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Modernism caught on camera

The Barbican Centre, a monument to the dreams, achievements and discontents of 20th century Modernism, is the perfect place to tell the story about the relationship between photography and architecture.

Review by Corinna Lotz

Like music, the photographic image is a powerful language that can be interpreted variously by all. Indeed, Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, which features in Constructing Worlds – Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age, was inspired by a Schoenberg opera.  

Helene Binet, Jewish Museum Berlin, Daniel Libeskind, Untitled 9, 1997
Helene Binet, Jewish Museum Berlin, Daniel Libeskind, Untitled 9, 1997

Some 250 black and white and colour images by 19 artists (four of whom are women) are brilliantly set into the gallery’s original Brutalist spaces by architects from the OFFICE practice.

Barbican Constructing Worlds
Barbican Gallery interior reconfigured by OFFICE

The photographs reveal a world both familiar and alien as they probe vast conurbations, buildings as well as detailed structures and surfaces in and through which the world’s population lives, works and plays.

There is a wide sweep through time and space – from 1930s’ New York, the world’s first megacity, right up to contemporary conurbations in Asia, the Middle East and South America. The most startling images are from our own era, the anthropocene, in which human activity is significantly impacting on the earth’s eco-systems.

The symbiotic relationship between photographer and architect provides us with ever new ways of seeing and finding meanings.

Berenice Abbott’s 1932 night view transforms New York into an abstract play of dark and light. She discovers striking patterns in its brash skyscrapers, whilst also documenting the tenements of the poor and the shacks of the homeless.
Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh becomes visual poetry in the work of Hungarian genius, Lucien Hervé. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim and Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building are uncannily dreamlike in Hiroshi Sugimoto’s out-of-focus visions.

The unreal luxury of California Modernism is given an ideal spin by Julius Schulman and, most recently, Libeskind’s Berlin project becomes a Cubist “pas de deux” in Hélène Binet’s compositions – showing that the language of Modernism retains its aesthetic and symbolic power in the 21st century.

Guy Tillim’s haunting visions of “Afro-Modernity” in Mozambique, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are a revelation. The semi-ruined apartment blocks are emblematic of the painful process of de-colonisation, and, as Kobena Mercer notes, “the unresolved political moment in which they were built”.

Simon Norfolk. Former Soviet-era 'Palace of Culture', Kabul
Simon Norfolk. Former Soviet-era 'Palace of Culture', Kabul, 2001-02. Courtesy Simon Norfolk

The most unforgettable images in the show are from the 21st century, not least the brilliant colour shots taken by Simon Norfolk in Iraq during the 2003 US-British invasion. They depict, as art historian/photographer Julian Stallabrass writes in his passionate political appreciation, “the unadorned ruination of the modern infrastructure of a state”, showing “one enforced future: the twilight architecture of the minimal security state amidst the free play of criminal capitalism”.

Bas Princen, 'Mokattam ridge' (garbage recycling city)
Bas Princen, 'Mokattam Ridge' (garbage recycling city), 2009

Bas Princen’s astonishing panorama of Mokattam Ridge, Cairo’s rubbish recycling centre, is of a seemingly infinite expanse of brick and concrete apartment blocks where refuse is the emperor. The low-rise blocks are filled to bursting point and beyond with dumped plastic bags and heaps of scrap.

But sprouting satellite dishes attest to the existence of people living below. Flimsy wooden shacks and turrets are thrown up in every available space. Goats wander up staircases to occupy rooftops and herds pasture in an almost surreal fenced-off enclosure.

installation shot of Iwan Baan's photos of Torre David, Caracas

Above: installation shot of Iwan Baan's photos of Torre David, Caracas [click image to get a close-up of how the occupiers decorated their units]
Below: Iwan Baan Torre David #2 2011

Iwan Baan Torre David

Iwan Baan’s photo essay explores the “Torre David” in Caracas.  Construction on this high-rise financial complex stopped after Venezuela’s 1994 financial crash when it became state property. A group of 3,000 homeless people moved in and transformed it into a self-organised warren of households, shops and even sports facilities. In July this year, the squatters were forcibly evicted by police and soldiers.

Nadav Kander, Chongqing XI, Chongqing Municipality
Nadav Kander, Chongqing XI, Chongqing Municipality, 2007

Nadav Kander’s images of China are suffused in a pale yellowy mist, reminiscent of ancient scroll paintings – but we quickly think industrial smog. In one atmospheric riverscape, taken in Chongqing, southwest China, home to some 29 million souls, fishermen perch on the riverbank, framed and dwarfed by a half-completed bridge soaring into the sky. A group of bathers in Sichuan stand on a rock opposite a factory chimney spewing smoke in the distance. In Chongqing VI (Washing Bike), a man uses the river water to rinse off his motorcycle, below the vast arm of a suspension bridge. 

There are shades of Whistler’s Battersea Bridge and Casper David Friedrich’s yearning views into the distance. Superhuman constructions tower over tiny human beings who try to carry on with their lives. The eerie beauty of Kander’s images is in stark contrast to the horror of eco-degradation.

As an ensemble, these photographs convey a host of social and artistic achievements and how they can be lost in through the persistence of poverty and war – the monstrous contrasts in our global experience. They reveal the remarkable resilience and resources of ordinary human beings in the face of calamity – and the price being paid. Above all, they indicate a clear and present danger and the need for mass action to take us out of the present global system.

3 October 2014

Constructing Worlds – Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age is at the Barbican Art Gallery until 11 January 2015. It is accompanied by a new commission in the Curve by Walead Beshty and a film strand, City Visions.

It travels to the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design, Stockholm in February 2015. The exhibition book by Alona Pardo and Elias Redstone with and an essay by David Campany is £35 hardback.

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