(Short extract from 3000 word essay)
by Robin Wilson
There has been a long held suspicion amongst specialist commentators on the subject of architectural photography that the relationship between architecture and photography can be as problematic as it is productive. As early as the 1930s, critics had drawn attention to the potential effects of the abstractions of the photographic image filtering through to the sphere of architectural practice as uncontested fact. As historian and archivist Robert Elwall chronicles, Michael Rothenstein was concerned about the chromatic deficiency of British modernist architecture as a result of being influenced by black-and-white photography of continental buildings. John Brandon Jones articulated a wider distrust of the image when he commented that photography ‘may have very little to do with architecture; you can do it as well with a heap of scrap iron as with a building’. The critique of architectural photography has since undergone many iterations and updating, with articles by Tom Picton in the 1970s being amongst the first to open the debate beyond the confines of professional architectural practice to explore the implications of a Marxist critique of the image. In the 1990s a particularly vehement critique was articulated by the Marxist cultural theorist Fredric Jameson. Jameson claimed that many postmodern buildings had been made for photography leading, in effect, to the degrading of the spatial and material qualities of the building, in favour of investment in the camera apparatus and image reproduction. Jameson writes of the media image of architecture in the period of the late 1970s and 80s, ‘it is no longer even the building that is now consumed, having itself become a mere pretext for the intensities of the colour stock and gloss of the thick paper’.
In this essay on aspects of Peter Bobby’s High-rise project I wish to think about the question of photography’s function as a critical medium in relation to architecture, drawing on Jameson’s critical theory to help explore some complex issues of representation that the project raises. As a part of his expansive investigation into the changing role of cultural production in the era of globalisation and late capitalism, Jameson registered that, with the arrival of a full-blown postmodern architecture, the marriage of photography and architecture had degraded into commodity spectacle, the exchange and endless replication of the stereotypical image. Bobby’s representation of corporate high-rise environments takes us to the core of this problematic in the contemporary era. But what precisely are the tactics Bobby deploys to expose and question the relationship between building and images; and what is the prognosis that these images leave us with?
A full version of this essay can be found in the publication ‘High-rise’.