This elegantly hung exhibition at Old Parliament House asks what makes a building an icon? A pertinent and interesting question, it is only partially addressed by the array of stunning architectural photographs.
The photographers represented are Max Dupain, Anderson and Low, Marcel Seidler, and Patrick Bingham-Hall. Their work, covering the period from the 1950s to the present, is organised by three themes.
“Controversy” consists mostly of Canberra projects, but is dominated by a sequence of Dupain images of the Sydney Opera House (the photographer’s Linhoff 4” x 5” camera is also on display in this section, as is a video loop drawn from the ABC’s In the Mind of the Architect). “Comfort” is houses – from the Rose Seidler to the “sensual white staircase” of Ivan Rijavec’s 1996 Chen House in Kew.
“Creativity” curiously includes no Canberra buildings and displays the only two colour photographs in the exhibition – images by Patrick Bingham-Hall of the Learmonth International Airport by Jones Coulter Young.
The exhibition is both frustrating and engaging. The images fascinate, but together they also raise a series of rather mundane questions – why these buildings, why these photographers? Where, to cite only the most obvious omission, is the work of John Gollings? Why are most of the photographs by Dupain? Did he photograph all Australia’s iconic buildings? If so, what does this mean?
Why are the Learmonth images the only ones in colour ? And so on. For the exhibition-goer familiar with architectural culture, Icons lacks a certain rigour. Nontheless, it is also a great pleasure to see these photographs.
More interestingly, the exhibition raises a group of more demanding questions which circulate around architecture, photography and the idea of an icon. The entry to Icons is through a lobby where a wall text defines an icon as “an artefact which is associated with a particular way of life so strongly that it comes to be seen as a symbol of it”. Iconic buildings, the exhibition suggests, “have shaped the way we live and the way we think and feel about ourselves”. This entry space also displays quotations about architecture from a rather mixed bag of famous names – from Murcutt and Leplastrier to Wright, Ruskin, Churchill, Mies and Sullivan. Removed from their historic and cultural specificity, some of their aphoristic statements (“God is in the details”, “form follows function”) became clichés long ago, and the others could easily follow, no matter the kernels of truth they may contain.
Is the way we live, think and feel in our environment a cliché? What is the difference between an icon and a cliché? What role does photography have in articulating this question in relation to architecture?
Architectural icons, canons, and – yes – clichés (in French the negative of “chemical” photography is a cliché), have a strong connection to the way photographic images of buildings circulate, not only in architecture but also in the wider culture.
This is something that Juan Pablo Bonta examined 25 years ago, through an analysis of photographs of two buildings that became key elements of the twentieth century modernist canon – Sullivan’s Carson Pirie Scott department store, and Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion. Bonta’s point is that photographs create the canon. His argument brings to the fore interpretation and the community: these buildings achieved canonic status through the circulation of photographic images in communities with the competence and interest to read them.
Buildings enter the canon through the consent of such an interpretative community.
Perhaps an architectural icon is something that, pictured in particular ways within architectural discourse, also circulates beyond it. Icons, then, do not spring fully formed from the soil, or from the mind of the architect. Bingham-Hall’s belief, quoted in the exhibition, that architects are often too close to their work to see what the photographer sees, also points to the crucial role of the photograph in the making of the icon.
Architecture circulates through photography. Most canonic architecture is known to us through images rather than through direct experience. This is a condition to critically consider rather than to deplore.
The photograph itself could certainly be used to do this do this. But architectural photography has its own canonic modes, its own clichés, and in Icons these conventions are for the most part affirmed rather than examined: building as object, absence of people, lack of detail, superiority of dramatic black and white (despite the pervasiveness of colour in print). Only a few exhibited images – the anomalous colour pics, the construction shots of the Opera House, a Dupain image of Sydney Ancher’s house at Neutral Bay with silhouetted figures in the foreground – suggest some other role for the architectural photograph. Perhaps incidentally, the power of the conventional photographic approach to architecture is best demonstrated in Dupain’s images of Canberra’s Provisional Parliament House – a building not widely considered of architectural distinction, but pictured in these photographs in a manner that makes it look formally distinguished.
A final absence from Icons is the ordinary and the everyday. The dishevelled. In this regard, no photograph in the exhibition offers so striking a contrast to the general architectural (and photographic) run of things as something to be seen from the windows of the exhibition galleries: the tent embassy just across the road. It may not look good in any conventional sense, but isn’t this also becoming an icon?