabitants seem close enough to touch, and yet they are shielded by a clear but meaningful border. The photo seems to suggest: Whoever dwells on the other side of the glass is living the dream. It could be you!

Image Credits: Julius Shulman

Julius Shulman, Case Study House #22, 1960

“It is ironic that the Case Study houses, intended to provide inexpensive, replicable prototypes, were ultimately never reproduced, while the accompanying photographs have become some of the most replicated architectural imagery of the 20th century.” - Architects’ Journal

It is through these photographs that the architects involved have received great recognition, even though some of their projects were never replicated due to excessive costs for the amount of glass that was foreseen, or the insufficient privacy caused by the lack of doors and a facade transparent in large parts. The immense popularity of Shulman’s images demonstrates the power of architectural photography and reveals that people had indeed been surprisingly receptive to these futuristic housing models; probably because Shulman managed to capture the essence of an era and infuse the Californian dream into his imagery.

When I had the chance to visit the iconic house in 2017, I felt tempted to imitate Julius Shulman’s praised monochorome photograph at first, especially since I arrived at the same time of the day his famous capture was taken. Instead, I decided to take in the atmosphere and see the space through my own eyes. The water’s pristine, light blue colour in the rectangular pool caught my eye and I ended up asking a fellow visitor to capture my silhouette against the backdrop of this minimalist beauty.

Having been reduced to an unobtrusive shape in front of a vibrant splash of colour, I enjoyed my role as the silent witness of an architectural masterpiece.

Visiting the Stahl House in Los Angeles, 2017


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