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Framing

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It’s not often I look at all the photographs I’ve taken in such a short space of time as I did with my My Best Shots post two years ago. Some of my pet themes and patterns were obvious. For one, all were of buildings. Some photographs aspired to the standards and conventions of traditional architectural photography with no parallax and no people and composed like this next one. Often the frame is filled with leaves and grass like those old watercolor renderings we used to call artists’ impresssions – a term that’s gone out of fashion because calling them visualizations somehow makes them more real. Even the conventions of artists’ impressions dates back to Mariam Mahony’s images for FLW. If this next image is framed to satisfy all those conditions then it’s probably because the building has been designed to do so, making it an example of a picturesque tradition pre-dating even Frank Lloyd Wright. Here, the building and landscape were already composed and framed. I just took the photo.

Paris, 2019

Included in that same post were the following images that I regarded as some of my finest moments in photographing buildings. This one of the Solomon R. is from the same position many a person with camera has stood. I’d wanted an image like this but many stock images had a huge ice-cream van where where that white van is parked and this made the Solomon R. look tiny. Even in this image the building still looks diminutive, as if shouting “I am a monument! Despite this being its best side, many a contemporary photograph is taken from the opposite corner and framed so the Gwathmey-Siegel extension is largely hidden. In this the classic composition, it’s the building behind that frames the building in front.

New York, 2015.

Here’s another two shots, this time with both people and taxis doing what people and taxis do. Framing is not just about buildings giving a reference context to deduce scale. Fifth Avenue is a busy street. And airport terminals are more about the people that arrive and leave by non-air transportation.

New York, 2015.
New York, 2016.

Shanghai has always been located on the busy and functioning Huangpu River. It’s always been a centre for distribution and to not show that misses an important part of its existence both then and still even now.

Shanghai, 2021

The above photograph of the Solomon R. is framed by the foliage in classic architectural style and is also conventionally framed by the extension behind it. It’s a very self-conscious composition because of these two visual contrivances, one of which is photographic and the other architectural. With the Bofill, the photographic and the architectural merge into something called The Picturesque. I think I can now state it a little better. The Apple Store and the JFK terminal, are both buildings framed by things that are oblivious to its presence and this, I think, is the better way to go. Gio Ponti’s house for his parents below is, at the end of the day, and no more or less, a house on a Milanese suburban street.

Milan, 2016

Some buildings have to be framed and put into a context or else they’re unintelligible. The 2011 House in Aoto by High Land Design isn’t a well-known building by any definition but I’ve always admired how it is what it is because of where it is. Its context frames it and our understanding of it as well. To make a building appear as a consequence of its surroundings is not difficult to achieve. Nor is it a technique worth applying only to buildings in spectacular settings such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater at Bear Run, or Ignazio Gardella’s Casa del Zattere facing Venice’s Giudecca Island.

Making a building appear as a consequence of its context can be achieved with far less design effort by simply redesigning the context against which the building is seen or– to be more correct – photographed to suit, especially in cases where a bit of landscaping alone isn’t going to cut it. Architecture has a long and never-ending history of redesigning the context to make the building appear a consequence of it. It’s a different kind of frame. It just depends on your point of view.

This is also an attempt to frame the argument, to communicate the frame of reference by which a building is understood. Limiting the frame of reference to that which the architect wishes their building to be understood with reference to has been going on for a while now. That frame of reference has now almost completely been narrowed down to the building itself. And becoming more explicitly so. I apologize now for taking us back to 2018 and Patrik Schumacher’s The Autopoiesis of Architecture Volume I in which it is written that “architectures’ unique function is the provision of spaces that frame communications” – a statement that, in true autopoietic fashion, begets many more similar statements.

I won’t fret any more over thought fragments such as “The societal function of architecture is thus to order and adapt society …” and [framing] “determines a general set of constraining premises for all further communications …”.

Given that the word framing can mean most anything, we might as well accept that it exists as a form of communication, and that framing is the name for determining a general set of constraining premises for all further communications to take place. We already know (because Patrik Schumacher said so) that architects frame their relationship to their projects as The Architect’s Project which is only of concern of the architect. If you care to remember, there was also The Client’s Project which was of no concern to the architect, other than the moneymaker – I paraphrase – to enable The Architect’s Project. If these architects’ projects, whether built or unbuilt, weren’t always in our faces, then we would care little about them but the fact is they are and this leads me to think there is also such a thing as The Media Project and how a building is communicated to persons neither architects nor clients. I have a vague memory that, somewhere in TAOA VI, PS even have acknowledged the existence of The Media Project. If this media project is communications – and it most definitely is – then it follows that how a building is communicated to media is an exercise in framing as well. Found it! Second paragraph from the bottom. Either somebody’s being disingenuous, or ArchDaily, Dezeen, Facebook, Twitterwhatever and the like are now considered part of the “expert discourse on architecture”.

We can expect to be told no more than it’s thought we need to know. Before it was called framing, we knew this as setting the narrative, of an architect deciding the context in which their work was to be judged. Back in the 1970s when there was only magazines as sources of architectural information, Kazuo Shinohara was forever referring to his houses in the context of his succession of styles (much as we speak of Picasso’s Blue Period, Pink Period, etc.) They still are discussed in these terms even today.

Architects who are the subject of large solo exhibitions in art galleries generally don’t need to work on their Media Projects anymore because the projects are always objectified by being put plinths and under glass. It is the sign of an architect who has succeeded with their Architect Project if they can present and get away with their designs being presented for consideration out of their actual physical contexts and exhibited as objects allowed to refer only to their place in the architect’s oeuvre.

The Japanese House, The Barbican, 2017

Zaha Hadid Architects, Modern Art Museum Shanghai, 2021

You can’t tell me that this, before you even enter the exhibit itself, is not about shape. The only context is the art museum.

To be fair, many of the models taken out of context in the exhibition were supported by backdrops of idealized visualizations.

Arata Isozaki: In Formation, Powerstation of Art, Shanghai, 2023

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In the 1970s modern Japanese architects were split into two camps. At University of Tokyo were Kenzo Tange and his metabolist protegés concerned with “the city” and urbanism while at the Tokyo Institute of Technology were Kiyoshi Seike, Kazuo Shinohara and his equally loose grouping concerned with houses. It was a pointless distinction. In 1963 Kazuo Shinohara claimed “Houses are Art!”. In 1968 Hans Hollein claimed “Everything is Architecture! By 2023 cites and houses both turned out to be art after all.

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