#4 Can photography capture architecture?
Updated: Jun 29
Esha Biddanda Pavan in conversation with photographer Rananjai Singh
Lost in Translation: This was one of the first pictures I clicked when I came to Chicago. "The Native American Lost in Chicago... Dreamin'..." mural by French duo Ella & Pitr in downtown Chicago. Even though I have my formal education in Architecture and Urban Design, it is often overwhelming: the things that exist within a city. Thus, I juxtaposed the mural against the buildings of three different architectural periods and styles. They seemed to relate to my mood and doubts when I came to the city. Photo Courtesy: Rananjai Singh
Esha Biddanda Pavan: Space as we know it is a large expanse of unknown. Several mathematical theories point to the existence of space being four-dimensional. A spatial expansion of the third dimension, in an undefined direction. Be that as it may, to imagine ourselves in four-dimensional space is incomprehensible. To understand it, we build up from the first, second, and third to make the concept succinct enough for our brains to grasp. The fourth dimension is impossible to understand without comparison and analogy.
The same goes for the term ‘architecture’. The ever-evolving nature of architecture necessitates a diverse understanding of the term. The configuration of molecules and compounds at the atomic level has a metaphorical usage of the term. The formation and composition of galaxies and the universe are also referred to as architecture. In the sphere of information technology, it is being used as a professional term. Architecture refers to the logical and physical interrelationships between computer systems. It is from this we deduce the ambiguous presence of the term.
Let us look to the boundless cosmos where our standard understanding of things proves inadequate. The Sublunary Sphere (the area within the Moon’s sphere) is where the powers of physics are ambivalent much like the terms associated with architecture. In scholastic spaces, we use the term ‘architecture’ to describe physical edifices. We know now that this perception is only a small nook in an otherwise vast cognizance of the term. Architecture is anything but a bare vessel. We cannot capture the interstitial spaces involving interior and exterior spaces.
The dominant discourse of architecture concerns itself only with mute, cold, material forms. Architecture is often perceived as a physical and immutable object. We focus far too often on the technicalities of it, forgetting the end use of the space and its true purpose. There is an amnesia towards the identity of architecture as a vessel for cultural memory, energy, and information. This is because of the importance given to vision over other senses of man. The methods of architectural analysis and criticism neglect other forms of bodily experience.
The energy of an edifice can only be experienced by partaking in it. It is an active insertion and refuses to be misunderstood by those that are not behind the lens. Defining spaces and encouraging people to move and live through them is what injects life into the edifice. Architecture goes on to become transformative as opposed to an addition to the space. The change in living beings that occupy it, by alteration in its use subject to circumstance. Gradual decay through time transforms it, only to be renewed by its cultural memory but in a different form altogether.
A photograph cannot capture this energy. Architectural photography tends to capture bare spaces, leaving behind its identity. Architecture participates with the space it occupies. It is an active contributor to the energy and culture of the space, and photography obscures this perception. It is important to capture a space for what it is, for the purposes of documentation or reference. This is an important part of our understanding of architecture, but it is not an accurate depiction of the whole picture. The experience and complete understanding of a space is lost in its documentation.
We cannot forget that at the end of the day, it is the people who use it that make a space. They use all their senses, from vision to touch, to experience a space in all its dimensions. This gives dynamism to the matter of architecture. The incursion of energy into architecture transforms it. Still, crystalline pictures turn into something vital, animistic, bearing transformative processes of life.
Several academicians believe that modern science has rendered philosophy archaic. Yet, in today’s day and age, we understand that only physical processes do not drive our aesthetic choices. The nature of the fourth dimension is perplexing and inexplicable. Similarly, the voids and material form of architecture compel an understanding that photography does not deliver. The scale of the term architecture is at times so minuscule or so vast that it cannot exist as a singular monolith. Stripping a building bare and entitling it architectural photography does it no justice.
Rananjai Singh: The never-ending exploration of the definition of architecture is as timeless as the field itself. What is more important, however, is to understand the cause. Why is the definition under constant transformation? Why does it need to be molded until it captivates its believers (at least until the next big ideological revolution)?
It is because only through art can you truly engage the will of society. And today, there aren’t many art forms as conceivable, approachable, and tangible as photography itself.
Thus, can photography, an art form developed less than 200 years ago, capture the grand magnitude of tangible and intangible Architecture? I believe good architectural photography can.
Before delving into the how it is important to eliminate a common misconception. Photography isn't a one-dimensional approach. And neither is one person’s physical experience within a built environment omnipresent. As humans, we are more ignorant than we are smart. And it is impossible to be otherwise due to the sheer details of the events around us locally and globally. The author beautifully portrayed the wholesomeness of physical presence within a given architecture. However, this neglects to remind us of the extent to which a singular experience also misses out. And also how much our brain falsely creates to fill in the gaps.
The post-modern Marina City buildings (left) were a challenge to the existing modern buildings of Chicago due to its curvilinear and exposed structure which is now imbibed into the city's architectural heritage. However, the building is closely surrounded by buildings (some of which were erected even later) in the same form that Marina City challenged. I thus clicked this image to showcase the dominating presence of textbook modern architecture juxtaposed against the very postmodernist attempt at challenging it. Photo Courtesy: Rananjai Singh
I would also disagree with the author when she suggests ‘the energy of an edifice can only be experienced by partaking in it.’ An edifice is made of tangible forms, colours, and materials. These are directed by generations of intangible principles, knowledge, and guided perceptions. Together these elements allow for a single look to ignite a knowledge of century-old history and culture. Imagine then, what informed photographers and their work can achieve! Like a sports photographer is expected to know the rules of the sports they cover, an architectural photographer too must be familiar with the basic concepts and terminologies of the field and the history of the styles they’re capturing.
It is also important to note that architects and interior designers pay attention to every inch and detail of usable space. This is often too much to break down within the time given to either a user or a virtual viewer. This is where photography helps to simplify and streamline their ideas into more imaginable forms.
Photography can be an added tool for even architects. It can guide them to be more responsive and mindful of their surroundings while also elevating their design thinking. Because as the author correctly suggests, photography does obscure and limit perceptiAt the same time, it also can help one transcend their locality, similar to architecture.
So this one is more about being true to Architecture while doing Architectural Photography. The mid-rise building in the middle is the Edison building by Daniel Burnham and Co. (Daniel Burnham was one of the prime urban designers of Chicago, and also Washington DC Downtown, flatiron building, among many others). If you see the buildings behind and in front of it that came almost half a century later and more, you'll see the architectural details of the Edison building be a precursor to that of all the buildings around it. More importantly, though, Architectural Photography needs to be true to Architecture. Vertical lines must be vertical, horizontal shown as horizontal, etc. And I had to step away, almost 1000 feet away, to be able to capture this to get the juxtaposition and angles right (because I don't have tilt shift or wide angle, etc.) Photo Courtesy: Rananjai Singh
Lastly, it is important to remember that architecture is still at the core of our utilitarian needs. The amnesia that exists towards the identity of architecture is often overfed by our professional community. The surrounding debates set apart the field as exclusive and abstruse.
The majority of people explore architecture only through simplified forms. Forms such as photography and stories. As a result, I believe the question we should ask moving forward is whether we can help make something as accessible as photography evolve. And how we can better capture Architecture in an era where photographs have a lifespan of a swipe of a thumb!
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About Rananjai Singh
Rananjai Singh is an architect, interior designer, artist and photographer based out of Jaipur, India. He runs JAI Design Studio in partnership with Ankit Bhardwaj. Although the core of their practice is based on Architecture and Interior projects, they explore all project statements at the crossroads of design with other disciplines. They have completed over two dozen such projects.
Rananjai picked up photography at a really young age since both his parents did it. It formalized for him as a discipline during his time in high school at Mayo College, Ajmer where he graduated in 2011 and also fell strongly in love with Architecture due to Mayo’s Indo-Saracenic Architecture and beauty. Following that, he went to the School of Planning and Architecture, Bhopal where he found the method of exploration a drab, as with most architecture schools today.
In 2019, he went for his Masters in City Design at University of Illinois at Chicago. And since June 2021 he has been working as an Architect in Chicago for a company called Atkore, while also managing projects in India and the US through his own design studio. The photographs included in this issue are from his explorations in Chicago.
He also teaches Interior Design at the Central University of Rajasthan. He has previously worked for Smart City Jaipur and Ajmer, where he got to participate in furniture, Architecture, Urban scale, and even print, logo, and graphic design as both an Architect and Public Outreach Assistant.
About Esha Biddanda Pavan
Esha Biddanda Pavan is an architect and urbanist currently based out of Toronto, Canada. She is a graduate of the School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University, UK and the Visvesvaraya Technological University (VTU), Bangalore. She has experience working at Kitsune Consulting, Cardiff University Business School, Weaving Thoughts, Keha Casa, Kabir Hira Architects and a-designstudio. She is a contributing editor at Zeyka.
About the Editor
Nidhi Joshi is a writer, architect and artist. She experiments with art, calligraphy and all things Interior Design. She is a graduate of the Bharati Vidyapeeth College of Architecture, Mumbai. She has experience interning at PG Patki Architects. She is a contributing editor at Zeyka.