The Foreward to the accompanying catalogue for the Barbican‘s exhibition Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern World states that architecture is “the most significant, undeniable and often monumental and enduring trace of our presence on this planet”. In some ways the exhibition, which admirably demonstrates this statement to be true, can be seen as a culmination of the Barbican’s long support for architecture and photography as principal art forms.
Constructing Worlds is the first exhibition of its kind, taking into consideration the collision of photography as social documentary and art photography, and pinpointing them in the portrayal of architecture. It is themed by photographer rather than architect, and hung in a loosely chronological manner. In fact, the Barbican’s exhibition space lends itself perfectly to the exhibition’s curation: a non-generic space for works, a complexity of light and dark, mass and void, makes it particularly resonant space for architectural subject matter, and its compartmentalised structure meant that each room could be devoted to a separate photographer and/or a specific theme in their work.
Starting with Berenice Abbott’s photos of 1930s New York, a transitional period as old tenement blocks were dwarfed by new skyscrapers, it is perhaps appropriate that the first half of the exhibition is dedicated to American photographers and architects; the rapid modernisation which the USA kick-started in the early 20th century and sent across the Atlantic in the late 20th century and onto the East in the early 21st century is the prevalent theme of the exhibition. The range of works and styles in the show is impressive: from Walker Evans empirically cataloguing wooden churches and abandoned plantation houses in Depression-gripped rural America, to the brash full-blown technicolour of Julius Shulman’s magazine photos of 1950′s lifestyle, we are taken around the world and through a century touching down in Italy, Germany, South America, Africa and India, to name a few. We are gifted new perspectives on iconic buildings: we see the Rockefeller Centre still in construction, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s pre-emptive photo of the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers as ghostly blurred presences, rising in shadowy evanescence from a hazy New York skyline, taken four years before 9/11; and Helene Binet’s sombre monochrome pictures of Daniel Libeskind‘s Holocaust Museum in Berlin, photographed in fragments, which offer a different way of digesting the space, rather than displaying the entire exterior, or a whole room.
Architectural exhibitions are not particularly prevalent on the London gallery scene: there was of course the National Gallery’s Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting earlier this year which offered a specific historical and artistic context, and the Royal Academy’s Sensing Spaces exhibition at the beginning of 2014, which attempted to bring architecture physically into the museum space. Whether it was successful in doing so is debatable as we ended up with a series of rather confused and confusing installations. There were exceptions, for example Kengo Kuma‘s installation of scented bamboo snaking up through darkness, as Grafton Architects‘ modernist play on light and dark, mass and void, but other installations, such as Diébédo Francis Kéré‘s interactive multi-coloured straws felt a little gimmicky, and others just inexplicable. In comparison the Barbican seems to have discovered the best way to display architecture in the gallery setting: by exhibiting photographers who interpret the buildings with a distinct and individual style, rather than simply documenting them, they unveil the lived experience of our built world, and through this, some fundamental truths about human society.