Revisited: Habitat 67

Photographs by James Brittain - February 2018

For the re-launch of Building On The Built in February 2018, we invited the architectural photographer, James Brittain, to exhibit his photographs documenting Montreal’s Habitat 67, the residential complex designed by the Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie as the Canadian Pavilion for the World Exposition of 1967. Accompanying these contemporary images were photographs of archival material Brittain had found at the Canadian Centre for Architecture and Canadian Architecture Collection at McGill University which depicted the original ambitions for Habitat 67.

Following his introductory talk, see transcript below, James Brittain discussed his ongoing research and his views on contemporary architectural photography with the architectural curator Vanessa Norwood.

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Transcription of talk by James Brittain on architecture and photography at the studios of Jonathan Tuckey Design on Tuesday 6th Feb 2018

It’s great to see you all here this evening – thank you for coming. I’d also like to sincerely thank Jonathan and his studio for inviting me to present my work to you, and some wider thoughts about photography and architecture today. It’s also a great pleasure to welcome Vanessa Norwood here this evening to take part in this discussion.

Vanessa kindly supported me few years ago during her time as head of exhibitions at the Architectural Association, when she curated a series of my large format photographs made at CERN – the Centre for European Nuclear Research in Geneva. After some deliberation, Vanessa and her team decided to place my CERN images on show in the AA Members Bar - quite possibly the best place anywhere in London for a debut exhibit of a young architectural photographer! Vanessa is a prolific curator and writer with an amazing insight into the way we present our built environment in pictures and it’s a great privilege, Vanessa, to have you here with us tonight.

Jonathan and his colleague Peter Youthed first mooted the idea of presenting some work to launch the new season of Building on The Built about a year ago. The invitation came at an opportune time. I’ve been photographing architecture on commission for more than 15 years and it presented an opportunity to step off the hamster wheel of commissioned work and make a thorough review of my practice. 

It’s been my perception for quite some time that much of mainstream architectural photography – in which I myself am of course implicated - feels somehow stuck at a crossroads. Over the last few years, there’s been an explosion of image sharing on the web and a massive growth in social-media and websites dedicated to covering architecture and design. We‘re bombarded today as never before by a tsunami of digital imagery of architecture. In many ways this can be seen as a good development. We can be almost instantaneously aware of new projects as they emerge from all over the world. The web has undoubtedly brought previously unimaginable capacity for sharing thoughts, ideas, and images. However, I think it also has had some less positive effects.

Not all, but a good portion of contemporary imagery of new architecture in the mainstream is beginning to look and feel the same. It has always been somewhat like this, since architectural photography has its own distinct language – the single point perspective to show elevation, and 3⁄4 view that originate from the language of architectural drawing that was used prior to the invention of photography in the mid nineteenth century. But the proliferation of imagery on the web has sped everything up, and seems to be having a flattening effect.

We can argue that buildings and spaces are mainly presented in a manner that is impossibly clean and tidy. Views also generally presented in wide format. Skies more often than not, blue. There’s a proliferation of images captured at dusk – helpful for hiding awkwardness in architectural finish, but strangely disconnected from regular day-to-day experience. From time to time there may be a blurry figure or two wondering around in the frame – but when people are included in photographs they often seem either on auto-pilot, or looking like figures placed in a digital render. The result is two-fold.

First, the overall effect is a feeling of detachment. The photography often feels lacking in life and soul, with an almost super-real quality about it. Polished certainly, but not grounded in anything that can be related to on a human level. As an additional observation, there’s been a blurring of the lines between digital render and photograph. It’s sometimes almost impossible to tell whether an image is a digital mock up or has been captured on site.

The second result I think is that the projects themselves, the architecture itself, is in danger perhaps of looking and feeling the same. The over-polished imagery makes the architecture itself difficult to decipher – almost as if projects are merging into one- another. The question I therefore ask myself as a photographer, and to you more widely, Is it possible to photograph architecture usefully, informatively and with relevance - both to our own profession and a wider audience? And if so, how do we do this?

For my own response and for inspiration for my project at Habitat 67, I began by looking back at images by photographers and artists I’ve admired.

This photograph is by Canadian photographer Jeff Wall. Wall is a fine artist based in Vancouver who regularly uses the built environment as canvas for exploring his ideas.The image is entitled The Destroyed Room. Wall has said the picture emerged from his encounter with a painting by Eugene Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapulous. Made in 1827, Delacroix’s painting depicts the Assyrian monarch on his deathbed, commanding the destruction of his possessions and slaughter of his concubines in a last act of defiance against invading armies.

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I see Wall’s Destroyed Room as helpful for thinking about photography and architecture for 3 different reasons.

First, it reminds me that an interior does not need to be tidy and clean to be beautiful. The current visual language we adopt to photograph architecture urges us to clean up beforehand – to remove signs of life, to remove dirt, marks and visual distractions. Sometimes on commission there are good reasons to simplify a view by moving things around – particularly if clutter is distracting from the communication of the design intention. But is it always necessary?

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This slide is from a shoot I did a few years ago – the image on the left was the room as found, the one on the right, the curated final view.

The Destroyed Room also for me gets to the heart one of the main challenges facing the photographer wishing to describe architecture in pictures. For me, the core concern is to find a balance between straightforward visual description of a place, and the experience of being there. There is a tension in Wall’s photograph - between what we immediately see, and how we feel about what we see. The Destroyed Room is on the surface a picture of untidiness, or chaos. But it alludes to something darker that may have happened in the room, which leads to an emotional response – perhaps fear, anxiety or sadness. In mainstream commissioned photography, we can engage this same tension just by simply thinking more deeply about these two aspects of picture making – a formal description of architectural arrangement on the one hand, and how it feels to be there on the other.

Finally, Wall’s photograph is helpful in the way that it draws attention to the process of picture making itself. It has an honesty in this regard, since it’s clearly made as a set, and not a “realistic” description of a room. All photography is in some way or other the very same process – it’s a subjective fabrication, not cool documentation, as Wall shows. As I’ve already mentioned, in mainstream architectural photography, people often appear placed as an afterthought. They’re introduced for scale – or decoration.

During the late 1980s and early 1990’s German Photographer Thomas Struth made a series of large-scale color photographs in famous European and American museums, where people are not incidental but integral to the places and spaces he was photographing. We witness people completely woven into the architecture – seen almost as pure as energy and movement in the space, as they move about and interact within it. In others, human presence in the image become part of the narrative of the photograph itself.

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Here, in Struth’s National Gallery 1, a group of people stand in front of three Venetian paintings. Dominating the centre is The Incredulity of St. Thomas. The Renaissance altarpiece depicts the story of doubting Thomas, the disciple who lacked faith in the resurrection of Christ until he had placed his fingers inside Christ's wound. The colors and postures of the figures in the painting are mirrored by those of the gallery visitors. For example the girl in the blue cardigan bends forward, echoing the pose of Doubting Thomas as he extends his arm towards Christ. Although randomly observed, Struth makes people actors in the story of the picture – not just decoration.

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And finally, I also looked at Struth’s family portraits – which have always intrigued me for their quietness and stillness. If you’re photographing a residential project on behalf of an architect, why not engage the residents? Ask them to pause deliberately from their day to day life? These portraits can reveal another layer to the nature of the the room, or space, and the life they’ve created within in it.

Aside from inspiration from other contemporary artists, prior to making the photographs at Habitat 67, I also looked back at archival record. In Montreal we’re blessed with the Canadian Centre for Architecture – The CCA - which holds and curates an extensive archival collection of photography of architecture. I looked at the French photographer Lucien Hervé, who worked prolifically with Le Corbuisier following their meeting during the final construction phase of the Unité d'Habitation in Marseille, France.

What I like about this collection of Hervé’s work is it shows it’s not necessary to describe architecture only with a wide- angle view. Today, often the standard approach is to find a corner, place the tripod in it, and shoot everything in wide view. This can be helpful for description, but less useful for saying anything about the experience of architecture.

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Hervé photographed in fragmented views – the record of the building becomes a story of moments, or experiences . These moments could be to do with light, or material, or people.

And so to Habitat 67 itself.

The majority of the archival record from the project is kept at the Canadian Architecture Archive at the University of McGill in Montreal. I’ve included a few images here simply to allude to the historical record and the original ambitions of architect Moshe Safdie.

Safdie had arrived in Montreal with his family from Isreal in the 1950’s, and went on to study architecture at University of McGill. He presented the first version of Habitat 67 as his final undergraduate thesis in 1961. It was his student blueprint for a new kind of dense urban living – an alternative to high rise being pioneered by other contemporary architects – most notably Mies in Chicago, who’d designed residential towers like Lafayette Park in Detroit and Westmount Square in Montreal.

Safdie rejected the Tower, or linear stacking of apartments. He felt there were other ways to achieve density, and also argued that Towers required unfriendly dark corridors accessed by a central lift shafts. In addition they offered only limited opportunity for outside space.

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With Habitat 67 Safdie placed the tower on its side and deconstructed it – creating a variety of irregular and more generous common spaces, varied views to the outdoors, and with every apartment having its own garden or terrace. The other radical element was pre- fabrication. The concrete cubes or boxes at Habitat 67 were all constructed off-site and lifted into place by crane. After leaving McGill Safdie joined the offices of Louis Khan in Philadelphia as an intern.

I attended a lecture last year in Montreal where he told the story of how at the age of 23 in 1963 he received a call from the head of the World Fair planning committee to fly with his model and drawings of Habitat 67 by light aircraft to Ottawa, Canada’s capital, to present his proposal to Mitchell Sharp, the federal minister with overall responsibility for the World Expo, and to the then Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson. Following his presentation in Ottawa, Safdie was given the green light to build Habitat 67, in spite of his youth and inexperience. He was just 25 at the time, an opportunity he simply described as a “an amazing fairy tale”

And so finally to my pictures on show upstairs. I’m going to scroll through these without much commentary.

I’ve set out to explore Habitat 67 in the context of the thinking I’ve laid out. It’s my conviction that we need to review the way we describe architecture in pictures. Architectural photography needs to concern itself more deeply with human experience, to be more alive to the tension between a visual description of architectural arrangement and the feeling of being at a place.

If we allow ourselves, photography of architecture can also be more open to the beauty of what is found. We must resist the urge to always to tidy up our photographs.

And finally I would argue strongly for the idea of revisiting architecture with a camera. New architecture clearly needs to be recorded at the point of completion. But why not adopt the habit of revisiting, to go on exploring the richness of how buildings are used, lived in and adapted over time. 

Thank you.

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Images:

(1+4+6+8+9) © James Brittain Photography

(2) Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room, 1978, printed 1987, © National Gallery of Canada

(3) Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, Salon of 1827 © 2010 Musée de Louvre, Angèle Dequier

(5) Thomas Struth, National Gallery I, London, 1989, © Tate, London 2018

(6) © Thomas Struth, The Consolandi Family I, Mailand, 1996

(7) Lucien Hervé, Palais de l'Association des Filateurs d'Ahmedabad, 1954-1956, © J. Paul Getty Trust, 2002