Do we ever really look at the buildings around us? Maybe in the big cities, and particularly in London where you’re tripping over heritage sites every few meters but what about all those other buildings which architects have designed as office spaces, suburban homes or even farmsteads? Time, planning and considerable amounts of money have gone into them, they may not be obviously pretty but for the vast majority of buildings architecture has a functional purpose which this new exhibition at the Barbican explores. Photographs of buildings may not sound that riveting but this is an insightful and nicely curated exploration of developments since the 1930s using examples from around the world.
One thing that very clearly emerges from this exhibition is the idea of architectural intent and how often this differs from the ultimate purpose of the building they designed. There are two very good examples of this, first in the pictures of Guy Tillim showing the decaying remnants of buildings in Africa which is now used as accommodation. These places, built in a spirit of optimism have fallen into near ruin, and though once clearly beautiful are now crumbling, covered in weeds and the washing of their new inhabitants. Similarly the photos of Iwan Baan in Venezuela show a building that was never completed and eventually became the home of a huge number of poor families squatting in the empty structure. This place built as a monument to modernity and progress had become a regular part of the slum conditions of the area. The purpose and enthusiasm for which things are created can often be radically altered once their original use fades or is overridden.
Another interesting aspect of this exhibition is the contrast between rural and urban building concepts. Perhaps the most obvious historic example of the very epitome of architectural progress is the 1930s construction of New York and the work of Berenice Abbott is a fascinating exposition of this process. We see that contrast of old and new, as skyscrapers or modernist homes go up next to old brownstones, and there’s some fascinating shots of rubble sites or old streets with shiny new buildings in the background behind them. A great contrast to this in the next section is the contemporaneous Walker Evans pictures of life in rural Louisiana – farmhouses and shacks as well as the people living in them. They show a life of hard work, poverty and tough conditions that seem grindingly permanent and so far removed from the hope and progress in the photos of New York.
Two of the most intriguing aspects of this show are in the upper gallery – Ed Ruscha’s aerial images of American car parks and a wall of German water towers by Bernd and Hilla Becher. That sounds pretty dull I know but I haven’t gone entirely mad; the semi-empty car parks actually make for some interesting patterns, both in how they’re arranged around important sites like sports stadia and in the interlocking arrangement of lines and boxes. Similarly the water towers which are displayed together in a unit show the enormous regional diversity in architectural styles and preferences, from art deco influenced minimalist shapes to fairy-tale like castle turrets. Probably more than any part of the exhibition these two photographers exemplify that notion of hidden architecture, the stuff we pass every day without a moment’s thought.
Of course this exhibition is about more than the buildings it’s also about the photography and there are some beautifully captured images including Simon Norfolk’s studies of regeneration in Afghanistan where elaborate cartoon-like structures are appearing. One of a garden looks almost like a painting where the approach with which the individual leaves have been shot looking not dissimilar to the way Constable might have painted them. There’s Julius Shulman’s magazine-shoot of California hill-side homes that are exactly as Hockney depicted them, but the most stunning are saved for the end; Nadav Kandar’s large scale shots of riverside China are beautiful and show local people engaged in traditional pursuits that could come from any era, like fishing, bathing or picking, whilst hazily captured enormous bridges and buildings are being built in the background. The somewhat timeless quality of the people makes an interesting juxtaposition with the modernity appearing around them, and takes you right back to those Berenice Abbott pictures of New York in the first room.
There are a couple of things that don’t work that well; it’s clear how architectural taste and styles develop but we don’t see so much on how the photography of it has changed, and given this is specifically meant to be an exhibition of architectural photography it would be interesting to understand more about the things these artists look for in a subject. This is especially true in the formal partnerships of particular photographers and architects – what is it that the one continuously finds inspiring about the other. There is also a greater focus on American than anywhere else and it seems a shame given the Barbican location not to use this as inspiration to showcase more UK work. There are 18 artists on show and London has had its fair share of controversial buildings that have been repurposed, the Millennium Dome for one, so it may have been interesting to give just one room a local flavour. Nonetheless Constructing Worlds is a fascinating journey across the 20th and 21st centuries, from car-parks to skyscrapers, showing just how broad architectural work is and how the plans and hopes for new buildings often become something quite different in practice.
Constructing Worlds: Photography & Architecture in the Modern Age is at the Barbican until 11 January 2015. Tickets cost £12 with good concessions available.