AS My name is Alan Saunders and my excuse for being here is that I present a show on ABC Radio National called ‘By Design’ which is about architecture and design. I used to present a show which was fairly similar to 'By Design' – it was called ‘The Comfort Zone’ – and I’m out of my comfort zone now because I work on radio. And although we talk about design and architecture, it is in the nature of radio that we don’t do visual, though we do have a website with pictures on it, which is a pity, really, because the world today is full of pictures of buildings.
This evening we’re taking an unashamedly two-dimensional approach to the subject of architecture. Just look at us, we are surrounded by pictures of buildings; they’re in magazines, they’re in book shops – go to a book shop and there’s often a very impressive array of beautiful coffee table books with photographs of buildings in them. Even newspapers, now that newspapers tend to be as much magazines as sources of up-to-the-minute information, they often have property sections or design sections in which we encounter photographs of buildings, and that’s the subject that we’re going to be addressing this evening.
We have three very distinguished speakers and the format of the evening is; each of them is going to give us a very brief illustrated talk and then we’re going to kick a few ideas around amongst ourselves. For the last quarter of an hour we’re going to throw it open to you and you can have your say.
Our first speaker this evening, Professor Philip Goad; internationally known for his research and for being an authority on modern Australian architecture. He has worked extensively as an architect, conservation consultant and curator; he’s an expert on the life and work of Robin Boyd and is a past editor of Fabrications, the journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Australia and New Zealand. He’s also a contributing editor to Architecture Australia and, along with Associate Professor Julie Willis, he is editor of the proposed Encyclopaedia of Australian Architecture so a very, very good person to kick off the proceedings this evening. Please welcome Philip Goad.
PG Thank you very much Alan, and just as a plug for the encyclopaedia, shamelessly, it’s being published in November this year so please watch out for it; it’s the first of its kind. My task is to give some opening remarks this evening. When one thinks about post-war Melbourne in visual terms, a number of us might immediately think of John Brack’s painting Collins Street at 5pm of 1955, but as an architectural historian, I think instead instantly of Melbourne as a black and white photograph and especially Mark Strizic's hauntingly evocative images of Melbourne streets from the late 1950s.
The State Library, as Shane said, has a fantastic collection of images like these. The appealing aspect of a photograph such as this is its everyday, almost documentary aspect, and this was the quality that he brought also to his photographs of Robin Boyd’s architecture. I’m just going to go back very quickly because this is a Mark Strizic photograph of the Robin Boyd house and there’s Suzie Boyd seated in front of a fireplace of the living room.
There is an essential humanism about Mark Strizic’s photographs; they’re observations that Robin Boyd as an architect would have found immensely appealing. The other aspect about Strizic’s photograph is the way that it captures the formal quality of Melbourne’s winter light; the contrast of the blinding white of the sunlit street and the deep shadow of Melbourne’s shop cantilevered awnings – intrinsic architectural aspects of almost all Australian capital cities. Photographs like these of architecture and urbanism are different from those commissioned by architects, clients and architectural firms.
Architects, like photographers, love the formal possibilities of light and shadow. Both use them, complicitly, to highlight their subjects, and that is a very modernist tactic. Wolfgang Sievers was without doubt one of Australia’s great modernist photographers. Here in this night shot of Buchan Laird & Buchan Shell House on the corner of William and Bourke Street of 1960, Wolfgang Sievers turns the glass curtain-walled building into a lantern. This was one of the great strategies of photographers in the 1950s; houses, office buildings, shops photographed at night became emitters of light revealing the openness and clarity of the spaces within.
What was emphasised was the building’s transparency; copious amounts of glass – the corporate workplace here was new, air-conditioned and, above all, light. At Yuncken Freeman’s BHP House 1967 to ’73, diagonally opposite Shell House, Sievers’ photograph is another lantern image. It emphasises the public space of the street where the Harcourt granite of the footpath seems to enter the building itself, passing seamlessly through the glass. The overhead shop canopy has disappeared here in favour of the lift core being exposed to the city, complete with indoor landscaping of a sort.
This powerful idea of an intrinsic indoor/outdoor relationship was one that both architects and photographers would pursue relentlessly. It was again a key aspect of modernism, and glass enabled it and, as it applied to the house, modern living. This is Lesley Runting’s of Roy Grounds’ own house at 24 Hill Street in Toorak and it attempts to do the same idea as Wolfgang Sievers; to show not only the close relationship between inside and out, but now also two completely different but highly tactile landscapes. From the timber ceiling, the suspended copper flue, the zebra-skin rug and Victoria Grounds reading on the floor, to outside, the crazy paving and the black bamboo of the sunlit circular court, a building which would find much larger echo in the three courtyards of the National Gallery of Victoria.
My final image is a photograph by Kenneth Ross which underlines these themes, but it’s also one which speaks to the heroism of structure; in this case huge plywood box beams and a different sort of canopy now overhead. This is the garden elevation of Ken and Prue Myer’s holiday house at Davey’s Bay, Mt Eliza, designed by Robin Boyd. It’s a long way from John Brack’s deeply glum vision of Melbourne, but that’s what both the architect and the photographer intended. The house is anti-urban; it speaks of optimism, of landscape and a giant parasol to shelter under and also a place to sit in the sun. The chair is American and the Myers were much imbued with America at that time; it’s a Harry Bertoia classic. The basket chairs are Japanese, probably bought from Bruce Anderson’s furniture showrooms, as they were then, in Chapel Street. The landscape in the foreground is native and selected by landscape designer John Stevens.
Inside, you can just see the outline of another copper flue; this time in a hanging pergoda shape. Here the photographer Kenneth Ross has captured Boyd’s long-held belief in the power of a single controlling idea for a powerful piece of architecture; it’s a great image. There is some irony, however, here; Brack’s painting of Melbourne, however deeply pessimistic, survives and is now iconic. This house, 'Pelican', has been demolished but this photograph survives. It shows a very bright vision of what the future might have been.
Thank you very much.
AS Thank you Philip. Our next speaker, John Gollings, works in the Asia-Pacific region as an architectural photographer; much of his work involves long-term cultural projects, especially in India, Cambodia, China, Libya and New Guinea. He specialises in the documentation of cities, both old and new; a lot of it from the air. He has a particular interest in the cyclic fires and floods which characterise the Australian landscape and he’s documented these with aerial photography. His work is held by the Asia Society in New York, the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, the Australian National Gallery, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Monash Gallery of Art, the State Library of Queensland, the Janet Holmes à Court collection, the Gold Coast Gallery and the National Library of Australia.
Gollings is currently the co-creative director with Ivan Rijavic of the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Architectural Biennale. This exhibition is called Now and When and compares the existing state of Victorian cities with their counterparts in the mining holes of the west to the possibility of a radical new paradigm city of the future. It’s all photographed from a helicopter in 3D or rendered in 3D using John’s studio CGI techniques, and this project will now travel Australia and Asia under the auspices of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade until next year. Please welcome now John Gollings.
JG Thank you all for coming. Despite the vast range of work I do, I selected 240 photographs to show tonight, which had come out of this forthcoming book and it was edited down to ten. Perhaps in 10 photographs we can cover my life’s history; certainly that covering Australian architecture. There is a lineage; I went to school with Wolfgang Sievers’ son and as a consequence, spent a lot of time at his house in Sandringham talking about photography when I was 11 and 12 years old so I was imbued even then as a teenager with the modernist upbringing that Wolfgang brought to Melbourne and a lot of his gossipy tales of his life with Helmut Newton.
I was quite comfortable with modernism but I went from architecture school into fashion photography and as my contemporaries started to give me buildings to photograph – it wasn’t that I needed the money to live on, I was earning a lot of money as an advertising and fashion photographer – I took it upon myself to offer a critique which was something new and to add a narrative into the photographs. I was fully aware of the work that Max Dupain and David Moore and Sievers and Strizic were doing in Melbourne, but it was an era of post-modernism and I was already uncomfortable with that scenario and I wanted to offer the viewer the opportunity to assess post-modernism for what it was worth. And there was also a little bit of humour in it, so in the early work in Carlton for Peter Corrigan which was to be published in Domus magazine I thought it would be nice to perpetuate the myth that kangaroos still bounced up and down the Melbourne streets. Equally a very, very prosaic humble little building for the Catholic Church; in fact a crèche called the ‘Freedom Club’ – and it struck me that one of the great freedoms in the world is to fly through the sky like Peter Pan – a book and whose illustrations by J M Barry I’d loved as a kid. I put my daughter in a little gypsy outfit that I’d got in India and jumped her on a trampoline and double exposed her into this shot called ‘Freedom’.
Peter Corrigan is probably a better educator and better theatre designer than he is a practising architect but he did explain to me that this church in Keysborough was all about celebrating the theatre of the mass. And it struck me that there’s nothing more theatrical than the vestments that the local priest would wear, and so we arranged with Barry Moran, the local priest, to come out and stand on Keysborough Road and allow himself to be flashed at night and then to put a big plastic garbage bag over his body while he stood there so we wouldn’t double expose that part of the image and my assistant ran around lighting the church.
We now make a rapid leap; there are probably three stages in my career as an architectural photographer, and in the middle stage I suppose the formality of a Max Dupain but with the excitement of modern colour film and lenses and perspective – this is the work of Renzo Piano in Noumea, the Kanak Cultural Centre. It’s one of my favourite images. I tend to shoot with a wide angle lens; I put my architect’s building up front but that wide angle gives me a much wider context. I don’t want to exclude as Max Dupain and Harry Seidler did, everything else around the building; I still wanted to offer people a chance to assess the building and its relationship.
In recent work I’ve been doing in Hong Kong for Daniel Libeskind, again I’m offering a critical view – this is the Run Run Shaw Centre for Creative Media – it will give you an insight into the way I approach things I guess. First of all I get a brief and the brief from Libeskind was that I had to excavate this mountain in Hong Kong and upon excavation they discovered a crystal, a beautiful creative crystal, and that’s what his building would be. The trouble was when the Vice Chancellor in Hong Kong saw the budget, he said, ‘Well, bugger it; you might as well double the size of the building because it won’t cost that much more to build’. Suddenly the crystal was so much bigger than the mountain that it ceased to comply with the idea that it was found inside it. Then they value-managed all the reflective metal skin off the building so it’s just painted concrete in that typical Asian Chinese way. What was left on a very smoggy day was for me to try to find some angle that expressed the crystalline sugary-white nature of the building, and I did it by breaking in to a building project across the road and sneaking up the lift core and then climbing out through all the scaffolding and hand-holding a very wide angle to actually put back into a photograph and create an image that in fact doesn’t exist but complies with Libeskind’s idea of what it should have been.
My sole role in life is to look for the hero image; the one singular image that people remember a building by – perhaps two – and that might be an interior. When I go out to a job, all I’m really looking for is that one singular image, and that’s what I’ve devoted my life to doing and that’s what we’ll discuss tonight. Thank you.
AS Our final speaker this evening, Vanessa Bird, is a practising architect and founder-director of the Bird de la Coeur Architects, whose work has been widely published and awarded. Vanessa has broad-ranging architectural expertise in finding solutions to housing problems, both for groups of individuals and more recently in apartment design and social housing and she has won awards for innovative housing projects. Vanessa worked with Harriet Edquist on an exhibition entitled Wolfgang Sievers and Stanhill at RMIT Gallery in 1999, on the Transitions special issue on Robin Boyd in 1992 and with Harriet Edquist and Helen Stuckey on Frederick Romberg, the Architecture of Migration 1938-1975 which actually contains a catalogue of Romberg’s works.
She’s a very relevant person to be addressing us this evening. Please welcome Vanessa Bird.
VB Thanks Alan. The images I’ve chosen tonight touch on three ideas. The first is the relationship that existed between photographer Wolfgang Sievers and architect Frederick Romberg; the second is Sievers’ technique that he uses at Stanhill and the third touches on contemporary modes of representation. The relationship of Sievers to Romberg or to Stanhill of 1943-’51 I would say is that of translator; it’s not documenter or reporter. Like a critic does with text giving access to an artwork, a painting or a building, so too we see in Sievers’ work his ability to make us see; if you like, to reveal the soul behind the face.
Sievers was perfectly placed to do this because he not only understood the ambitions of modern architecture but he was in command of a radical modernist photographic vocabulary that was equally ambitious – new photography aimed to reveal facts about the constructed world, it left behind the aesthetic of the pictorialists who tried to achieve painterly effects in their work. New photography’s hallmarks were sharp focus, purposeful lighting, emphatic viewpoints and detailed close-ups. These are all things you’ll see in the exhibition.
Sievers was at the top of his game when he was shooting Stanhill and used his full toolbox to increase the viewer’s awareness of detail, structure and the ambition of the building. Sievers told me he didn’t remember ever being briefed in any way; he just responded to the architecture and therefore found the assignment easy. This response comes from Sievers and Romberg’s shared European education and European understanding of the international style imbued with – in Romberg’s case – Swiss empiricism.
Romberg was educated at the ETH in Zurich by Otto Salvisberg, who used reinforced concrete technology in his large housing projects, and he imbued them with clever detail and geared them to the human scale. Sievers, on the other hand, was educated in Berlin at the Contempora School after the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis in 1933. He’d photographed the works of Friedrich Schinkel to illustrate a four-volume history on the architect’s work written by Siever’s father, who was an eminent architectural historian. He’d also been introduced to Erich Mendelsohn and taken photos for him before he was forced to emigrate to Australia.
Romberg, too, was forced to emigrate due to his political affiliations. Even though they both arrived in the same year, they didn’t meet for some 10 years. However, in Sievers, Romberg found a natural ally and Stanhill has never looked better than through the lens of Sievers.
This image for me is a complete knock-out. Here we see Sievers’ promotion of the modernist project; the gleaming white Stanhill bathed in light while the 1922 Lyndhurst in the foreground built in an English domestic revival style is sitting in the shadow of the past. Sievers exploits the analogy of the landlocked ocean liner. This is an instructive image both of where we’ve come from and the certainty and optimism of the city’s future. The image shows Sievers’ sixth sense of light, weather, location and the didactic. Sievers uses the extreme close up and I think that this is an arrestingly beautiful image; it shows Sievers’ innate compositional skill, his use of strong light and shadow, to reveal the complexity of the form.
It also expresses that handmade materiality of the off-form concrete and brings us up close enough to touch the building. Sievers knew photography’s upward and downward views give us the feeling of what it would be like to experience the building, to move in and around the building ‘til we’re finally swept up off the footpath in a filmic sweep and seeing John Connell’s cantilevered entry in a vertigo-inducing image. This one’s in the exhibition.
Through a sequence of images we feel that we’re physically or bodily engaged with the building. So to our work – this is a John Gollings photograph. It could be said that the characteristic wide-angled shot that John Gollings uses tries to achieve this engagement in a single image, a single image that tries to represent the whole. We know that in life, we would need to be moving our head from side to side in a panning motion to see this view of a courtyard house. In this way, the image gives us the idea of movement in the space and of some sort of physical engagement.
This is at a penthouse project in an apartment building of ours and it was photographed by Dianna Snape, who was trained by John. But Dianna doesn’t use the wide angle in a domestic interior; what she’s trying to capture is an emotion. It’s about texture or something tactile rather than broad description. Of course both these techniques produce beautiful images and win awards for architects and offer them a choice of representation through their choice of photographer. This needs to be a purposeful choice as the image then comes to stand in for the building. Thank you.
AS Vanessa, thank you very much indeed. I had various ideas that I wanted to kick around but something came up in the course of Philip’s talk which we might turn to first. Philip, you said you saw Melbourne – or at least Melbourne in the immediate post-war years and into the 50s and perhaps 60s – as a black and white photo. I’m very struck and I’ve long been struck by the fact that our view of classical architecture, the architecture of the Greek and Roman world, and indeed, our view of medieval architecture, is heavily affected by the fact that we tend to forget that these buildings were offered violently polychromatic; they were really, really colourful.
The photographs that you showed us, Melbourne as a black and white photo; they had a great sense of form, weight, structure but do you think the fact that they were in black and white meant that something important was omitted?
PG Yes, I think you’re right. We look at these photographs – or I look at them – basically because they’re documentary in many respects – they become archival. At the same time they’re done with such technical proficiency that you come to like them as works of art. Certainly the 50s was the era of the great new paint colours in Melbourne; I mean Peter McIntyre’s house was described by Vogue in 1956 as ‘a poor clay butterfly’, so there was a lot of colour if you knew where to look. Melbourne during the Olympic Games, for example, had particular street decorations which were full of colour but John may be able to say more about this. The quality of the colour images that we have from that period doesn’t seem to have the same sense of immediacy as the black and white photographs.
AS There’s something curiously depressing about looking at a coloured – I realise this is fairly downmarket of the sort of thing you’re talking about – but a coloured postcard of that period with really appalling colour.
PG Appalling colour, yes.
AS But John, you’re obviously now – I don’t know whether you always were – you’re a colour man, aren’t you?
JG I would prefer black and white because I think it’s a way of expressing some more universal resonance in an image but yes, everyone in the magazine publishing world that I live with, demands colour. Colour now – digital colour and digital reproduction – is spectacularly accurate but the era that you refer to, the dyes have faded, the film was very slow, photographers were taught to light the foreground up so it took away the emotional content from the lighting; it was a very transitional medium and I think black and white has been the constant throughout photograph history.
AS Vanessa, you’re looking at me – does this indicate you want to come in here?
AS It’s okay. What you showed us were… the John Gollings picture we saw at the end was extremely beautiful but there was, as I said, a great sense of form and weight in the black and white photographs that you showed us.
JG If I can just butt in – when film was invented it was only sensitive to blue light and all the great adventure photographs that we came to know from the 19th century had a particular characteristic; the sky was always white, and that’s because if you’re sensitive to blue light and the sky is blue, it turns out over-exposed and white on film. By the same token, shadows are lit with blue light from the southern sky – the northern sky in most of the cases – and so the shadows were very open and that became an archetypal description of the Victorian building; the minute they invented orthochromatic and panchromatic film, we lost the ability to put that resonance that goes with 19th-century buildings into photographs. There’s a technical reason why the great architectural images of the 19th century are so different and strong.
AS Well John, let’s look at how you go about your work. I presume that if you’re, say, a portrait photographer – if there’s time, and I presume there very often isn’t time – but you’d like to get to know the person you’re photographing, you’d like to try various angles, you’d like to make it as personal as possible – do you do that with a building?
JG Not quite. I like to have a conversation with the architect – and I generally am given that conversation by telephone – who will explain what it is that was in his head when he was designing the building. It may be that he says it’s beside the seaside and it’s about rolling, crashing waves; it could be that he sits down like some architects and has given me a discourse on sacred geometry or the mathematical theories that they love so that their house is based on a 1.2 metre grid. I take that explanation and then I go to the building, and assuming I’ve got there on a good day and the right light and I can do something with it, I then look for a way to express those characteristics within the photograph. But beyond that, I’m still looking for that singular image, and despite the architect’s protestations, if I think that he doesn’t understand his own building – and they quite often don’t – I will take the photograph that I think does the building justice; not the architect.
PG Can I ask, John, do your architects sometimes disagree with you?
JG Yes often, sometimes violently. Harry Seidler used to lose his temper and become apoplectic; however, he did give me one of the strongest bits of advice that I’ve ever had, and he rubbed it into my face because I’d pulled a Polaroid on the Waverley Civic Centre that he disagreed with and that was that ‘You must show the whole building’. He said, ‘If you don’t show the whole building, it might go on for another 100 yards, who knows? Do not ever photograph a building without showing the limits of it’. That has stuck with me; I never just photograph a little bit of a building for two reasons; one, it doesn’t describe the architecture fully, and secondly, it tends to become about the photographer and not the architecture.
AS Vanessa, as an architect, have you – perhaps like Harry Seidler – ever been disappointed by what a photographer has done with one of your buildings?
VB I wouldn’t say I’ve been disappointed; I think, though, that I’ve got photos I wouldn’t use that we’ve commissioned. Partly I would say that some of that has been our own fault really, because there are so many pressures now to photograph your work – much more so than there were in the 50s. There’s a plethora of magazines, there’s social media, websites – there’s this constant demand for content and also awards programs which there are a lot of, and some of those, I must say, are only judged by photograph, which is another sort of problem, an issue in itself. I suppose my answer to your question would be that sometimes we’ve rushed in to get something photographed to meet the deadline for an award, it’s then been submitted, but in four year’s time or something like that, it looks so bald and terrible because there’s no landscaping – you know what the building looks like now, it looks so much better with a matured landscape around it that you almost can’t use the image because it’s so raw.
AS Actually the awards thing is very interesting. I was – should I say what the awards panel was? Oh yes, I’ll say it. Last year I was on the Premier’s Design Awards in the state of Victoria and we were judging buildings and they hadn’t taken us around the buildings; we were just judging these buildings on the basis of pictures of them…
VB That’s one of the reasons though that the Institute of Architects’ Awards are much more highly valued, because they do visit.
AS There was one building – this time I’m not going to mention who it is – it was by an architectural firm which I don’t enormously admire, but I quite liked the building. Somebody said ‘No, no, you have to go there; it doesn’t work – it just doesn’t work’. How would I know from just a picture? That does bring us to the question of whether pictures mislead us. Philip, as a historian, you can perhaps tell us this – whether there’s too much photography. If you were in the 18th century and you were interested in architecture, you’d look at renderings of buildings, you’d look at elevations, perhaps plans, but there would be nothing that could fool you into thinking that you’d actually seen the building. You knew that if you wanted to see the building you were going to have to go to Europe on the grand tour or whatever, whereas now it is possible to think you’ve seen a building, isn’t it, because you’ve seen a photograph of it or several photographs of it.
PG Yes, you’re absolutely right. The internet is a huge source of images but I think there is nothing like experience. So many of us have been to famous heritage sites, famous buildings and, remarkably, you see a lot of people try to get themselves into a position to take the photograph of the photograph for which they know the building. It’s very common for lecturers in architecture to try and do that as well so that they can avoid copyright of the famous photographs’ photographers. I think the marvellous thing about photographs and going to visit them, is to actually make the comparison between the iconic image – and so much of architectural history is taught through photographs – but then to actually go and see the reality; there’s a fantastic surprise often. I think that’s one of the wonderful things about architectural photography – that you’re swept up into believing that buildings are great works of architecture and experience can either confirm that or tear those conceptions right down.
JG I think there’s actually no connection between the photograph and the building. What I would like to think at best is that the photograph does describe to the viewer the architect’s intent and the architect’s creative philosophy, but beyond that I sometimes wish the building would just burn down and just leave the photograph because the comparison is odious. Quite often I would suggest that the building looks better in the photographs; there is certainly a difference in scale – occasionally I’m asked to reshoot a building because an architect is not happy with the results and he’s shown me what’s been taken and I’ve looked at it and thought, ‘Well they’re not bad photographs’ and I understand the building. When I go out there I realise that the building is nothing like the photographs that have been shown to me and that I can come up with a totally different interpretation. I’d strongly suggest there is really no connection at all between the building and the photograph.
AS John you mentioned scale, which perhaps brings us to people in architectural illustration. I think you said that both Harry Seidler and Renzo Piano weren’t keen on people in pictures of their buildings…
JG No, they’re particularly strong egos; Harry wasn’t remotely interested – in fact he didn’t want people to occupy his buildings; they just mucked it up and dirtied it but he also went to inordinate lengths, including hitting you over the head – and it wasn’t just me, it was Max Dupain who used to ring me up and complain about Harry’s behaviour. Harry always went out the week before and took his own photographs and wrote down the time of day, and in his little dark room at home made 10x8 glossies and turned up on location and said, ‘This is the picture you shall take and not only that you will crop out every other building around it so that it exists alone’.
AS Harry actually – just shortly before he died – he published a book of architectural photographs of his own grand tour. What struck me was the enormous range of quality in his photography; I don’t know whether it was just hit and miss – some of them were very good and some of them, well, rather less good.
JG Yes, he had a particularly good Leica outfit, he had perspective correcting lenses and he had a strong view of what those buildings meant. I know that little book and I was very impressed with it and also Harry’s encyclopaedic knowledge of architecture in every rare dome of the world.
AS Absolutely, yes.
PG I think the other interesting thing about that book was that while he may have been a tyrant when it came to having photographs taken of his own buildings and the design of his own buildings, that book of his own photographs revealed an incredibly catholic admiration for the history of architecture, which seemed totally at odds with his own practice.
AS Absolutely, yes, but talking about people in pictures, John – one obvious reason for having people in pictures of buildings is that it helps you with a sense of scale, but I assume that your interests in people, as we saw from the pictures that you showed us of your daughter floating through the air and of the kangaroos – I particularly loved the kangaroos – you obviously had other things in mind than just scale.
JG If I’ve had any role in the development of architectural photography, it’s been the inclusion of a narrative. I construct that narrative and whether it’s through a tableau or the inclusion of choreographed people, I want to expand on the idea that these buildings are really built to house people and they house activities and that I can include people – not just a single person to scale like Ezra Stoller did, however much I admire that stereotype – I’m now, in the digital work that I’m doing, putting a lot of people in, especially in schools. I do choreograph them; I tell them where to go, I tell them how to run through the shot, but I use those people and animals and other activities to let the viewer more fully understand the functioning of the building.
AS Vanessa, it’s a different story isn’t it – or a slightly different story – if we talk about photographing the interiors of buildings, particularly something in fact we see a lot of in magazines, domestic interiors.
VB That’s right. Those domestic interiors are only ever going to exist in the photograph; they’re often in their private spaces so unless you might happen to know those people, you’ll never have access to those spaces. The photograph really does stand in for the whole of that interior and often those interiors don’t exist like that at all; they might be styled or set or have rented furniture brought in for the day. That’s the moment they’re captured and that becomes their life which then goes out into the world and circulates. That’s just a particular moment which might not ever be like that. I think part of that reason of having people in photographs was there has been a real reaction to that very stark period in architecture where you had that sort of John Pawson-looking interior where nobody owned a single family photograph or a single book or anything; it was all just white surface.
JG I have a little corollary to that – architect-designed houses break up marriages. I can’t tell you – it’s something like 60% or 70% of all the houses I’ve photographed, the marriages break up within three years. The reason is that architects impose a lifestyle that is their dream and unsustainable with the ordinary family in Australia.
AS Years and years ago there was a show on – I think the BBC; I was in England at the time watching it – and there was an architect and for some reason in my mind it’s John Pawson but I suspect it might not have been – but it was a minimalist architect who liked very stark interiors and he said, ‘Oh, it’s terrible, you come home at the end of a working day and you see the kids have made a mess, they’ve left toys out in the lounge’ and you saw his wife engaging in little mutinous activities by leaving things there. Something I do know about John Pawson, the minimalist British architect, is he did design a monastery with accommodation for monks – I think it was in France; I can’t remember what the monastic order was – but apparently the monks came to him when they saw the design and said ‘Er, it’s a bit severe and ascetic’.
Vanessa, bringing people in to pictures of interiors is interesting. I remember about 10 years ago when Wallpaper magazine came out for the first time – I think it might have been a bit more than 10 years ago – they actually had people in their interiors. Not only did they have people, but they had models, so all these interiors looked extremely – not just lived in, but extremely glamorously lived in. I presume that’s a sort of deception.
VB Just another pressure on us all. I think though, John, the reason that people probably break up after they’ve had an architect-designed house was because their relationship was failing anyway and they think, ‘Let’s have a project together; we’ll have a baby’ and their friends tell them, ‘That’s a really bad idea’ and they think, ‘Let’s get a dog, no let’s renovate our house’ – they do a very stressful thing and then they break up. I think they were in trouble beforehand.
AS Another question I want to address is whether there are any buildings that you simply can’t photograph. Obviously you can stick a camera in front of any building, but will you actually capture the building in a photograph? I was enormously struck when I was in Hong Kong by the – I think it was the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank of China – a building by IM Pay, and it’s a very tricky building because a lot of its walls, a lot of its edges just look totally flat – they look just like huge glass wafers and you actually have to go around the building or, as I did, go in the building to get any sort of grasp on its form. I don’t know whether you’ve photographed this, John.
JG I have photographed it – not commissioned but I’ve done it.
AS Was it difficult?
JG It is difficult. One of the reasons is that to explain a form in a photograph you do need to exaggerate it. The way you exaggerate it is you use a wide-angle lens, but if you’re in a narrow street like in Hong Kong, you end up having to tilt up and then you can’t see the top of the building and you lose the relative scale of it. However, I do like and get a lot of challenging projects, and the solution there is to get a helicopter, bribe someone so that you can get in closer than 500 feet and take a wide-angle shot looking down and that will do it. I use that technique quite often. Yes, there are a few buildings that by virtue of physical access or their tonal range are just going to produce a dead photograph, which means then for posterity some buildings are simply never noticed. That’s really the power of many of these images. If they’re recorded in some way, they enter the discourse, they enter the story of architecture and when you have a very narrow street and a fantastic building that can’t be photographed easily, it then often drops out of circulation, so to speak. The little lanes and alleyways of Melbourne, which have got some amazing bits of architecture and a totality in urban planning terms, are very difficult to capture on film.
AS That’s interesting, and Philip, perhaps as the author of a book on the architecture of Melbourne, you can address this; the Melbourne laneways of which as a Sydneysider I’m enormously jealous because we had laneways, we just got rid of them. You still have great laneways and the experience of being in a Melbourne laneway, it seems to me, is not a purely visual one, it’s a social one. A photograph can sort of reproduce a bit of that but you’ve got to be there.
PG That’s right. I think Mark Strizic’s photographs of Melbourne’s minor streets – there are brilliant photographs late in the afternoon by Mark Strizic of Flinders Lane and, I think, Little Collins Street. They’re wonderful photographs, but because of the light they’re slightly ghostly, almost blinding light at the end of Spencer Street. You’re right, Alan, you really have to probably take a whole series of photographs – almost shoot a film – to properly experience those lanes in images.
VB There’s a funny expectation that all things should be able to be photographed or should be photographed. I was listening to a discussion – it was at the awards meeting when we were talking about who would win the Victoria medal – and somebody was proposing that there was this great part at the back of such-and-such a building that hadn’t even been photographed as though this was this great crime, that there should be nothing that wasn’t documented, nothing that was left for the viewer to then come and discover.
AS Well, I think I’m going to end our conversation by impressing everybody by quoting the great art theorist and philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin – his work, The work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction; he does point out that there’s nothing like being in the presence of a work of art, really, to appreciate it. And I think one of the values of photography is that it reminds us that there are these presences we would like to be in.
Well, good bones. That's a great note to end on. I think Shane Carmody is going to thank our guests, but I would like you to join me in thanking our guests Philip Goad, John Gollings and Vanessa Bird. Thank you.