Beyond Documentation: Photography’s Role in Contemporary Architectural Production
Seamless: Digital Collage and Dirty Realism in
by Jesús Vassallo
Park Books, $39.00
Postproduction has changed the way people, and especially architects, interact with photography. As pointed out by Rice School of Architecture Professor Jesús Vassallo in his new book, “Seamless: Digital Collage and Dirty Realism in Contemporary Architecture,” this sort of manipulation has existed almost as long as the medium itself, yet these techniques have, until fairly recently, been the province of the initiated, or else the image bears a collage aesthetic revealing the hand of the manipulator. With the proliferation and ubiquity of digital tools, digital image consumption, and most importantly the production of digital images, photography no longer seems to represent an objective “reality” and is now seen increasingly through subjective and idealized lenses. Manipulation is not only the norm, but the expectation. Nearly everyone is socially obligated to become an image-maker, broadcasting for the world to like, heart, or thumbs up.
Importantly, architecture has long been taught, understood, and proliferated through the use of images. Few of us have been lucky enough to travel the globe to see the great works of architecture or experience cities like Rome, Shanghai, and London. Doubtfully anyone has been fortunate enough to see every great city or every great work of architecture; therefore, our understanding of such places relies on photography. However, with increasing realism, images are being produced that often have no basis in physical reality.
Our relationship to photography starts with the idea that it is mere “documentation,” yet photography has always contributed directly to the production of architecture. Through its dissemination, we have long known buildings through little more than images fed to us in periodicals or books, and many buildings today are designed for the “money shot” — the image that will place them at the top of blog and Insta-feeds, or as featured projects on daily consumption websites.
Architects are increasingly called upon to make images; after all, it is the image that reaches the widest audience. In exploring how the digital image impacts the profession of architecture, Vassallo runs through three case studies — pairs of architects and photographers working in collaboration — to demonstrate how the profession of photography is shaping the practices discussed, and presumably, or potentially, others across the globe. Each chapter begins with a simple title followed by a series of images, unattributed and intentionally blurring the distinction of authorship.
The first pairing is that of Filip Dujardin and De Vylder Vinck Taillieu, with emphasis on the contribution of Jan De Vylder. Ironically, I first came to know Dujardin’s work through his “Fictions” series, widely disseminated online. The images are clearly architectural collages, yet seem both familiar and exciting in their presentation, not excluding the possibility of reality. They truly exemplify the seamless quality Vassallo outlines. Gone are the traces of cut lines, and the images are blended to such perfection that, were they not so fantastic, they could be mistaken for actual buildings.
De Vylder’s architecture embraces the everyday, the discarded apparatus of temporary construction. As the pair has collaborated and the architects respond to the cataloging of their work through Dujardin’s eyes, their projects have become increasingly collage-like, with collisions between structural systems and infrastructural frameworks emphasized. Some of the recent work, especially the Twiggy Shop in Belgium, looks as if it were designed for the camera. Similarly, the photographer has been pushing his own work to be more architectural — exhibits and temporary constructions made from everyday materials like masonry, and installed in a similar fashion to emphasize the collision between material systems.
In an age of rapidly proliferating imagery, this dialogue — confined somewhere between specific architecture and its representation in a photograph — makes one wonder where inspiration originates. Curiously, as the collaboration intensifies, there is a blurring of who is the true author of these works, and yet, what shines through is the strong vitality of the authors themselves. The work depends on the specificities of their past interactions, their locality, and their responses to one another.
The second pairing is that of Philipp Schaerer and Roger Boltshauser. Schaerer was a former student of Boltshauser’s and worked in the office of Herzog & de Mueron before starting his own company producing representations. The two were matched for an exhibit on Boltshauser, and their collaboration bears the weight of his esteem. Schaerer works with a digital collage technique that I would argue deviates from the definition of photography. He works with textures, 3-D modeling, and layering to produce images that respond to, most notably, the documentary tradition in photography. His anonymous constructions in the “Bildbauten” series have a neutrality of composition and framing that is similar to that of the Bechers, yet his are digitally constructed objects, without the burdens or richness of a typological framing. The constructions are a formal composition of texture and color, always solely in elevation, and not “designed” objects. He hovers around an industrial vernacular while not utilizing any particular or familiar form.
Boltshauser leverages this collage technique in the exhibit as a manner of displaying his architecture through a new lens. Projects completed over the life of his firm are recomposed as flat two-dimensional elevations overlain on their existing site. The subject is not photographed, only the context. The conflation of the perspective techniques brings an increased attention to the materials, and presents the building as a discrete object. However, Boltshauser sees this as yet another interpretation of the architecture and not necessarily part of the creative process. This is somewhat reversed when he asks Schaerer to collaborate on a competition in which Schaerer produces textural images of what the walls might look like, but Schaerer seems always to be producing for Boltshauser in a manner that essentially fulfills the latter’s requests. While there is surely dialogue, the architecture seems to be wholly Boltshauser’s conception.
The third and final section of “Seamless” covers Bas Princen and OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen, who are likely the most familiar subjects to many readers. This group has worked and grown together, first with architectural proposals, then increasingly in their respective roles. Their collaboration, like the first pairing, is highly reciprocal. Princen often participates in design discussions throughout the life of a project and is the sole photographer of the firm’s work. Princen himself studied urban environments and is interested in the identification and appropriation of discarded spaces. OFFICE, in its work, often utilizes walls and framing to define a precinct, and take ownership of an empty space. Their collaboration is strikingly illustrated in the “Garden Pavilion,” another found and appropriated space. Here, photos of the spaces are displayed alongside or within the architectural intervention. The interpretation is immediate and reflective. Princen focuses on the moment, a singular idea within each composition. There is never a comprehensive descriptive photo; the work of OFFICE is seen in compelling fragments.
It is significant that all of the image-makers noted here were also trained as architects or architectural historians. Clearly, they share an interest in the built environment and the production of images. These collaborations are of an inherently different nature than those of Jeff Wall with Herzog & de Meuron, or the Bechers with anonymous industrial architectures. The production of these pairs is highly embedded in their personal and intertwined histories. While the processes outlined by Vassallo aren’t necessarily available to all working architects, the pairings outline interesting potentials for collaboration and highlight the increasingly elusive role of image in architecture, raising questions that impact traditional roles of representation and the comprehension of architecture.
Jesse Hager, AIA, is a principal of CONTENT Architecture and an adjunct professor at the University of Houston.