Architecture's discursive space : photography

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School of Arts, Design and Architecture | Doctoral thesis (article-based) | Defence date: 2016-09-30
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60 + app. 56
Aalto University publication series DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS, 123/2016
This research asks the simple question: Do images make buildings? More specifically, it asks how. The research question is addressed via four articles, published in peer-reviewed journals from 2013 to 2016. Each looks at a different aspect of the question: visual conventions, visualising atmosphere, photography as visual data, and the repeatability of these experiments. In addition, the dissertation includes extensive photography section that both illustrates the texts as well as dialoguing with them.A brief description of each article follows. Ultimately, I conclude that conventional architectural photography is reliant upon one atmosphere – the blue and white of eternal summer that has replaced the black and white photography that came before it. A simple system of visual categorisation through grids became my working method for dealing with terabytes of data in the form of photographs. The grid, it is argued, is at the core of architectural depiction, with origins in Renaissance treatises. As a contemporary editing system, however, grids make it easy to spot patterns in purchased / published images, and cross-check statements made in interviews and in writing with photographic statements. ‘Nine Facts About Conventions in Architectural Photography’ published in the Nordic Journal of Architectural Research (NJAR 1/2014). ‘Grey Matter’, to be published in the first 2016 edition of the International Journal of Education through Art. This study is one of the first to use content analysis of images as a means of interpreting architectural discourse. Nine facts were extracted froma detailed analysis of images that appeared in 3493 pages of the Finnish Architectural Review (ARK) between 1912 and 2012. Close attention was paid to the types of images used repeatedly in order to focus on key editorial and photographic decisions. Editorial decisions consisted of type, size, chromatic scale and number of images. Photographic decisions consisted of human presence, weather, depth-of-field and camera orientation for interior and exterior photographs. Data, which quantifies the frequency of each type of image, indicates that there is a strong reliance on visual conventions in ARK. When considering the limited range of images usedin the publication, it becomes clear there is little correlation between the complexity of architectural language and environments and the simplicity of its depiction. That discrepancy suggests there is a need for research and development in the field of architectural photography in order to better inform readers about the diversity of architectural practices. ‘A Hinge: Field-testing the Relationship Between Photography and Architecture, in the Journal of Artistic Research (JAR 3/ 2013). This article seeks to share the methods and preliminary results of an artistic research project in the field of architectural photography. A central concern is the representation of atmosphere in place of the standard depiction of objects. Important also is an attempt at co-design through an interview process with architects based on the notion of the dialectic. This aspect of the study is important not only for this experiment itself but is also crucial for analysing the scalability of practices pursued in this investigation. Findings include excerpts from interviews and examples of photographs. More than just a project about photographic practices, however, this study is part of a larger investigation into the relationship that has developed between photography and architecture, focussing especially on Finland and Denmark, and the institutional practices of architects, publishers and photographers working in collaboration. As mentioned in the article on atmospheres, it was important to test the repeatability of this research. Could others use atmospheres as a system for classifying images? Is it useful to look at conventional photography as one such atmosphere? Could the classroom be used as a research lab to test the viability of non-conventional atmospheres in the world of architecture. The second phase of the nine-month course ended in a highly successful exhibition and talk at the Finnish Museum of Architecture. The course and exhibition were called Grey Matter because images sought to reflect the lived experience of autumnal Helsinki, testing claims that good architecture must be shown in good weather. Findings in this research challenge received wisdom about ‘objective’ photography of architecture. They suggest the need for scrutiny of conventionalised practises and argue for an expanded field of architectural photography. That new architectural photography would be informed by the notion of atmosphere and its categorisation into a panoply of responses to site conditions.The architectural atmosphere sine qua non, known as objective photography, is taught in schools and enforced through repeated global publication. This research suggests that interdisciplinary courses between photography and architecture departments might disrupt the current beliefs and practices of educators and publishers alike. This dissertation argues in favour of such a disruption.
Supervising professor
Salo, Merja, Prof, Aalto University, Department of Media, Finland
Thesis advisor
Ahlava, Antti, Prof., Aalto University, Department of Architecture, Finland
architecture, photography
Other note
  • [Publication 1]: 9 facts About Conventions in Architectural Photography (NJAR 1/2014),
  • [Publication 2]: A Hinge: Field-testing the Relationship Between Photography and Architecture. (JAR 3/ 2013),
  • [Publication 3]: Architecture’s Discursive Space: Photography (Intellect Books), Chapter in Visual Methodologies in Architectural Research
  • [Publication 4]: Towards grey matter – by bridge or tunnel? (IJETA 12 / 1 2016),