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Architectural photography

Clad in Turquoise : Madam Butterfly or an Iridescent Dragonfly?

Whilst spending the 2015 Christmas period in Melbourne I was delighted to squeeze in the opportunity to photograph a residence that was recently acquired by two mid-century lovers of design in my family “J & D”.Leawarra 24Dec15-6353-Pano

Located in the leafy foothills of the Dandenong Ranges at Heathmont, the 3-bedroom house was completed in 1956 during the Post War housing boom by the government war homes services. Bought third-hand in 2015 (and very luckily so as the previous owners subdivided the block and were going to knock it over) the old girl is need of some TLC, but her new owners fell in love with the classic mid-century styling that still shines through, showing off a striking butterfly roof-line and standout exterior turquoise colour scheme that adorns its vertical weatherboard cladding, making the house look somewhat like an iridescent dragonfly perched high upon its allotment.Leawarra 24Dec15-6365-Pano

The new owners loved that they had bought an original mid-century home that still retained many unique features such as: the distinctive vertical ship-lapped pine boards that clad the exterior and line part of the interior; the large floor-to-ceiling plane glass windows that provide pleasing expanses of light in the study and lounge areas; and the quirky but very functional top-hung awning windows well-placed above and below the large windows to cleverly provide controlled ventilation through the house.

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The living areas are spacious and have a natural airy feel to them which invites one to lounge around and casually relax. The owners are gradually collecting beautiful modernist design classics to furnish their abode and Danish designed side-boards, drinks cabinets and a Ray Eames lounge chair are notable. The native timber hardwood floors have weathered time well and add a warm honey-coloured glow to the living and dining areas.

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The polished corkwood floor in the entrance immediately transports you to a past era, your arrival confirmed by the multicoloured Ray Eames designed “atomic” hat rack on the pine board walls sporting a 1960’s inspired “Mad Man” hat.Leawarra 24Dec15-6413-Edit

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The house is arranged as two pavilions (housing bedrooms in one and living, dining & study areas in the other) linked by a utilitarian arm housing kitchen, bathroom, toilet and connecting hallway. “J” thinks that this works very well as “The living area is separated from the bedrooms but still very much visually connected via the glass hallway. We could very happily host kiddies in one end and adults in the other!”Leawarra 24Dec15-6400

Although having funky looking cupboards featuring in part some novel sideways-sliding doors, the kitchen area is relatively small by today’s modern living standards and J & D have plans to lovingly rework it along with some reordering of the bathroom and perhaps extend the spare room.Leawarra 24Dec15-6442-Pano

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The bedrooms also feature favourite mid-century furniture pieces that are proudly displayed beneath windows that have a calming garden outlook.

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Madam Butterfly is well placed in Heathmont as it is home to many Post War era residences and a range of mixed architectural styles including 1950s, 1960s, 1970s-1980s and 1980s-1990s buildings that are generally single storey and made up of a mix of weatherboard and brick veneer exteriors. Although a handful of houses can be classed as modernist or international in style (along the designs of Marcel Breuer, Harry Seidler and Frank Lloyd Wright), most are representative of a ” austere post war” style of a simple dwelling design, comprising flat or low slung gable roof forms, built of lightweight timber framed construction without decorative ornamentation.  Notable architects active in Heathmont during the 1950s – 1960s include David Caldwell and Patrick & Chancellor.

Following WWII increased car ownership as well as residential lot subdivision became major drivers of growth in Heathmont. In 20 July 1956, The Argus newspaper featured a property guide article that extolled the new “Inner Dandenong Suburbs” with:

“Heathmont the first station beyond Ringwood, is rapidly becoming a show residential suburb,with many good examples of modern domestic architecture. In this attractive area, home sites in picked positions, on made roads, near the station, sell from £700 each.” “Builders are erecting timber homes with two bedrooms to sell from £3,250, and with three bedrooms from £3,600.”

At the time is was noted that besides having attractive house sites with favourable views the establishment of large factories in the neighbouring Bayswater area by Dunlops and British Nylon promised employment opportunities and a secure income to buy a house.

The favourable views of yesteryear are still to had, but with the advent of time they have been rendered ever more sylvan with the growth of established gardens, making the “turquoise dragonfly” feel very home indeed!Leawarra 24Dec15-6360

I am sure that over the next few years that this home will be lovingly restored to its former mid-century glory, making the decision in choosing the moniker of a turquoise-coloured  “Madam Butterfly” or “Iridescent Dragonfly” all the harder to choose.

 

 

 

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Architectural Activism : Simple & effective responses to building a sustainable world.

Many architects work with aid organisations or by themselves to provide sustainable and positive solutions to ecological and/or social problems. There is strong interest and activity by architects  in the related areas of sustainability, community resilience, social design and activism. Climate change, population growth, war,  poverty, disease and massive human migration shifts have affected some of the world’s most vulnerable communities. Some project examples include safe permanent/temporary shelters, access to basic sanitation and clean water supplies.

Through a travelling exhibition, ‘People Building Better Cities’, that visited my city during September – October 2014, I became aware of other varied architect-led initiatives engaging with disadvantaged communities worldwide. There are many architectural groups (like Community Architects Network) and community led grassroots groups and networks (e.g. ‘Asian Coalition for Housing Rights’) located at many places around the world, all working to address local issues to create resilient, equitable, inclusive and sustainable communities, towns and cities that are variably free of disease, war, poverty, housing shortages, unsanitary water sources, drugs and crime and have adequate waste disposal, education and health facilities, to name a few of the issues that make communities vulnerable.

There appears to be increasing pushback to architecture in which ‘appearance’ or ‘aesthetics’ have been valued over purpose and pressing social requirements, and which has resulted from a lack of consultation with and participation from the affected communities. As concluded in The Environment & Urbanization report:

 ‘The work of community architects in Asia has shown that professionals should stop making all the design decisions and instead, should take on the role of helping translate people’s own ideas for transforming their houses and communities into drawings and models that the wider society can understand.”

An example of an architect who is working on helping his fellow man is Nigerian  architect, Kunlé Adeyemi, who is the principal of NLÉ which is a practice that specifically applies its architecture, design and urbanism practice to rapidly developing cities in developing countries.

Floating primary school: At the waterside slum of Makoko, near Lagos, Nigeria,by Kunlé Adeyemi. The design was conceived following discussions with the local community. Source The Guardian|The Observer Sunday 10 August 2014.

One project that has received broad attention is his prototype, ‘Makoko Floating School’ [Links #1, #2 & #3] in which he attempts to address the physical and social needs of the Makoko/Iwaya Waterfront Community, in the waterside slum of Makoko, near Lagos, Nigeria, who are faced with constant climate change induced pressures of flooding and the problems of building on unstable marshland; (100,000 people in Makoko live in housing that is built on stilts). After talking with the community about these issues he came up with the elegantly simple solution of building a floating primary school using simple technology and community collaboration.

The conceived 3-level structure is basically a timber A-frame 10m high, set on a square 10m x 10m base that is buoyed by a bed of 16 recycled blue 215Litre plastic barrels. This floating structure has a low centre of gravity and is stable enough to support 100 adults even in stormy weather. As it is a floating structure is can adapt to varying water levels and storm surges.

Peak hour : floating school. Source: http://www.nleworks.com

The lower level is purposed as a play area for school pupils (and also as a community space after school hours). The second level is a classroom space (large enough to cater for 60 – 100 pupils), and a workshop is on the 3rd and topmost level. The 200m long building is made up of 16 pyramidal modules that can be joined together. The school was also being used by the community as a social, cultural and economic centre.

Prototype floating structure for the lagoon community of Makoko. Image source: Architecture AU 31Oct 2014

The materials for the base and A-frame were sourced from locally sourced timber and bamboo and the structure was constructed by local builders (thus addressing local sustainability and social employment concerns). The building has also kept to the principles of sustainable development and is designed to reduce its carbon footprint by using renewable energy, recycle organic waste as well as harvesting its own rainwater.

Makoko Floating School : Concept schematic. Source: http://www.nleworks.com

Kunlé Adeyemi is also applying this concept to other areas such as the slums of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, where residents are threatened with displacement through government run urban renewal projects. As a solution he hopes that a city of floating homes can be constructed that would provide safe housing for residents while allowing them to remain within their water-based community.

I take my hat off to this architect!

 

 


Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age

The Barbican Art Gallery in London is currently showcasing a landmark exhibition of eighteen outstanding photographers covering the time period from the 1930s to the present day who have influenced the way we view  20th and 21st century architecture on a global stage.

It investigates why architects, such as Charles and Ray Eames and Le Corbusier, used the power of the photographic image to promote their vision of Modernist architecture. Images range from skyscrapers in New York, decaying colonial structures in the Congo,  glamorous post-war suburban homes of California, to the modern towers of Venezuela.

Fengjie III (Monument to Progress and Prosperity), Chonqing Municipality, 2007 Picture credits © Nadav Kander. Courtesy Flowers Gallery.

Featuring over 250 works by:

photographers: Berenice Abbott / Iwan Baan / Bernd and Hilla Becher / Hélène Binet / Walker Evans / Luigi Ghirri / Andreas Gursky / Lucien Hervé / Nadav Kander / Luisa Lambri / Simon Norfolk / Bas Princen / Ed Ruscha / Stephen Shore / Julius Shulman / Thomas Struth / Hiroshi Sugimoto / Guy Tillim;

and

architects: Le Corbusier / Frank Lloyd Wright / Minoru Yamasaki / Luis Barragán / Aldo Rossi / Pierre Koenig / Charles and Ray Eames / Daniel Libeskind.

This exhibition highlights the power of photography to reveal hidden truths in our society. The exhibition runs until  11 January 2015.

While you are there you may as well take advantage of the Architecture Tour of the Barbican Centre a unique brutalist architectural endeavour.

(more…)


Architecture Through the Lens – Emergent Thoughts

“What does it take to be an emerging architectural photographer? How does one create a difference in a competitive world where just about everything seems to have been done?!

The explosive evolution of digital photography has resulted in massive daily streams of image content being generated and loaded onto electronic media (and viewed on social networks like Instagram and on-line blogs). In light of this how can your photographic craft be seen as different to other practitioners? In the digital age the architectural photography market is complex and very competitive as it has become accessible for both amateurs and non-professional photographers to enter and post their efforts. However the need for strong photographs that capture the architects ideas and designs in an accurate and truthful way is still a prime requirement.

I was told at college to keep shooting images in order to develop my own ‘style’. This mantra was repeated by the professional architectural photographers I have met and talked to. Even when a photographer is meeting the specifics of a particular shooting brief for an architect, each one of their final images are a very individual expression of how they have viewed, interpreted and responded to the built structure. Therefore when benchmarking yourself against established talent you should be wary of replicating/copying how they shoot… especially if they are a group of people all shooting and doing post-processing in a similar fashion (as this can be generally part of a passing ‘fad’). No two photographers share the exactly the same eyes and visual perception of the world around them and this can work to your advantage. You need to develop your own visual language and shooting methodology that marries with your visual perception whilst meeting the goals of your client and placing your personal visual stamp in crafting an image. This places you in control of how much you want to be one of the pack, an early adaptor/follower, or a leader/innovator whose work may have greater appeal.

Digital technology is enabling architectural photography in some respects – especially by making people more aware and appreciative of it.  Many people shoot architecture with the convenience of smartphones and entry- to enthusiast-level digital cameras. This has meant that many more people across the world are being exposed to more interesting architecture and design than they could ever have hoped to visit in person. However, although the amateur or enthusiast can capture an image of a building or built space, you still need high-end specialist camera technology to record architecture in a precise manner to correctly capture an undistorted or ‘true’ image. This is required to produce an authentic narrative to relate that image to another part of a building that is being photographed. It is important to engage the viewers’ attention as well as visually guide them so that they learn the story of the building and its purpose.

As an architectural photographer you are challenged to achieve the aim of visually encoding and translating the visual power and character of a constructed place (its form, structure, mass, space, temporality) into an image that becomes a unique and memorable viewing experience for every individual who apprehends it.  Some might think this experience could be problematic, as how does any one individual perceive a place or space they encounter? This uncertainty can be turned to a positive experience with unknown outcomes as potentially every person’s experience of space can be unique depending on what they do in it and how they interact with it. As Peter Gössel[i]  writes, architecture “…is so much a part of our daily reality that the whole of our activity in perceived space is also activity formed in space…”.

If “Architects”, as Steven Holl[ii] puts it, “are sculptors of space using light as a medium”, does it follow that the architectural photographer (or “one who paints with light”), is to just take a photograph in order to ‘document’ the built space? I think that is it too simplistic a notion and that there is more to it than simply “documentation”. Although there are particular details an architect wants visually documented in their brief, an aspirational goal to have is to capture how people ‘feel’ as they move through, perceive and interact with a space or built structure. This is regardless of whether the audience is the general public (in the case of a public or monumental space), or the client who has commissioned the architect. When you take an image you can use your perception of a place to convey a sense of temporality (i.e. time of day, seasonality, or evoke a past or future) that may be related to in the same way by other people or the architect, or, it can create a new and fresh dialogue due to differences in your existential orientation.

So why not try to capture the phenomenology of a built place in your image? Can you make it show how receptive people are to space, light and time, how they qualitatively perceive depth of line and space, and how a person might move through or utilize a space? Does it convey what senses are used (i.e. visual, tactile, olfactory and aural) to form an emotive reaction to the 3-dimensional presence of a building?  For example how might you or any other individual, use sensory perception to process the elements of light (colour, natural/artificial; muted/intense, cold/warm, soft/harsh); mass (i.e. feeling of solidity, strength and substance); and materiality (i.e. the use of certain building products, say steel or concrete versus timber) and imbue these in an image?

Can your image show or evoke memories of what tactile experiences someone encounters as their hand touches or brushes past a rough unfinished concrete surface, a smooth cool granite bench, or a sculpted and polished plastic panel? Can you recall the sensation of when your feet made contact with smooth timbered/glazed tiled/ plush carpeted flooring, or the coolness of a shady alcove in a building you have visited and are now viewing an image of? When an image of a place is viewed, what acoustic memories are triggered? Are they clear-sounding laughter; quiet conversation; the muted contemplative sound of a water feature; incessantly loud and reverberating talk of people in a crowded atrium, or passing traffic noise?

In my visual craft I am always seeking ways to develop a language that is fractal (endlessly scalable), exploring various size dimensions (from site, building, room, person, furniture and accessory, down to smaller ornamental scales). Of course the aim is also to show the built structure in relation to its site, that is a given at a larger scale. But you also need to understand the context and reasons why an architect has designed a structure in a place the way he/she has in order to visually convey their narrative of place.

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Fractal knot: “Not seeing the sign for the font!” (Image by Issy D., Sep 2013)

Is there an architectonic or stereotomic typology the architect is espousing, are they sympathetic to a particular facet of local geographic, geotechnical, landscape, climatic conditions or historical event/context? These are important aspects that can be subtle and elusive. Sometimes making the viewer privy to these via an image can make for an enriching experience. If it is a public or monumental space, does the architectural design reflect the mores of society, is it welcoming and does it invite interaction or contemplation? Is it impersonal but have a utilitarian function, does it excite and attract positive energy, or is its function more as a sanity-saving refuge from the relentless drive of a city?

People say a career in professional architectural photography is difficult, (others say it’s easy). Because it is a new adventure that I have only relatively recently embarked on, I am fuelled with the desire to make arresting visual images of the built environment set in a world that we humans are continually modifying. I am excited at the prospect of working at odd hours to capture the quality, direction and intensity of light playing over a building at the right moment; like playing hide-and-seek there is anticipation of what you expect to see, as well as an element of surprise (or horror) at what results (depending upon whether site or weather conditions have changed prior to a shoot).

As a photographer the goal is to use your eyes (as a lens) and brain (as an adaptable and ever-learning image processor) to produce a unique ‘way of seeing’ that is aided by the appropriate technology. Remember, like the architect who is in the business of ‘making’, the photographer is also challenged in making something from architecture – a visual narrative using the photographic image.

To me architectural photography is a language that visually communicates to people as much as possible about conceptual ideas to the dimensions and quality of a built space, helping them better understand and appreciate architecture.

 


 

[1] Gössel, Peter ‘What is Modern Architecture?’ In: Modern Architecture A- L Taschen (Pub.) Vol 1, 303pp.

[2] Holl, Steven. 2012 AIA Gold Medal – Steven Holl AFIA New York City. http://youtu.be/RMt8hJM1TlQ Accessed 5 July 2014.


A Concrete Clad World

We live in a world that is increasingly being clothed in concrete (or other man-made “garments”… like asphalt, steel, terracotta tiles, cut timber and corrugated iron).

In his book ‘Architecture of Density‘  photographer Michael Wolf displays a masterful visual record of some of the cityscapes we are creating and is perhaps a timely nudge to those who think that urban development is “boundless”.

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His photographic style of follows that of Bernd and Hilla Becher (who are renowned for creating a typology of industrial buildings and structures in a grid-like fashion). Wolf’s visual documentary approach of Hong Kong is formal, and unsettling. He frames his images face-on so that the sky and ground are removed, and you are  confronted with a flat, uncompromising, concrete-dominated, brutalist, and seemingly unpopulated view of only a microcosm of a much larger “mega city”.

His images evoke dystopian scenes from ‘Metropolis‘, Fritz Lang’s 1927 German expressionist epic science-fiction film. After viewing Wolf’s graphically stark images, one is left feeling  somewhat claustrophobically trapped by the weight of the structures pictured. A rising clamour of wanting to be “let out” is furthered by the endless repetition of patterns washing over each page of the book without a view of a clear field or open space in sight – almost like being caught in a hall of mirrors by endlessly repeating images with no obvious avenue of  escape discernable.

The patterning or splashes of colour sometimes break up the monotony of dull painted concrete, but even in themselves appear to be a contrivance exhorting occupants to lead bright happy lives in the “communal hives” they inhabit. The absence of human figures in this work may leave the viewer feeling a little emotionally detached from these relatively cold and implacable subjects, but the odd signs of occupation are present, as evidenced in the form of man-made scaffolding, washing hung out of windows to dry, or  open and half-closed windows inviting us to look in from afar.

The relentless repeating patterns of windows, balconies and towers is similar in effect to that used by Andreas Gursky in his supermarket shop shelf image ’99 Cent’ where product packaging is the recurring pattern unit used to create seemingly endless rows of shelving.

Wolf’s images are not dissimilar to works by other photographic artists who have portrayed the built environment clashing with and supplanting the natural environment. Many popular works were generated through the 1960-1970’s “Topographics Movement” which included the likes of: Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Frank Gohlke, Stephen Shore, Nicholas Nixon  and Henry Wessel. Most of them featured in the seminal 1975 exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” which showed images of the changing landscape and abuse of the earth in a stylistic way that highlighted anonymity in a characterless or deadpan way of documenting the landscape. Their work  influenced many photographers in how they photographed landscapes and although today’s photographers shoot in a visually more contemporary style (e.g. Edward Burtynski & Robert Polidori), there is still an underlying or unspoken premise of a need of human connection with the natural environment amongst the ever-increasing urban sprawl of outer cities areas or within in the confines of continuous urban re-development or renewal within city centres.

Perhaps this why the world is seeing the upsurgence of roof top and vertical gardens in cities, in the imaginative revitalisation of old cityscapes including Vo Trong Nghia’s House for trees project in Bangkok, or community driven greening of abandoned industrial-scapes in Detroit?

Perhaps a re-imagining of how more finite or less expansive populations might live on this planet, having a much improved sustainable ecological footprint, may well be the seeds of transformation that both humanity and the environment really need?

 


“Turkey-tecture” (nature’s bush architecture)

Imagine walking along the well-kept concrete perimeter path to the Great Court lawn centered at the distinctive sandstone University of Queensland, when quite unexpectedly it is is crossed by a trail of bark chips strewn across it. My curiosity piqued, I stop and slowly turn around to look at what I had walked over. Other people continue walking and do not appear to be taking any notice of this abstract smear of bark underfoot, as it is cold and at the end of a long university day and people are walking with determined strides to get home.

It took me a few moments to visually collate and decode what I was viewing: bark chips and leaf litter strewn in a line across the path next to the Parnell Building, a small pile of bark debris pushed up against a path abutment, a clean garden bed with exposed black soil, and… a large mounded heap of bark and leaf detritus lying in a garden bed within the confines of the Great Court. And then it clicked as to what this unusual sight represented! Of course, it was the “work site” of an  Australian Brush-turkey (Alectura lathami)!

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Brush turkey mound (left), “bark highway” crossing pedestrian thoroughfare (centre), and raked garden bed (right)

Belonging to the megapode (or “big foot”) family of birds they are known as Scrub Turkey, Brush-turkey and Wild Turkey (and sometimes misnamed “Bush-turkey”). The male industriously rakes together loose vegetative detritus (leaves, bark) and soil to build mounds of 1- 2m in diameter and up to 1m high so that eggs from a number of females can be laid and incubated in them.

So how does the Brush turkey go about the practice of mound building? Is he an engineer, designer, builder, or landscape architect? Does he use subcontractors? Does he have the qualifications and authorisations/permits to construct  a ‘mounded structure’  within a university precinct, does it meet current building codes and standards? As a structure what architectural theory of built space did our brush turkey follow? Was he biased by a quasi-tectonic outlook (I think the loose, unstructured and chaotic pile of bark debris wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny), were the inlaid eggs the foundation of a nascent stereotomic building approach; (if no mortar or egg-based footings were in place I don’t think they would suffice)?

So keeping things real in the realm of ‘Turkey-tecture’ and putting architectural conundrums and construction codes aside, what impressed me as I traced the trail of bark and leafy debris from the mound to its origins was the energy and sheer determination exhibited by  the single male brush turkey who had raked bark detritus from its university garden bed source… over 50m distance away!  No small job for a small bird with big feet! Not only did it rake bark detritus over lawns, but through the alumni court shelter between the Parnell and Goddard buildings:

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It also scraped back every skerrick of leaf and bark detritus across garden beds and constructed a rampart up to the level of the Great Court:

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Back at home base all that the resident Brush turkey had to do was to conduct vigilant maintenance of the mound incubator by either adding or subtracting (making it a quantity surveyor too) local litter and debris (including the odd scrap of blue plastic bag) to maintain the requisite temperature of the mound nursery to maximise egg-hatching success.

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However, just like the urbanisation that is happening in Brisbane and beyond, “Turkey-tecturisation” is also making its presence felt further afield on campus with a broad swathe of bark detritus being swept across the path between the Steele (Geology Dept.) Building and the Commonwealth Bank where another nesting mound is being constructed.

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I wonder if the spread of Turkey-tecture will be limited after a human slips and falls on the bark trails, or if the freshly-hatched chicks stage a sit-in on one of the lecture theatres? Perhaps then some sort of building ordinance will come into effect restricting mound-building to Turkey-tecture zones that are segregated from human pedestrian traffic… or perhaps a compromise could be reached where pedestrian cross-overs or ramps, or Brush turkey underpasses could be constructed, allowing free segregated passage for both forms of bipedal transport (the soled and the clawed)? That would make for a for more interesting walk around campus wouldn’t it?