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.
I was recently commissioned to photograph a number of projects for Pascall+Watson, including the Sat 1 Fit Out scheme at Stansted Airport.
The location of a building is one of the factors that will have the greatest impact upon its design. The existing conditions, local history, culture and climate will all impact by providing cues and boundaries in the design process thereby playing a large part in decisions on orientation, scale, form and materials. Once complete the building then has an impact of its own upon the surroundings as part of an ongoing relationship. Is it complimentary or intrusive, sympathetic with or in contrast to its neighbours, has it improved the situation?
How photographs can show this relationship is something I have been thinking about recently and I have a dedicated section on my website to showing buildings in context. Within these images several key themes emerge which can be considered when photographing architecture.
1 – Activity
The Jerwood Gallery Hastings is a lovely building for many reasons, but I think a major factor is how sympathetic it is with its surroundings. Its location is an area called ‘The Stade’ which is a launch/landing area for fishing boats, simple huts and ‘Net Shops’ (tall black wooden sheds) are the local vernacular and illustrate how to make best use of limited space. In terms of ‘use’ this is a building that is out of place, an art gallery amongst fishing huts (congratulations to HAT Projects for taking this on let alone succeeding!) So the fact that the building sits quietly amongst its humble neighbours shows sensitivity to activity – fishing – an activity that has been taking place on the site for hundreds of years. The new building honours and respects this through its scale, form and materials (the black ceramic tiles are especially good) and the best ‘views’ are those looking out from the galleries towards the surroundings, not those looking back towards the building.
2 – Viewpoint (taking a step back)
Swindon Triangle is described by architects Glenn Howells as ‘a contemporary and sustainable re-interpretation of Swindon’s 19th century railway town vernacular’. There is a wonderful ordinariness to it, simple well designed housing for people to live in. The site is set up to encourage a sense of community amongst the residents, but it is the views from outside that show the integration with the existing houses in terms of scale, roof form and particularly colour. Ordinary housing requires ordinary everyday viewpoints. At first glance these might suggest that the project is not shown clearly, but actually they can clearly show a fundamental design element.
3 – Proportion (less is more)
How much (or how little) of a building needs to be in the photograph? In the case of ‘Signal Box’ in Basel by Herzog & de Meuron I had a go at ‘how little’. By focusing on the surroundings as much as/more than the building itself it is possible to illustrate what the building is for (operating train signals), why the building looks like it does (functional/industrial location), form and material choices (taking cues from the railway lines) and scale (elevated viewpoint across lines). Another signal box (no.4) is also visible in the distance showing that this is not a stand alone building, but one of two or one of many. Indeed the architect explains that ‘now completed, Signal Box 4 has been so well optimized that it has become a prototype that can be erected, like a standardized structure, in all the urban regions of Switzerland. The use of such a similar structure throughout Switzerland would dovetail with a vision of the country as one single urban landscape.’ So showing less of the building can indeed show more (about it).
4 – Light
How can light show context? I often consider light, or the question ‘what is appropriate light’ for photographing a project (which is another post in itself) and the following images make this point very simply. They include one project that compliments its surroundings and one that stands out by contrast.
Hepworth Wakefield by David Chipperfield Architects is located in an industrial waterfront area and references surrounding warehouse style concrete buildings. Flat uniform light shows subject and surroundings in the same light and helps to show both together rather than separately. I deliberately chose to visit on an overcast day both to illustrate this point and the fact that being in Wakefield in the North of England this weather would be a more typical example of place.
Central St Giles in London by Renzo Piano Building Workshop on the other hand stands out from its surroundings by using a vibrant series of colours on the facades, not very London I’m sure you will agree! Although the architect’s website states that this ‘fits well with its urban context’ by responding to its surroundings it seems to me to ‘contrast well with its urban context’, a point that was emphasised by dramatic sunlight in the above image. By waiting for just the right moment when sunlight was falling on the orange facade and not on the foreground or adjacent buildings it was possible to show how much of a shock (be it good or bad) the use of colour in central London architecture can bring.
A building does not exist without its surroundings, so can a set of project photographs be a fair representation without showing them? My aim is to respond to the external factors that impact upon the building so rather than look outstanding they can appear in context.
caliginous – misty; dark; dim
(C16: from Latin cālīginōsus, from cālīgō darkness) An archaic term which conjures up all sorts of dark imagery, ‘a caliginous atmosphere hung over the graveyard’, a sense of foreboding – probably best to leave…..
nocturne – a gentle piece of classical music/a piece of music especially for the piano that has a soft and somewhat sad melody/a work of art dealing with evening or night.
The term ‘Nocturne’ was made famous by the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The aim of his Nocturnes is to convey a sense of the beauty and tranquility of the Thames by night. These pictures, specifically of the Thames at Battersea are “evocative of the night or subjects as they appear in a veil of light, in twilight, or in the absence of direct light”.
The word ‘nocturne’ was first suggested by Frederick Leyland, since it conveys the sense of a night scene, but also has musical associations. The expression was quickly adopted by Whistler, who later explained, “By using the word ‘nocturne’ I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and colour first.”