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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
The bedrooms also feature favourite mid-century furniture pieces that are proudly displayed beneath windows that have a calming garden outlook.
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!
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.
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.
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;
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.
“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.
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.
 Gössel, Peter ‘What is Modern Architecture?’ In: Modern Architecture A- L Taschen (Pub.) Vol 1, 303pp.
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”.
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?