Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Rise of Amateur Architectural Photography

“10% of all photos ever taken were shot in 2011.”
Fortune, September 24, 2012, page 166

The contemporary amateur photographer may represent one of the greatest shifts in our understanding of Architecture through photography since the work of Julius Shulman. Their innate ability to capture the built environment in a particular, personal,way has shaped the popular understanding of architecture. The accessibility of photographic equipment and easy of image distribution have turned amateur photography into social act, compared to the artistic and commercial considerations of the prevailing canon of Modern professional photography. With the infinitely vast majority of photographs being taken and shared by amateurs, it is through this social aspect, combined with the undisciplined nature of the images themselves, that the movement exerts its influence.

The power of Modern professional photography is derived from the mastery of light, form, and composition. Diverging from its origins of simply mimicking architectural drawing conventions, it produces evocative representations of the built world. This carefully edited view of architecture is often more dramatic than the actual experience of being in a project. Also note, that a great deal of architecture has, until recently, solely been experience through these photographs. It is through this lens that nearly all architecture has been understood, by the discipline and the public, for the last 80 years. The implications of such a powerful tool of representation play themselves out in the popular imagination of architecture, as well as its use as a tool for design.

From Mies's use of the photo collage to the current use of digital photographic 3D space, photographic thought is a pervasive force. Contrary to professional photography, amateur photography often focuses almost exclusively on the distribution and quantity of imagery over photographic quality. This is reflected in the equipment used and the exorbitant amount of images shared online. Artifacts of inexpensive equipment, including barreling (the apparent bending of straight lines), color inaccuracies, and perspectival distortion, can be seen in most amateur images. In what amateur equipment lacks in photographic fidelity it makes up in ease of distribution. Most new cameras and camera phones can automatically upload images to social media networks as soon as they are taken. This effectively bypasses any post editorial or curatorial process. Photos are seen, as they were taken, in real time.

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The implications of this can be subversively profound. Buildings which were once represented by a
handful of professionally taken photographs are now seen in thousands of unique images. The Barcelona Pavilion, as iconically described in Colin Rowe's writing, does not exist anymore. Rather, it is a building next to another building, in front of which Jacques from Lille posses, equipped with a fanny pack, tourist map, and an iphone. In a single image, or more likely a random set of 100 images, an amateur photographer can introduce a counter polemic to over 60 years of architectural criticism which was based on images of the original project. As weak of a polemic as this may seem, multiply this by every amateur photographer taking photos of every iconic building, or unknown building for that matter. If only through sheer numbers, a new general consciousness regarding architecture is generated through Flickr photostreams, Facebook walls, tumblr blogs, and Instagram feeds.

As poorly composed, yellow tinted, images become the images of architecture, architecture starts to become something else. Context is understood anew as unintentional bits of a projects surroundings creep into the frame. Materials and textures gain new attributes as they lose definition due to poor focus and low image resolution. And so goes many architectural considerations, as a visual society accepts a new norm. With norms, come values, and subsequently judgment. Architecture and the relation to it is then changed.

History would indicate that it is only a matter of time before this has an affect on design, and eventually built work. Arguably the excessive use of the Photoshop lens-flares in corporate renderings is the beginning of this. But what might a true 'amateur photography architecture' look like? Surely something can be gleaned from the blurry edges, half cut off pedestrian, and completely flat light. If not at the simplest level of materiality and color, space could be explored in terms of depth, procession and adjacency. More reflexively, an understanding of a public could be derived from the images they produce. It would seem that artist like Anish Kapoor might already have a distinct understanding of this.

Contemporary amateur photography is not the first 'advancement' to have implications for the understanding of the built environment, and it is unclear exactly what will be the outcome of this current shift. With the ability of the public to personally frame and share the built environment, comes the possibility of a change in the relationship between that public and architecture. With the sheer volume of material to perpetuate that change, there is a distinct possibility that it will be great change. Whether due to the social, participatory, or ubiquitous nature of amateur photography, it is clear that its influence will be unavoidable.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

As Seen on TV: American Democracy

Democrat Sen. John Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential election. (AP)
In honor of this year's upcoming elections, the following is an excerpt from a piece first published on my School Blog for Archinect. Written in mid-2012, we were in the midst of election season, and televised debates were hitting ratings marks never scene before. This piece discusses the public's expectations for candidates and the show they put on for us. 

"It is through the Presidential electoral process that we can read the American ideal of democracy.  It is no secret that every last detail of every campaign is meticulously planned.  It is a system that is designed and, ironically, agreed upon.  While in reality it may have nothing to do with what democracy really is, it is exactly what might makes it all so American.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the televised debates..." 

"The first debate quenches the need for the candidates to be Presidential. The U.S.'s obsession with the Greek “looking” democracy is still very real.  The staging of this debate positions the candidates as Greek thespians in an amphitheater, waxing planned talking points like a script.  This debate simply makes the election official. 
The second debate is to make sure that the candidates are American enough.  The town hall meeting is seen as a historic staple of American democracy."
"The format and form of these shows fulfills the collective prophecy of what an American election should be."

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Brutalist Reliquary

The now demolished last of the second level pedestrian bridges that once connected all of the University of Illinois Chicago campus. (Photo by Matthew Messner) 

Walter Netsch's University of Illinois Chicago campus is everything a Brutalist project should be.  Even in its incomplete form the campus represents one of the most complete, and complex, examples of modernist field theory, rendered in concrete.  Time has not been kind to Netsch's UIC, and the campus  is being reshaped by additions, renovations, and demolition.  Like the ruins of Rome, the campus will eventually be all but completely consumed, leaving only a trace of its original grandeur.

Formerly known as the Circle Campus, named for the Circle freeway interchange just to the northwest, elevated “Pedestrian Expressways” once crisscrossed the campus tying the buildings into a field of  concrete suspended as the canopy of  Netsch's “Urban Tree” columns.  The center of the campus even  had its own interchange in the form of the Circle Forum Amphitheater.  Each major building was an ever more ambitious field theory experiment, as rotating geometries intersected into labyrinthine masses.  

Much of the campus was never finished.  The School of Architecture was only 40% constructed and the library is missing its wings.  As if to ensure that Brutalism can never strike again, new structures have been erected preventing the completion of the original design or rebuilding impossible.  The epic elevated walkways were demolish in the 90s, their material cast into Lake Michigan to produce a new reef.  This is just as well.  

In time the few remaining aspects will only hint at what once was.  Moments of confusing clarity will pop up in places where bridges go to nowhere and stairs lead into walls.  No longer will it be clear why these things happen.  Whether from an uncompleted building or a dismantled one, it will not matter.  Once the remaining artifacts achieve a level of “archaeological” abstraction we will be able to remember the campus as it should have been, if not how it actually was.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Venice Tapes: Ashley Schafer

Ashley Schafer in the Township of Domestic Parts at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale Taiwan Pavilion. (Matthew Messner/Bureau Spectacular)
As part of the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, the Taiwan Pavilion, curated by Jimenez Lai of Bureau Spectacular produced a series of short interviews of architects, designers, and others surrounding the field. Each participant was asked two questions, what is your origin story and what advice to you have for early career designers. These became the Venice Tapes, a 12 video series.