#5 Can photography capture architecture?
Updated: Jun 29
Nidhi Joshi in conversation with photographer Karina Castro
Monte Amiata by Aldo Rossi is an idealistic vision inspired by stepped forms, a cellular spatial organisation and circumambulatory pathways. Photo Courtesy: Karina Castro
Nidhi Joshi: ‘Photography is light remembering itself.’ It means ‘drawing with light,' derived from the Greek word phos, meaning light, and graphe, meaning to draw. The first permanent photograph, a contact-exposed copy of an engraving, was made in 1822. It was made using the bitumen-based ‘heliography’ process developed by Nicéphore Niépce. Due to technological advancements of the 21st century, it has become an accessible way to capture a moment in time.
Architecture is no exception. It is no surprise that photography in this field is a common practice. What is architecture? It is a body of knowledge concerned with 'intermediate dimensions' in the language of physics. In the language of atoms, it is the architecture of molecules and compounds. Physics defines it as the architecture of galaxies and universes. In Information Technology, it denotes the structure of information and bits. Depending on its scale, the use of the word is a metaphor to suggest the structure of things.
Space is not a Euclidean system; rather, it is a chaotic system in which one feature remains constant while all others change. According to mathematical theories, space is four-dimensional. The four dimensions are not only a spatial concept; they are a type of consciousness, an awareness of greater complexities. Architecture rests in the cross-section of matter and dimensions of space.
But how do we define architecture in a two-dimensional photograph?
In the vast depth of physics, matter and energy are two distinct concepts. We must take into account the scale at which the word ‘Architecture’ operates literally as well as metaphorically. It exists as a wholly new body of knowledge. This part of reality is referred to as the 'sublunar world,' which is the scale of man and planet Earth.
When it comes to buildings, it is difficult to decipher its dimension. In pictures, a building that appears impressive and enormous may appear to be half scale. Pictures flatten textures and obscure construction features that are important. This distortion of reality hinders the user experience.
Fabrica Research Centre in Treviso by Tadao Ando showcases his signature style of using exposed concrete with the play of light. Photo Courtesy: Karina Castro
Today, silent, cold, material forms dominate the architectural discourse. That is why a photograph often portrays it as lonely and lifeless spaces. While it is important to document structures, it cannot be used to understand space in its entirety.
We see architecture as a two-dimensional form, but that is not the reality. It is multi-dimensional and should be experienced with all our senses. Our mind plays an important role in the perception of space, and this aspect should not be forgotten.
Our own emotions and reactions become the plaster between the walls of our palace, the hooks on which we hang coats, or the breakfast cereal as we add character and color. We place emotion in the heart and reaction in the gut. Because of this process, the entire physical body becomes integrated into memorising a space.
Photography cultivates amnesia towards the identity of architecture. The tyranny of vision against other senses of man forgets it is a vessel for cultural memory, energy, and information. It removes the importance of other forms of physical experience. The eyes alone are made by critics and analysts of the method of perception of architecture. Thus, reducing its essence to only one of the senses in a two-dimensional photograph does not do justice to its analysis and criticism.
Monte Amiata by Aldo Rossi showcases startling uniformity of structural elements with no ornamentation. Photo Courtesy: Karina Castro
We must recognize that energy is what gives architecture its vitality. It injects life into the matter of architecture and becomes transforming in its cultural memory. The introduction of energy into architecture defrosts it. It transforms it from a static collection of crystalline images, empty spaces into something alive, animistic, and capable of supporting transformational life processes. Energy differentiates between inanimate and animate, the profile of architecture and our world. It transforms inhabited spaces with different lifestyles. It also changes its usage according to circumstances and progressive degradation through time. The latter is regenerated by its cultural memory, though in a different form.
This is the true architecture dialogue.
Spaces are an amalgamation of their identity, harmony with humans, nature, matter, energy, time, culture, and eternity in the universe. There is great meaning and purpose hidden behind every inch of it. To capture this in two-dimensional media is a condensation that does no justice to its essence.
St. Benedict Chapel by Peter Zumthor showcases his focus on local and traditional craftsmanship and material and construction details. Photo Courtesy: Karina Castro
A great deal of your experience of a given space has to do with scale, forms, temperature, acoustical design, feelings of touch, the tension between interior and exterior. Architecture is not purely a visual experience; it stimulates your senses like sight, smell, touch, and hearing.
Peter Zumthor beautifully describes the sense of smell and touch in a building in the book ‘Thinking Architecture,’
(...) sometimes I can almost feel a particular door handle in my hand, a piece of metal shaped like the back of a spoon. I used to take hold of it when I went into my aunt's garden. That door handle still seems to me like a special sign of entry into a world of different moods and smells. I remember the sound of the gravel under my feet, the soft gleam of the waxed oak staircase, I can hear the heavy front door closing behind me as I walk along the dark corridor and enter the kitchen, the only really brightly lit room in the house (...).
If we accept that to examine space, we perceive and remember the environment through the senses; it becomes clear that no one ever truly experiences or could ever describe a building in the same manner. Hence not even critical photography or any other visual media could portray the objective reality of a truthful representation.
An image is much more about perceiving what it is to be in a place, as it might be small, large, light, dark, warm, or cold. It is a reminder; it provides detail, spreads cultural value, offers a pause for reflection, evokes memory and curiosity. When the photographer Julius Shulman captured the Case Study House No.22, also known as the Stahl House designed by Pierre Koening, you cannot hear the traffic, feel the lights of the lamps; still, it carries your eyes to the environment, to the warmth, helping viewers to imagine the scale through Shulman interpretation of Koenig’s architecture. Debates as the relation of photography and reality have already been debated by Susan Sontag, Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and today by David Hockney in a very contemporary image approach during a marvellous interview with Martin Gayford, published as ‘A Bigger Message.’ Perhaps, we need to begin by asking ourselves what reality means, investigate the concept of Naïve realism in social psychology to further this discussion.
By reading images taken of Louis Kahn’s projects in India and Bangladesh, such as the Indian Institute of Management or the National Parliament of Bangladesh, or Peter Zumthor Benedict Chapel in Sumvitg, Switzerland, it is clear that photography plays a crucial role in the social-cultural architectural promotion. It enhances the viewer’s curiosity to verify and physically live such masterpieces through a vis-à-vis experience.
Humans have used visual communication since prehistoric times, like the Lascaux painting and the Bull-Leaping Fresco of 1450 BC by the Minoan Civilisation. The interpretation of images will always be subjective, and understanding the depth of multiple meanings requires image analysis based on knowledge and different personal perspectives.
These images reflect St. Benedict Chapel, Sumvitg providing details like the local materials like wood shingles that naturally blend into the context of the alpine village. Photo Courtesy: Karina Castro
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About Karina Castro
Karina Castro (b.1990) is a Portuguese artist based in Milan, Italy. Her works focus on the conditions of the territory socio-political issues and architecture, prompting a dialogue about the current environmental circumstances. Her works have been published in different books and magazines and exhibited in different places as the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester and at the Royal Geographical Society in London.
About Nidhi Joshi
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.
About the Editor
Sana Paul is an undergraduate architecture student and writer at the Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi, hailing from the cozy streets of Punjab. She has experience working at the India Lost and Found (ILF) by Amit Pasricha and Rethinking The Future (RTF). She is a contributing writer at Zeyka.