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Photographic Architecture in the Twentieth Century
Martino Stierli

Claire Zimmerman
University of Minnesota Press

The relationship between modern architecture and photography is one of mutual interests and dependencies. For the emerging and technically imperfect medium of photography in the nineteenth century, the static nature of buildings proved a patient and forgiving subject. Conversely, modern architects soon realized photography’s potential for visualizing their notions on form, light, and space in a way closer and truer to their intentions than even realized buildings (which are inevitably compromised by various contextual parameters); they also came to understand quickly that photography, its reproduction, and dissemination would allow for making modern architecture available to a much broader audience than actual buildings themselves. From their perspective, photography advanced to become a prime tool of architectural propaganda.

Modern architects’ instrumentalization of photography for their own means, the documentation and advertisement of their buildings and, more generally, spatial conceptions and ideas, has been the focus of scholarly inquiry for a number of years. While not exclusively devoted to photography, Beatriz Colomina’s Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media may still be considered to have addressed the complex interdependencies between photography and modern architecture for the first time in a theoretically ambitious manner, looking mainly into the use of photography in the works of Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier. Several recent publications have devoted exhaustive studies to eminent individual architectural photographers who were pivotal in establishing an autonomous aesthetic and discourse for the field. Conversely, others have analyzed architects’ use of photography for the analysis and representation of urban form. More and more, architectural photography has become the focus of scholarly symposia as well as major exhibitions, some of which have resulted in substantial catalogs.

Photographic Architecture in the Twentieth Century adds a new layer of scholarly inquiry to this ongoing debate. It is informed both by a historical trajectory (from the early 1900s to postmodernism) and by a theoretical evaluation at the intersection of the media of architecture and photography. The volume is subdivided into three large sections of three chapters each. While the first two sections deal with the period up to World War II and almost exclusively with German architecture culture (with Mies being the secret hero of the narrative), the third section addresses changed attitudes toward photography in postwar architecture culture with a broader geographical perspective (Germany, Britain, and the United States). It could be said that Zimmerman thus follows a relatively conventional narrative from the Bauhaus of the Weimar Republic to its aftermath in international architecture in the postwar period. However, she reconsiders this narrative from a new angle that reveals to what degree photographic representations and reproductions of buildings have shaped not only the public’s perception of modern architecture but also the rhetoric of modern architecture proper. In so doing, Zimmerman establishes a discourse on the convergences and divergences of architecture and photography from the standpoint of media theory (Hans Belting’s and Jacques Rancière’s image and media theories in particular are discussed in the introduction) and illuminates the effects of photographic images on their audiences (as well as the ways architects engineered these effects). Conversely, the use of photographic images in the design process is given relatively scant attention, with the exception of the last chapter, which deals with the British postmodern architect James Stirling’s visual construction of architectural designs based on what could be called a pastiche of a wide array of visual sources, including photographs.

Zimmerman starts with an inquiry into what could be called an obsession with architectural surfaces and the problem of flatness in art historical writing in the early twentieth century. Discussing the writings of influential theoreticians such as Walter Curt Behrendt, Adolf Behne, Paul Frankl, or Paul Zucker, she distinguishes between two main bodies of work: studies on building surfaces and studies of the representation of architecture in two dimensions (p. 31). Several of the writers discussed here were concerned with what the author calls the “intermediality” of architecture, and it is this exploration of the surface and two-dimensionality of buildings (and their representation) that Zimmerman interprets as a “preliminary photographic architecture, in which the projection of spatial effects through optical means became a powerful force in discourse on built things and representation” (p. 43). These are valid and precise historical observations, even though Zimmerman does not distinguish clearly between the media specificity of architectural photography and other forms of representation here. As if to make up for this problem, Zimmerman returns to the question of the media specificity of architectural photography throughout the book. For her, photography is ambiguously caught between material presence and ephemeral appearance, or, as she words it in one instance, “the paradoxical copresence of image and structural object” (p. 241); it is in this combination of abstract idea, image, and concrete materialization that Zimmerman sees a direct correspondence with the tenets of modern architecture. This characterization echoes Henri Bergson’s famous definition of the image in his Matter and Memory (another seminal work published at the dawn of the First World War, in 1911): “a certain existence which is more than that which the idealist calls a representation, but less than that which the realist calls a thing; – an existence placed half-way between the ‘thing’ and the ‘representation.’” If we are to follow Zimmerman’s argument, it is precisely this interstitial position between idea and materialization that is characteristic of modern architecture as well, and it is for this reason that the paradigm of the photographic image has become fundamental to twentieth-century architecture culture.

The following two chapters deal more specifically with “photographic architecture,” and both center on seminal works by Mies van der Rohe: the Barcelona Pavilion and the Villa Tugendhat in Brno.  What interests Zimmerman about the former is the relationship of visual and bodily experience, and, more specifically, how vision, movement, and space are related in the representation and physical experience of modern architecture. This problem touches upon the more fundamental question of how Mies sought to apply a notion of painterly or graphic abstraction to his buildings (p. 83). Zimmerman differentiates between three different modes in Mies’s architecture: rhythmic, montage, and panoramic space. In this taxonomy, “rhythmic space” applies to the way the architect choreographs movement patterns through his buildings, a technique the author relates to the architect’s knowledge of the writings and works of Adolphe Appia and Jaques-Dalcroze, both of whom he would have known from Hellerau. “Montage space” on the other hand refers to how avant-garde cinematic conceptions of the connection (and disjunction) of images played into Mies’s spatial conception, most importantly, Hans Richter’s early abstract filmic experiments (such as Rhythmus 21). Finally, the notion of “panoramic space” is discussed with regard to the Villa Tugendhat. This line of thought is informed not only by a convincing “close reading” of a sequence of photos of the house by the Brno-based Atelier de Sandalo but also by a seminal text by Wilhelm Lotz on architectural photography first published in Die Form in 1929. The epithet “panoramic” refers to yet another mode of cinematic conceptualization of space, most evident in the construction of open-ended views and wide-ranging, horizontal windows in the Villa Tugendhat. Zimmerman’s analysis of the visual conventions in the photographs of the Atelier de Sandalo is equally convincing, revealing important discrepancies between inhabited and depicted space or, in other words, problems in the translation from architecture into its photographic image. As a side effect, Zimmerman here also tells the story of a little-known chapter in the evolution of the profession of architectural photography.

Chapter 4 diverts from the master narratives of modern architecture in that it looks at photography as a professional commercial practice in early twentieth-century Germany. Zimmerman not only critically distinguishes between “documentary” photography and its later use for advertising new buildings to clients and audiences; she also discusses the evolution of a more and more intricate technical apparatus and its implications for architectural photography. In the subsequent two chapters, Zimmerman returns to canonical instances of modern architectural history and their photographic equivalents: the Bauhaus Dessau and the 1927 Werkbund exhibition at the Weissenhof in Stuttgart (“The Dwelling”). In the latter, the argument revolves around the key category of “transparency,” which has informed not only the discourse of modern architecture since Sigfried Giedion and Colin Rowe but also that of photography as an artistic medium: “The desire to render modern buildings transparent to program and structure and at the same time make them replete with semantic possibility—to make them signify—was a core modernist program. Its procedures resemble those of photography, equally intent on coding representation as truth and evidence” (p. 199). This point is taken up again and discussed in depth in chapter 8, where Zimmerman analyzes the ways in which the Smithsons relied on the published photographs of Mies van der Rohe’s IIT buildings and came up with what was, as she convincingly argues, a completely different conception of architecture. It is through the notion of transparency, then, that we can grasp the convergence of the media of photography and modern architecture.

The last three chapters of the volume deal with how architectural culture in the postwar period is increasingly informed by the dissemination and mass reproducibility of (photographic) images. The famous German Bauhaus debate of 1953 can be seen as a moment of crystallization where architects such as Rudolf Schwarz argued that the photographic representation of buildings could never compare with their authentic firsthand experience, an argument that has in the meantime become a topos in the theoretical reflection on architectural photography. Both the chapter on the Smithsons’ Hunstanton School (chap. 8) and the one on the architecture of James Stirling (chap. 9), however, illustrate to what degree the photographic image has itself become a major force in the process of architectural design and innovation. The chapter on Stirling is the most debatable of the entire book: Stirling’s use of a multitude of image sources as the basis and inspiration for his own designs (in the sense of a pastiche) is certainly not specific to this British architect in this period (nor does Zimmerman claim that). But the argument suffers somewhat from confounding photographs from other visual media—physical or mental—that have become readily available and have informed the design process since the age of postmodernism. Nevertheless, Zimmerman’s study, scholarly and complex, illustrates how an increasingly image-centered modern culture has fundamentally altered how architecture is conceived and perceived. In this way, the book serves not only as an episodic (and admittedly Eurocentric) history of modern architecture and its representation but also as an informed consideration of architecture’s place in modern and contemporary visual culture.

How to Cite this Article: Stierli, Martino. Review of Photographic Architecture in the Twentieth Century, by Claire Zimmerman. JAE Online. August 18, 2015. https://jaeonline.org/issue-article/photographic-architecture-twentieth-century/.