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Picturing Buildings

What does a photograph reveal and not reveal about a building? However consequential the question used to be, the Internet has become a seductive digitized world of photo stills and slideshows from which one might infer that actual knowledge—factual information—has been obtained. But buildings are real, indeed, real things that everyone needs and nearly everyone constantly uses. More or less reliably, too, a building stays put, at least until a tsunami hits or, more typically, someone comes along and tears it down. In the ever-shifting sands of most lifetimes, buildings can be reassuringly present. And so, because of their indisputable materiality, because of their omnipresence, because of our constant reliance upon them, our dependence on photographs to understand and assess buildings that we do not ourselves see is significant.

These days, we rely on pictures posted on the Internet. Publishers rely on the Internet in part because they don’t have to pay for color printing, which is expensive, only for the rights to the photograph. Impatient digital surfers read fewer words anyway, or so we are told, ever on their way to the next click, the next cognitive gratification. So what exactly do all those photographs we see tell us about the buildings they represent? Not much.

For years, people who write about painting and sculpture have complained that photographs confer the misimpression of veracity even though they distort a multitude of artistic nuances: color, materials, texture, multiple views, details. Photographs of buildings do not merely distort their subject matter. They lie. They lie about the building they purportedly depict; they lie about what a person’s experience of the building will be; they can lie about the architect’s intentions or real accomplishments. By lie, I mean that photographs and the photographers who take them unwittingly and willfully misrepresent.

All the ways photographs distort artworks obtain for photographs of buildings. The most obvious is scale. Everyone has had the experience of seeing a painting he thought he’d known his whole life only to be surprised by what he sees in person—I didn’t know that the Mona Lisa is that small, he thinks, or Las Meninas that big! That experience is even more unsettling when it pertains to buildings: A Venezuelan acquaintance of mine, an architect, went to Oscar Niemeyer and Lucío Costa’s famous capital complex in Brasilia, which looks impressively, starkly monumental in photographs, and returned home saying that the buildings looked as though they had been built at half scale, exclaiming, “They were no bigger than my health club in Caracas!”

Because buildings are large and pictures small, photographs also flatten out textures and hide construction details that are critical to the user’s experience of them: Images of Zaha Hadid’s enormous Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park in Seoul, parts of which are open to the public even though the building is not scheduled to be completed until next year, offer up a pretty picture—but the building on the ground is bedeviled by more than a few troubling moments of cracking concrete, oozing joint filler, and other forms of shoddy craftsmanship. As for color, forget it. A building you thought was gleaming white could be a dull, thudding gray.

Architecture is a three-dimensional and multisensory medium. Most people understand that the photographs in this or that slideshow on the websites of Slate, The New York Times, or The New Republic reveal nothing of a building or city’s acoustical, olfactory, or tactile qualities, and represent one-thirtieth or one second in the life of the building they seek to explore. Architects, in settings absent of clients potential and actual, can be blunt about the impact of photography on how they conceptualize a project, joking that, when designing, they anticipate and consciously design for just those pictorial moments in the finished project. And architectural photographers can wait hours or days for the right moment to shoot pictures that will present a building in the best light. Yet the people who live in or use that building will see and use it not just at 4 p.m. on a bright winter day, but in the morning and the evening, in the summer and the winter, on gray days and sunny days. Good buildings offer a rich diet of changing experiences throughout days and seasons. And most architectural photographs reveal nothing of a building’s functional failures: Pictures show hothouse-green, sodded grass underneath a building’s ground-level columns, which will wither to dead brown within months.

Technological limitations mandate that photographs misrepresent what they purport to depict. The camera compresses the middle register of the space behind the viewfinder to the point of near non-existence; as a result, deep space projects dramatically toward the front of the picture plane as it never would to a viewer standing on the ground. Contemporary art photographers take advantage of such distortions: Andreas Gursky’s masterful large-scale pictures of North Korean political festivals like Pyongang (2007) bring up the middle register of space to the front of the picture plane, adding to the creepiness of the spectacle. Most architectural photographers want their pictures to contain as much fine-grained detail as possible, which means that they must use very long shutter speeds to capture their desired image. A long shutter speed means that any movement in the viewfinder will end up as nothing more than a distracting blur in the final picture. That’s why most professional pictures of buildings are empty of human presence. The photograph’s distortions are legion: A picture presents everything seen within the camera’s viewfinder in the same resolution, whereas human vision varies dramatically: Foveal vision is acute, whereas peripheral vision is extremely poor, its resolution no better the pictures you take with your cell-phone camera. Wide-angle lenses, often used for buildings, pull buildings out at a photograph’s edges. And so on.

Pictures of buildings make objects of buildings, and people experience buildings less as objects they can manipulate or view from a single vantage point than as spaces that envelop them and invite them to move around. Recently, I was in the gallery spaces of a building by Jean Nouvel, the Leeum Museum in Seoul (actually, the museum is an odd concatenation of parts, a collaboration among Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas, and the Italian architect Mario Botta). Plunged one story below grade, Nouvel’s glazed exteriors are pressed into tight, outdoor courtyards edged by rock-rubble walls contained by metal mesh—the kind of retaining wall to prevent erosion that edges miles of Swiss roads and highways. The gallery’s interiors are painted black, and its plan lays out a series of loosely defined pockets of viewing spaces that occasionally edge into glimpses of adjacent courtyards. These are neither the traditional galleries of nineteenth-century museums nor the open-plan galleries of modernist spaces. The whole effect is brilliant. I suspected the museum isn’t better known because photographs of these interiors would make the place look simply dreadful.

You want to learn about architecture. You’ve neither the time nor the patience to learn how to piece together the dozens of drawings, sketches, sections, plans, and so on necessary to understand a building through images. What to do?

Look at a handful of photographs to get a general impression. Then find your most trusted literary guide. Print out the article, turn off your Internet connection, and do it the old-fashioned way. Rely on your mind’s ample capacity for constructing mental representations. Read.

Sarah Goldhagen is the architecture critic for The New Republic.

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