Pretentieuze foto’s: Manipulaties van het bekijken en zich herinneren van architectuur / Pretentious photographs: Manipulations of perceiving and reme

Giedion wrote: `a picture (…) that abolished perspective and forced objects and proportions into the two-dimensional plane. It was hardly an interesting subject – concrete paving, a balustrade, a few chairs, a round table – but it was a totally new beginning. The camera had never been used in this way before.’1) In the meantime we have become familiar with this method in a lot of architecture photographs, especially those of `modern’ buildings. Orthogonal views are transformed into an impression of collapsing houses of cards, iron constructions into spillikins. The effect had made such an impression on Giedion that he started taking photographs himself. His photographs of the Eiffel Tower made in the `new’ way made the nineteenth century iron construction directly comparable with examples from Russian constructivism (he published these photographs in Bauen in Frankreich, mentioning `constructivism in the nineteenth century’). Interestingly, not only did the oblique view into or through the construction produce this association, but Giedion also discovered proof for his argument by taking a straight frontal picture of a fragment of the Eiffel Tower. This picture shows a leg of the Tower’s base, which looks exactly like El Lissitzky’s well-known drawing of the Lenin Tribune, because, in the first place, the slope in the photograph is exactly the same as that in the drawing and, secondly, the cropping produces the same formal composition. Lissitzky himself was wildly enthusiastic about the convincing way these photographs proved the argument. A few months later in Paris he borrowed a camera from Ehrenberg in order to photograph the Eiffel Tower from all angles himself.

There is a lot to be said for the idea that the emancipation of precisely this `oblique’ view has contributed, via the rediscovery of avant-garde photography, to the concept of `deconstructionism’ in architecture. Before this rediscovery the oblique form of photography had for some time degenerated into a worn-out cliché, especially in various Eastern Bloc countries where it became the trademark of communist reporting. Already in the Stalinist period, for example, there is a picture in a Russian architecture magazine of a metro station, which is indeed photographed in the ideologically correct oblique manner, but which is nevertheless completely meaningless owing to the use of the photograph in an unimaginative layout accompanying a piece of anti-avantgardist reporting.2)
Giedion and Moholy-Nagy, who were also not above suspicion of being Communist sympathizers, emigrated to the United States at the end of the thirties; there they gave a new impulse to the `abstract’ view of architecture, Giedion in words, Moholy-Nagy in images. Both of them once again looked at architecture with carefully chosen, out-of-axis camera viewpoints. Yet in making the crossing to the United States the `new vision’ acquired a different accent: people there were more interested in striking black and white effects, a reinforcement of a sensual effect often being found in `cool’ effects like that of designer objects under a spotlight. The photographs of Richard Neutra’s houses in particular reflected this self- conscious character and as documents of an ambiance they became something like the `house style’ of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It seems that Moholy-Nagy immediately recognized the interest in this quality, which, from the photographs in Broom magazine up until Man Ray’s success in New York, had clearly become recognizable as a valuable passport to success in the United States, and part of his teaching method in Chicago was geared to it. The continuation of this way of photographing can be seen today in the pictures of Kim Zwarts for example. These are often penetrating, frontally made photographs; it is a relatively static, rather than `dynamic’ way of taking photos. But they still belong to the `new vision’ approach, since they are deliberately meant to convey an `abstract’ quality, which is striven for in the architecture itself (as in the case of Quist and Arets). It is a question of a way of seeing that corresponds to both architecture and photography, where the correspondence, in Giedion’s words, is constructed as a visual composition `in the manner of modern art’.


Werner Graef’s book Es kommt der neue Fotograf! of 1929 provided documentation of the new way of photographing, together with a manifesto-like explanation. It encouraged anyone who took photographs to do anything but place people and buildings judiciously in the middle of the camera viewfinder. One can conclude from the introduction that at that time the oblique photograph had been discovered by the popular press because it was useful for their sensational approach; they were printed with jokey commentaries suggesting for instance that the photographer must have been drunk. Avant-garde artists (Graef also published in magazines like De Stijl) were of the opinion that it was a matter of a fundamentally new way of seeing. Karel Teige and Walter Benjamin also thought that the public and critics had to get used to this new way, and compared it with the step from theatre to film. Seen in this way, the fashion in the twenties of implementing oblique, fragmented effects as stage settings can be regarded as a mutant sort of intermediate phase. The public was trained for the changeover, as it were, through `oblique’ effects on the stage (this was fashionable for a while during the twenties; the fashion has meanwhile become traditional in ballet choreography). Theo van Doesburg introduced it into architecture by treating Cor van Eesteren’s design for a university auditorium as a theatrical stage with a decor full of diagonals. Giedion, as well as Teige, always claimed that the new vision was invented by painters. Teige is one of the few who fairly early on paid attention to the significance of photography and film and also later wrote a survey of the development of these media. Although Giedion took no account of the role of photography he deliberately used photographs to defend his point of view; according to him, these photographs merely document what the painters themselves were already seeing. Giedion could well imagine that the view of Paris when descending the spiral staircase at the top of the Eiffel Tower, whereby the lines of the iron construction cuts the city into constantly changing sections, contributed to the invention of Cubism. Delaunay’s paintings of the Eiffel Tower provided him with the almost literal proof for this.


The quotation at the beginning of this article laying claim to the invention of the new photography, is by Germaine Krull who is relatively unknown. Karel Teige is one of the few who regularly mentions her as one of the most important pioneers, but his articles only ever appeared in Czech. Krull’s memoirs reveal the important role that modern photography played in the prime of the `optical revolution’, a prime that she described soberly and convincingly on the basis of her personal experiences. She lived for a time in the Netherlands where she got the idea of photographing cranes in the harbour of Amsterdam in 1922 or 1923 (she doesn’t remember precisely when). In Paris she became friendly with Sonia and Robert Delaunay. The latter was so enthusiastic about her `metal photo series’ that he wanted to show them together with his paintings in the Salon d’Automne. Whether this exhibition actually took place is not completely clear, but Krull’s memoirs suggest that the photo-series proved a great success amongst Delaunay’s friends. This success gave her the means to publish the 1922 photoseries she had brought with her as a book – Métal – in 1927 with an essay by Florent Fels. In the well-known artists’ café `Les Deux Magots’ she met the young film director Jean Greville, who introduced her to a man who wanted to publish an illustrated weekly magazine of the type common in Germany but which Paris did not yet have. His name was Lucien Vogel and at the time he was chief editor of `Vogue’. Having seen Krull’s photographs of iron constructions, he commissioned her for the first issue of `VU’. The assignment was to photograph in her own way the Eiffel Tower! `How could I begin to make photographs of this old black thing, which were just the same as my earlier pictures?’, writes Krull. `In the end I found right at the top a small door leading to a staircase which was never used and nobody knew about.’ It was here that she took her pictures, which announced the first issue of `VU’ in May 1928 giving it instant renown. For one person in particular the photographs must have felt like a slap in the face, and that was Sigfried Giedion, who at that moment was in Paris visiting Le Corbusier and who had done everything he could to be the first to come up with oblique pictures of the Eiffel Tower, which, as it happens, appeared a month later in his book Bauen in Frankreich. Quite suddenly, in November 1927, he had started making a study of iron constructions.3) To illustrate his studies he took his own photographs and apparently discovered at about the same time as Krull the same staircase at the top of the Eiffel Tower! The possibility cannot be ruled out that he had spoken with Krull’s friend Delaunay and had directly known about Vogel’s assignment; however, the reverse was just as likely to have been the case – that Vogel had heard something about Giedion’s study via the same contacts. But he could hardly have heard of the staircase. I’ll confine myself to saying that it had been Giedion’s historical sense that induced him to photograph the Pont Transbordeur in Marseilles and the Eiffel Tower in the style of Krull. But the question remains as to whether choosing the Eiffel Tower is all that relevant for Giedion’s argument. His sudden and unexpected enthusiasm for the new aesthetic qualities of `crane architecture’ can, in fact, in the words he chose for the Eiffel Tower, be applied to arbitrarily different examples. Hence it is almost certain that it was Métal that opened the historian Giedion’s eyes, as he was writing the history of modern architecture in France, to a different interpretation, which would destine his life’s work.


The role of photography in the `optical revolution’, which continued through into architecture, and how this was then documented by architecture photography, has not just been suppressed and left unmentioned; Juan Pablo Bonta’s book Architecture and its interpretation (1979) has convincingly shown how a small selection of examples have narrowed the history of modern architecture down to a cliché. The photographs that were employed also contributed to the narrowing of awareness, namely to the reduction of perception (often by cropping photographs, as in the case of Sullivan’s CPS department store in Chicago, whose round corner was covered up by Joedicke) by reducing the `new’ to a few arbitrary qualities. Buildings were photographed fragmentarily merely to focus attention on certain characteristics. Bonta has established that through photographic manipulation an essentially `horizontal’ building such as Mendelsohn’s Kolumbushaus in Berlin can be described by Zévi as `essentially vertical’. Giedion in particular also based his statements on photographs that show a detail in a very manipulated way. Especially because they are widely used in architecture education these manipulations with photographs end up being highly misleading. Photographs failed to document buildings, let alone analyse them. Images ended up in the straightjacket of a theory that was originally intended to legitimize the idea of the liberation of the gaze and seeing, becoming clichéd images of a clichéd memory.


Before one could even begin to talk about a clichéd version of history, architecture photographs had been deployed as a weapon in the struggle to legitimize modern architecture. Giedion published his own photographs in the magazine Bauwelt at the beginning of the thirties. The issue devoted to Holland includes a photograph he took of a detail of the Van Nelle factory: the slanting elevated bridges, obliquely photographed, unmistakably demonstrate a `constructivist’ quality. A counter-offensive was represented by a photo-reportage of Philip Johnson and Henry Russel Hitchcock’s exhibition `Modern Architecture’ (better known as the `International Style’), where not only the same Van Nelle factory, but all the examples are smartly photographed in an old-fashioned, static way. There is only one exception in their selection, which also has an unmistakable polemical content, and that is the photograph of the courtyard of the German Metal Worker’s Union Building in Berlin designed by Erich Mendelsohn and R.W. Reichel. This photograph, in which the jambs of a window seen from the inside with a view of the strip windows on the opposite side form a Malevich-like composition, represents a polemical choice since it seems to indicate that the very modernist intentions that were denied to Mendelsohn by Giedion, who preferred to attribute them to Le Corbusier, can be suggested with just as much persuasiveness in Mendelsohn’s case through using photography in a certain way.


In suggesting new spatial qualities Giedion eventually changed his position somewhat, particularly when he photographed the Rockefeller Center in New York, sticking together a collage of his photographs, and then including it as an illustration of the new experience of space in his bestseller Space, Time and Architecture. We would have to look far to find a more convincing proof that the photographer was `drunk’. What the collage shows is precisely the opposite of a spatial effect; it demonstrates the concept of `faktura’, which Moholy-Nagy had a lot of memorable things to say about: the interesting effect of an accumulation of forms superimposed and juxtaposed in the flat plane of the photograph. Today, for example, the photographs of Hans Werleman demonstrate not only the oeuvre of the OMA arranged with an awareness of that effect, but at the same time they document the rediscovery of this photographic effect as a `peripheral’ quality of the existing city itself, at the very moment that it is observed by a camera. A good example of this are his photographs of the dance theatre in The Hague, which indefinably crosses over into the patchwork of the surroundings, so that the facades are spread across the photograph like objects without depth.


We seem to be so omniscient nowadays as regards the mediating meaning of architecture, that the sensibility seems so often dictated by the consciousness of the possibility of being able to `see’ architecture on the basis of photographs and films. Architecture is first and foremost thought about to such an extent that it is perhaps no longer necessary actually to look at it. If one forms one’s view on the basis of what one knows from photographs, then a description of a personal visit is almost too embarrassing, too personal, in any case too old-fashioned. Retouched photographs of architecture, as in Architecture Vivante for example, evoked the same idea in the twenties. Judging by the design production in many architecture schools it seems that it has become current practice once again to base design on photographs, this time with the help of montages of large-scale xeroxes, video and CAD. Moreover, so many new visual sensations are within easy reach that at last there are some alternatives available for the medium of black and white photographs of, say, the Weissenhofsiedlung and Chareau’s `Maison de Verre’, which for years have determined the modernity of the concordance of photographic reproduction on the one hand and, on the other, the way that architecture materially corresponds to the special effect of this reproduction. While white, smooth stucco was best suited to the medium of old-fashioned retouching, and glass building blocks and chrome pipes to the `cool’ medium of studio lamps, it is now the sandpaper-like roughness of untreated `Eternit’ sheets whose desired effect, preferably in grey tones with a rough grain, is being captured in a photograph, or, even better, with a slightly out of focus video camera. The way that the photographs of Herzog and De Meuron’s Ricola building have been treated provide the most extreme example that one could possibly imagine. The grey, coarse-grained photographs of the building were screenprinted onto the windows of the Architecture Museum in Basle, Enrico Fontanilles made a video film of these and excerpts were made from the video for a publication. In the process, all the qualities that Giedion and Hitchcock, armed with their photographs, argued about, literally disappear. The effect aimed at is connected with the visualization of mass culture culminating in television programming. Opposed to such experiments is the form of photography like that of Reiner Lautwein which documents the very desire to escape from the consciousness of a manipulated reality changing every nanosecond, with the aim of creating a world in complete inner rest by most emphatically recording that which the memory recognizes as an `archaic’ sort of reminiscence. Most architecture photographs, however, fall outside not only any deliberate communicative use, but also outside a deliberate literary use. These are the photographs of both already over-familiar as well as completely unknown, newly completed buildings. In both cases the photographer is under pressure to `score’ with one of the effects described here, which he is all too familiar with. It is then nothing more than the idea with which a magazine is made, that dictates the permissible margins of experiment and memory, at a time when specialized magazines for experiment and memory have just about had their day.

1. Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Experiment in Totality, New York 1950, p. 86.

2. Architektur der UdSSR, no. 5, 1937, p. 39.

3. With thanks to my colleague S. Georgiadis for having verified this date.


De zwaarte van de stenen: Over architectuurfotograaf Jens Lindhe / The heavy presence of the stones: The architectural photographer Jens Lindhe