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.


of stairs

“Of course, thanks to the house, a great many of our memories are housed, and if the house is a bit elaborate, if it has a cellar and a garret, nooks and corridors, our memories have refuges that are all the more clearly delineated.”

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

stairs in houses I have designed

“Verticality is ensured by the polarity of cellar and attic, the marks of which are so deep that, in a way, they open up two very different perspectives for a phenomenology of the imagination.  Indeed it is possible, almost without commentary, to oppose the rationality of the roof to the irrationality of the cellar.”

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

stairs in houses I have designed

Stairs designed by architects are often the most dramatically beautiful object in a project.  My interest when designing a stair however is not primarily aesthetic or even functional.  It is a simple thing to go up or down.  My interest lies in the meaning of the passage from above to below, from the earth to the sky, from public to private.  Some stairs are spaces in their own right, others are slight shifts in position within a larger room.  I hope they are all in service of a larger idea and become integral to the memory of the house, not just a plot device in the novel that gets you from here to there, but a chapter all its own.

material phenomenology

In all of our projects we go through an extensive process of trying to choose materials for interior finishes.  there are an almost infinite number of choices available for tile, wall and ceiling colors, flooring, etc.   The final selection should reinforce the ideas of the design as well as meet the technical and practical uses of each location.  so, beyond simply making aesthetic solutions based on the ‘style’ of the building or interior, we make selections to reinforce the spatial ideas of the project.

With this said, the challenge often comes not in the selection of any given material, but the coordination and synthesis of dozens of selections.  Beyond style and color, one of my guiding ideas for choosing materials is the relative level of abstraction that the material exhibits in relation to its ‘natural’ state.

level one

These images above are very different in terms of style and feeling, but they both are utilizing materials with little or no manufactured refinement, a single level of abstraction.  Rough stone, waxed cork, stained douglas fir beams, oiled shoji screen tracks are all quite close to the stone or wood as found in nature and sympathetic to each other because of that similar level of abstraction.

level two

whether traditional or modern, the sympathies of the materials to each other is reinforced by a similar distance from the raw material.  Taken in reverse, you might say this is the relative level of refinement of the material.  In the images above, marble mosaic tile, wrought iron and painted and stained treads and risers work together.  On the right, painted trim, honed travertine tile, clear tempered glass harmonize with each other, a second level of abstraction.

level three

In these images (one a computer rendering of a project under construction), a use of more refined materials – polished granite and book-matched polished wood cabinets in a traditional design on the left and resin panels, engineered flooring, stainless steel and birch veneer over MDF on the right in a modern kitchen interior.  This is a third level of abstraction, a combination of materials extracted, machined, polished, and further transformed.

While each material has a history of its use imbedded within it, they also exhibit a kind of phenomenology of their immediate history – a roadmap from tree to lumber mill to carpenter to finisher.  Some paths are longer than others and final destination is exquisite but hard won, some paths are short and there is  pleasure in the journey.