I am really pleased to have been shortlisted for the Arcaid Images Architectural Photography Awards 2016. One of the images that I made at the Serpentine Pavilion by Selgascano has been included in the Interiors category.
Sometimes it is good to try something different. This post focuses on the Serpentine Pavilion from 2015 by Selgascano where I got to try out some ideas and approaches to architectural photography that I hoped would show the key aspects of the project from a different perspective.
I liked this Serpentine Pavilion, I thought it was in the spirit of the project (it is after all a temporary structure). It was playful, experimental, immersive & joyful; it was also full of colour. It is so nice to see some colour in architecture (all too rare in London) and some materials that reacted to the sun and brought the sunlight inside – making it a part of the building. The heat came in too, wow it was hot in there, but from what I saw people really interacted with and enjoyed the building. Kids absolutely loved it, literally jumping for joy when they went in and it is rare for architecture to cause this reaction. It was a reaction caused largely by the use of colour and light.
The architect described the pavilion as follows – “We sought a way to allow the public to experience architecture through simple elements: structure, light, transparency, shadows, lightness, form, sensitivity, change, surprise, colour and materials. We have therefore designed a Pavilion which incorporates all of these elements.”
Sunlight passing through coloured dichroic film is projected onto the white floor – the movements of the sun are tracked across the pavilion floor during day creating layers of shadows, colour, material and light – an immersive experience.
Large areas of the pavilion’s skin were made out of coloured dichroic film. As well as allowing coloured light to come in this material could be looked through, creating coloured views of the interior space.
Selgascano work using simple everyday materials (as found) often in an experimental fashion, here a combination of dichroic film, coloured ribbons and ETFE are stretched across a steel structure to create a series of interconnected organic ‘pods’.
In experiential terms the architects explain“The spatial qualities of the Pavilion only unfold when accessing the structure and being immersed within it.” So the next step was to take a similar approach to the photographs as well. By trying to be playful, experimental, immersive and joyful, I have also tried to create the feeling of “being immersed within” the pavilion.
As well as using views directly through the pavilion’s various skins I also made a series of views through filters that I constructed out of the same dichroic film that was used to cover the structure. By using a combination of filtration and reflection in front of the camera I was able to play with the ideas of layering and immersion within the photographic process.
As the Serpentine says: The architects’ inspiration not only came from the site itself, but from the ways in which people move through London, notably the Underground with its many-layered, chaotic yet structured flow. By using reflections and views through materials I played with these ideas of layering and flow. There is also a short video that plays with this idea further.
I wanted to respond directly to the project in a way that I felt was in keeping with its spirit. The images may or may not be judged ‘successful’ in terms of illustrating the concept, but the point was to be experimental and not be so concerned with the outcome. Afterall, what other project is going to allow me to do this?
We are probably all familiar with the term ‘stygian gloom’ to describe a certain type of darkness. Thick and all consuming, only traces and outlines are visible within. Stygian is of or relating to the river Styx (In Greek mythology, Styx is a deity and a river that forms the boundary between Earth and the Underworld or Hades).
C16: from Latin Stygius, from Greek Stugios, from Stux Styx ; related to stugein to hate.
All too often photographs of architecture intend to make you say ‘wow! look at that’. They grab your attention, attempting to pull you away from the flow of imagery to which we are now exposed and into a website or magazine article. ‘Wow’, we say – then move on to the next one, ‘wow! look at that’ – next, ‘wow! look at that’ – next, and so on. But what if there is no ‘wow’ factor? what are we left with.
Well, ‘look at that’ to be literal about it. The difference being that rather than demanding your attention a picture can simply offer itself up to be looked at, perhaps more slowly, perhaps for longer.
Sometimes a project has no drama. This doesn’t mean that the project is no good or lacking in some way, rather it is quieter, with a quality of stillness. Perhaps it has more to do with architecture as background condition, a space to be lived in rather than shown off, to be experienced and not just seen.
I have recently been fortunate enough to photograph two projects for Robin Lee Architecture – 71 Queensway and the Old Paint Factory – and it struck me that this was just such work. In each case a former industrial building has been refurbished as living space, in each case the starting point was a fairly ordinary structure and the end result is unspectacular. Again, I do not mean this in a negative way, how many of us live in a ‘spectacular’ house, or indeed want to. Spectacular view or location maybe, but house? Give me quiet simplicity any day.
Whilst some of the materials used may be luxurious, they blend in with the whole. Where original features are left exposed, even raw in places, they speak of what remains of the original rather than leaping out as a feature of urban chic. This is simply the way it is, this is the way the place is made. Colours are muted and subtle, elements provide function rather than feature and the overall effect is one of calm which provides a welcome contrast to the city outside the doors.
As Mary Duggan writes in an article about 71 Queensway in AJ ‘This project is about creating a specific atmosphere rather than a specific appearance’.
I think I am drawn to these projects because it fits with the way in which I like to photograph architecture (and places in general). Where possible I aim to just show what is there and try not to create drama within the pictures. Quiet pictures for quiet architecture.
Many factors contribute to the experience of architecture, all senses are active. A photograph, on the other hand, will only ever be a visual representation, an appearance. But a photograph can suggest as well as show. Composition and activity within the image can provide clues as to what it might sound like within a space. Light conditions can be used to create a specific atmosphere. Focus on materials and the way that they respond to light will offer information as to the texture and feel of the surfaces, what temperature they might be if you touched them, whether they are hard of soft. This in turn will provide further information about what the space sounds like and so on.
In the end the pictures are not so different. But there can be a subtle shift in focus away from the surface of the photograph towards the quality of the space depicted. A shift away from a purely visual response toward a more imaginative one. Wow factor can grab your attention, but can it show you what a place is like? Can you see beyond the photograph?
When is the best time to take a photograph? In what light should the building be seen? Should it be seen in its ‘best light’? If so, what is this light and more pertinently, what is it best for? Best for showing off the building, or for showing off the photograph, or for showing something else?
The first image in the set below shows The Turner Contemporary Margate on a sunny day, blue sky sunlight coming from the ‘right’ direction would be a typical approach to photographing a building. But what if the weather is not like that in Margate, should the building still be photographed? Sunlight and blue sky show us one thing, one condition, other conditions will reveal other things.
What should a photograph show? What aspect of the building will it explain and how will the light help to explain it? In the below photograph we can see how the sunlight is ‘bringing out’ the colour of the cast concrete facade. But then overcast conditions will ‘bring out’ another shade, rain will soak the concrete and the appearance of the building will shift again.
Grey concrete can appear blue, golden, pink or aubergine in endless variation. This can happen minute by minute changes as the below image sequence shows. So which one do we show? Which is best? Or do we need all of them to make the point that far from being harsh, dull, grey or blank a concrete building can actually respond with subtlety and a whole range of colours and effects to the ambient light conditions. What colour is this building actually?
Taking this further means looking for longer; hours not minutes. How will a building’s appearance change over the course of a day? What is the day to night transition and what can this tell us about the materials, the location, the building’s function?
Of course some things only become visible at night.
Assuming that the project is there all year round would it be of interest to photograph it all year round as well? Even the simple act of uplighting a tree will illustrate seasonal variation. Expand this across a whole area of landscaping and the effect will be fundamental to the feel of the space. Added to this is how the use of the space will change across the seasons, how many people will be using the space, how long will they stay there. The very function of a space may change depending upon the time of year.
As they will tell you in the Lake District, there is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing. So similarly when it comes to photography, there is no such thing as bad light, just inappropriate looking. Nichi nichi kore konichi (Every day is a good day) or, all days are equal. All light conditions are equal, equal in that they are there to be seen, equal in that they can show us something, so it is not a question of how something should be seen, but of how we are looking.
There is a point on a clear evening with a crisp blue sky when everything seems to be in harmony. Calm and serene yet vibrant at the same time, an electric atmosphere hangs in the air for a short period, a merging of darkness and light. The lighting on the buildings is seen in balance against the remaining blue light of the sky and the city seems especially alive. This is why I enjoy dusk; photographing lighting projects is why I spend a lot of time waiting for it!
If I google ‘dusk’ it says 6:57 PM Friday, October 7, 2016 (BST), Dusk in London, UK. All very precise, according to this dusk will be happening 33 minutes after sunset. Wikipedia then tells me that Dusk is actually short for ‘Astronomical Dusk’, or the darkest part of twilight before night begins. This is part of a whole sequence of events that lead from day into night – sunset, civil twilight, civil dusk, nautical twilight, nautical dusk, astronomical twilight and then astronomical dusk all occur before ‘nightfall’. Time measured against the course of the sun.
Minute changes in light level, angle of sun and colour of sky are what we will see as this process unfolds, this is one of the times where we can most vividly experience the minute by minute changes occurring around us. Flux in action – visible.
The following images (Lower Regent Street, lighting by Studio-29) illustrate an exercise in recording and viewing these changes. When seen together they allow us to observe the balance shifting within the scene; the sky darkens and the emphasis drops onto illuminated windows, traffic on the street and building facade lighting. As one aspect of the city dissolves another appears.
My rule of thumb for project photography is sunset +20 minutes, this is usually the time I can start taking the photographs. Pre-planning will allow me to have mentally ‘set up’ a number of images and then it is a race against time to try to get them all done during dusk.
All of this will depend upon the project, the local environment, the level of artificial light, the amount of sky that is visible in the image, the weather, cloud cover and what is happening at the location. So there are many factors that will help me to decide when I am going to take the photographs but ultimately it just feels right at the time.