Review: Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age

Olivia Arigho Stiles reviews a new exhibition at the Barbican.

One of Iwan Baan's pictures of the Torre De David in Caracas.

One of Iwan Baan’s pictures of the Torre De David in Caracas.

The Barbican’s new exhibition explores the relationship between photography and architecture in the epoch of modernity.  The exhibition is testament to the enduring power of the city (for here it is urban architecture which predominates) in the artistic imagination, exposing the aching desolation of the urban landscape, inhuman and austere – but also conversely, its site as a crucible of resistance.

The exhibition is long overdue. Cities have become strategically crucial arenas in which the neoliberal project has been most ruthlessly enacted. Behind modern urban planning is the spectre of gentrification, yet this remains largely unexplored by the exhibition’s curators, and it is not always clear what deeper themes or overarching narrative link this impressive variety of works.

Coming at the end in the chronologically arranged exhibition, Iwan Baan’s 2011 photographs of Torre de David in Caracas, Venezuela, underpin the resilience and dynamism of ordinary people’s resistance to the worldwide crisis in affordable city housing, something highlighted so forcefully by the recent Newham E15 women’s campaign. Torre de David is the 45-story office tower in Caracas designed by the Venezuelan architect Enrique Gómez which was almost complete when it was abandoned following the collapse of the Venezuelan economy in 1994. It has since become a vertical home to more than 750 squatting families.

Baan’s photographs brilliantly capture both the precariousness and vitality of daily life in the unfinished block. A barber’s shop and lace cloth-covered kitchen tables coexist with concrete staircases and exposed steel girders, reflecting a bottom-up resourcefulness to Caracas’s scarcity of housing and to the vicissitudes of the global economy.

Yet elsewhere in the exhibition, irreverence and resilience are notably absent. Indeed, it might be argued that the exhibition deals with the postmodern, rather than the modern age. This is echoed in Guy Tillim’s work, which portrays Mozambique’s storm-battered, dilapidated tower blocks, symbolising the degeneration of the pan-African decolonisation movements of the mid 20th century and the ideologies which propelled them.  Meanwhile, Nadav Kander documents the wistful haze of the Yangtze river bank, where a family sit cheerfully eating at a picnic table in the shadow of a looming steel bridge.

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The political implications of modernist architecture are most apparent in Julius Schulman’s works illustrating the designs of architect Pierre Koenig. Under a vast canopy of Californian sunshine, the modernist luxury apartment offers panes of gleaming glass and a shimmering swimming pool. A besuited man reclines in his urban utopia. A slim housewife in an immaculate kitchen scene invokes a clichéd post-war domestic ideal, before The Feminine Mystique shattered the illusion. Here, West Coast modernist architecture embodies a lifestyle, a mentality, and ultimately the power struggles at the heart of the modern age. Schulman’s work extols the virtues of capitalist patriarchal white supremacy before it was ruptured by the civil rights and feminist movements of the sixties. The distant sprawl of the Los Angeles night skyline beneath the luxury apartment unfolds as tantalising dark matter, the imminent social unrest of the Sixties lying beyond.

The curators Elias Redstone and Alona Pardo have employed an imaginative use of space throughout, especially in the rotunda that encompasses Luigi Ghirri’s stark photographs. Global in focus, the Barbican’s exhibition showcases a poignant, if occasionally contradictory, series of reflections on the complex and shifting ties between photography, architecture and the modern world.

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