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Constructing Worlds – Review

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Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

‘Architecture is the form in which many cultural forces find expression and become accessible to a mute, visual medium.’ This quote from Stephen Shore, one of the many photographers whose work is on display, is an excellent summation of the Barbican’s latest exhibition.

‘Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age’ brings together the works of eighteen photographers since the 1930’s and explores the ever-changing relationship between the two. Boasting over 250 works, the exhibition is a diverse and extensive project aiming to demonstrate how architecture plays a pivotal role in society and, in a sense, shapes collective and individual identity.

Shooting the century

The twentieth century was a time of incredible and rapid modernisation throughout the world. With the number of wars, horrors and devastations witnessed throughout a troubling period, the past was often something people wanted to forget, in favour of modernity and the future.

This idea is evident from the moment you walk into the exhibition, which begins with the American photographer Berenice Abbott, and her grand study of New York City. She wanted to catch the ‘past jostling the present’ as the city attempted to modernise whilst key elements of traditionalism remained. It’s an idea that remains prevalent throughout the exhibition, with the whole world facing such challenges in some way.

Moving further down the halls, you’ll find the works of Walker Evans, who instead photographed the rural landscapes of America in the first half of the twentieth century. Whilst cities were being born, there was a whole world being left behind and ignored by the surge of modernism. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that still rings true now, especially in developing countries where there is often massive disparities in terms of development.

This all leads to the symbolic and literal centrepiece of the exhibition. An area focusing on the tension that exists between the past and the present, where man is constantly in a state of ‘making and unmaking’ is brought out by Bas Princen’s shot of Mokattam Ridge in Cairo, also known as ‘Garbage City’.

With refuse sacks littering the balconies and rooftops in the city, there’s a great quote from Princen that accompanies the shot. Essentially, cities ‘disappear as individual cities and as specific places, dissolving instead into a new kind of city, an imaginary urban entity in formation’. Architecture therefore is always at the centre of change and is the material object that connects the past with the present.

Tellers of a thousand stories

This exhibition equally demonstrates the very human side of architecture. Lucien Hervé’s section documents the construction of the Indian city Chandigarh and his photos were never intended for publication. It’s a document to the mass civil projects in India after WW2 and how people have played a substantial part in the birth of such buildings.

This is seen multiple times within the exhibition, including with Iwan Baan who photographed abandoned buildings in Venezuela that have now taken on a new life through inhabitation by squatters. Not just squatters, but whole communities reside in these abandoned buildings, showing that there is always an important human factor behind these constructions.

Nadav Kander’s are some of the most exceptional examples, as he investigated the Yangtze River in China and the ways in which people are able to adapt to their surroundings. One particular example was of a group of people having a picnic under a bridge. The area is industrialised, smoggy and seemingly incapable of supporting life, it’s the last place you’d think to picnic but here these people are! It’s strangely poetic and evocative, conveying that architecture isn’t simply a cold idea used for practicality.

Visual beauty

Whilst there is a strong narrative going on throughout the exhibition, there are also some works which are included for their aesthetically pleasing nature. This is mostly evident in the sections dedicated to Julius Schulman and Luigi Ghirri. Schulman’s work is incredibly vibrant and colourful, and has a Technicolor quality to it that makes his work particularly striking.

Documenting the homes of Californian residents in the 1950’s and 60’s, his photos are an idyllic vision of America that seem to come straight out of an advert from Life Magazine. Soon enough, it becomes apparent that these were intended for the publication and it shows the power of advertising in those times and how they could present an of American life that was so inviting – almost straight out of an episode of Mad Men.

One of the most remarkable pieces was the ‘Case Study House #22: Stahl House, California’ which takes up half the wall. It’s a shot of the house from the side that overlooks the Californian setting and it’s the epitome of luxury and glamour in one take, which is sure to take you back in time.

‘Constructing Worlds’ reveals how architecture isn’t merely grand projects to modernise cities but instead a way to bring new dimensions to life. The personal, mundane, social, economical, material, subjective and objective all are all accounted for here. Buildings are full of life, tellers of a thousand stories and places where existence is realised: they are humanity’s legacy to the world.

Thomas Struth, another photographer on display, described his work as an attempt to find an ‘emblematic photograph of a city: a work, which has more general qualities, and which can offer a more epic narrative within a single picture’. When taking this in, you can see that the Barbican has succeeded and, in many ways, ‘Constructing Worlds’ is the perfect reflection.