architectural photography and experience

Great photography makes great buildings. We have all had the experience of visiting a project often viewed via photographs only to find the actual building a bit of a disappointment.  Architectural photography is stunningly reductive in its depictions, rendering complex spatial relationships as simplistic single-point perspectives.  It can also isolate a beautiful view or picturesque vista and ignore the crappy architecture that surrounds it.  On rare occasions and in the hands of a real artist and professional, it can reveal truths about the building that not even the architect knew.  Julius Shulman’s photos of California modernist houses didn’t just nicely depict the emergent architecture, but helped to define the culture of a place and time.

Kaufman House, by Richard Neutra, as photographed by Julius Shulman

I have worked on two houses that seem to defy photography.  One was so nicely buried in a forest that you couldn’t see the house without so many intervening branches, leaves and boughs that the building was almost invisible.  Clearly a success in trying to integrate the building with the trees, but not so good for the portfolio. The Sunshine Canyon house that I have often posted about is equally frustrating.  So much of the design was intended to diminish the scale of the house and weave its various levels amidst the steeply sloping boulder field that an overall view of the house is only possible from a great distance.  I have recently been out there taking some snapshots and I keep finding that the images are meager in their ability to explain the house on a purely visual level.   This project, more than others, was intended to be a sequence of spaces and views that slowly revealed themselves, one at a time, with only hints and allusions to the overall construction. So, what I am left with are some nice photos of pieces of the building.  A few from the northeast showing how the living/dining room wing is a multi-layered space of enclosure, roof and walls.  Another from the southeast showing a similar variant of concentric spaces.  Or a courtyard view clearly showing how much of the building can not be seen upon arrival. The final result is not surprising, as I have often written here about architecture’s nature as a 3- or 4-dimensional medium.  The phenomenological experience of the house is one of slow exposition, not the picturesque.  It is of a material and spatial richness that defies the solely visual aspects of photography.  Not to mention that I am no Julius Shulman.

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