Measuring Design Excellence

At the 2005 AIA Chicago Design Excellence Awards Friday night, one name stood out more than Brininstool + Lynch, David Hovey, Krueck + Sexton, Perkins + Will, and John Ronan (all multiple winners that night): photographers Hedrich Blessing. As each winning project was displayed on the projection screen at the end of the ballroom, The 75-year old Chicago institution's name accompanied most of the slides, right below the name of the architect. This says two things: most Chicago architects come to Hedrich Blessing for the documentation of the final product, and architectural photography is an important element in the deciding of architectural prizes.

Focusing on the second, photographs are usually required for this sort of prize, given the fact that each jury member could not possibly visit every building submitted. In the case of AIA Chicago, all projects are by local architects but the buildings themselves can be anywhere. While a dream jury might be flown to every submission wherever it may be, the money doesn't exist for such an endeavor. So color-saturated photographs, usually devoid of any human presence, are used to persuade the jury that what they're looking at is a winner.

For the sake of comparison, let's look at one winning building -- the Perspectives Charter School by Perkins + Will -- with an image by a professional photographer and one by yours truly.

Missing image - perspectives1.jpg
Image by Steinkamp/Ballogg Photography

Missing image - perspectives2.jpg
Image by me

Many things are apparent here:
:: The professional composition is more dynamic, especially in terms of the canopy, whose tip appears angle liked the prow of a ship. Definitely this is achieved by the choice of lens, though notice how each image is roughly the same from the angled line in the double-height glass area to the left.

:: The professional shot involves the context more, setting the school apart from its surroundings.

:: The otherwise gray exterior takes on a dramatic purple glow in the dusk-time professional shot, though I don't know if it's a natural, on location effect or an effect achieved in the processing.

:: The choice for a dusk-time shot also helps add some vibrancy to the shot, whose glass reflections add to the grayness in my shot.
Does this mean that if the jury only saw my photographs they wouldn't have given it an award? Without knowing for sure, I'd say it's a possibility. Let's say that were the case, what does it say about architecture awards? How does a jury judge a building if not by photographs?

In this case, the awards focus on members of the local AIA Chapter who are responsible for submitting works for consideration. The awards give recognition to those members doing quality work. If those awards are highly influenced by imagery over substance or experience, it lessens the meaning of them.

On the other hand, the Mies van der Rohe Awards for European Union and Latin American Architecture varies in a few ways. Selected "experts" choose the projects for consideration. A jury then selects finalists (around 30), after which they visit as many as possible before making their choices for awarded work and special mention. Extensive documentation is required at each level, including not only photographs but also initial sketches, a complete set of drawings, and explanatory text. Given the responsibilities of the jury, both in dissecting each entry's documentation and visiting the projects, and the biannual nature of the prize, naturally this award carries more weight than the AIA Chicago award.


  1. At a Chicago Architectural Club symposium earlier this year, Hedrich-Blessing's Nick Merrick said this: "People say to me, Nick, these pictures are lying . . . they're so heroic, so pristine that it's not the real experience of the building, and my response was (that) of the thousand of possible realities that you could have, I picked the best possible one."

    There's no doubt that the public's perception of modernism has been shaped by the beautiful iconic images shot by Merrick and his colleagues. It also can be argued that some of the public's disillusionment with modernism stems from the disconnect between the images and the buildings as they're actually experienced. What's needed today is less fashion photography, and more photojournalism. For an example, check out the Five Architects exhibition at CAF. It uses videos to illustrate each project. They're fairly no-frill - almost like home movies - but as they move through a structure it gives you a far better, and more realistic feel for what the experience is like than most of the highly idealized promotional photographs.

  2. I have to agree that professional photographer make the buildings look better than in reality.

    Most of the time they intentionally isolate the buildings from the surrounding, and when you have the oportunity to visit the building is kind of dissapointing.

    I'm not saying that is good or bad.

    But todays architecture is more based on images than for the real experience, and critics many times get fooled by those photos too. I think is the Modernist efect influence.

    By the way, that is a good question that no many people ask.
    Are the architecture critics prompted by the offices to give them good reviews or may be those comments are scripted, like in the computing industry?

    Sometimes I've seen monstruosities been very kinded by the reviewer and I just don't get it. That's what brought my attention to the subject.

  3. Let me begin by criticizing the photo comparison. For any lens (camera or human eye) point of view is critical. The pysical location of your shot and that of the pro is very different. This is the reason why the cantilever awning is so different as well as the perspectival effect in yours of the side wall which is not present in the pro shot. Try moving about 25 feet to the left next time.

    Second, the pro probably used chemical film. You probably used digital. As we all know, the difference in light and color metering(regardless of time of day) is that digital cameras are far inferior to both a film camera and the human eye.

    For the rest, we will set aside the strict comparison of two images and I will follow with a series of points.

    First, this has nothing to do with Modernism or any other -ism. It is strictly a conversation about the tendency of humans to judge by the eye first of all the senses. This of course presents many problems outside the scope of architecture.

    I don't think that any distinction can really be made between substance and image in our society. We exist in a society ruled in totality by the doctrine of image as fact. I see it as a truly successful thing when architecture exists within its time. We should understand that architecture is relatively powerless to induce change. The true poignancy of what we do exists in architecture's ability to comment on and record socieological tendencies and events. It is the art of anthropology par excellance. Image vs. substance? As a professional I see no distinction.

    Another problem with documentation: static rendering. As a profession, our understanding of space has evolved in the last ten years beyond the abilities of still photographs to convey poetics. The spatial identity of buildings has now translated completely into the realm of ephemeral nuances and effects that require motion to be realized. And not any motion, the binocular 180 degree field of view of the human eye with the flatness of a 50mm lens is required. Movie cameras are a pathetic substitute for documenting architecture. This may be a large part of the disconnect we feel between the monumental photography effect and reality.

    Third, people make a mess of architecture. Any time you photograph a building without people there is something there that isn't most of the time: order. Architecture without people is infinitely charged and uncomfortable. This discomfort leads to a truer perception of proportion and beauty. Its like photographing a stage set without the play. There is a strange and monumental beauty to the thing that only a camera has the ability to capture. This state of architecture in its emptiness can only be described as a truly liminal condition. It is so severe that a true identity statement can be rendered in the starkest lines possible. IF ARCHITECTURE WERE PHOTOGRAPHED WITH PEOPLE IN IT ALL BUILDINGS WOULD APPEAR THE SAME. Humans and their interaction captivate any image and render the rest only a backdrop. How often do you recognize an incredibly important work of architecture in a movie, even though most movies have many scenes shot in, around or near extremely important works of architecture? What use does the concept of image vs. reality have here?

    This brings me to a very important conversation. If architecture were rendered closer to reality (meaning mundane) would anyone care to invest in it? Without providing a vehicle for appreciation (a still moment divorced from everyday life and other boring people of which there are thousands in a school, millions in this country and billions on this planet, none of which I care to really have to interact with while trying to enjoy the formal art of architecture) would anyone have the time, patience, or personal resources required to sit there long enough to get bored with people and admire their surroundins? NO.

    Architecture as a public art form would die without the ability to express its importance in a manner demanding perfect attention.

    This is not making a statement that the public does not feel good architecture is an incredibly important political event. It is merely stating that the public has a dificult time focusing on a given thing in order to evaluate it objectively. If we did away with architecture and everything became a dull grey box with flourescent light people would definetly notice and be unhappy for generations, until they lost hope and went extinct. It makes a psychological difference, it's just that it is such a backdrop that most people experience beauty in architecture on a subliminal level so we have to provide a perfectly clear medium to convey identity messages.

    Regarding the actual argument you are making: that one awards banquet is better than another . . . give me a break. That's like trying to say that one faction in the same group of self-congratulatory clique of exclusive high-society morons living off the riches earned by past generations and patting each other on the back while taking turns at the mic is any different from the other group of equally rich, self-congratulating and totally exclusive clique of ass kissers and political satan-weasels.

  4. anon1 - Ideally, critics aren't influenced by architects and firms to give good reviews, though in practice this probably doesn't always happen. Herbert Muschamp had a tendency to give a lot of space to Gehry, Calatrava, and other star architects, and in this space he often had nothing but good words. In the past, many critics became champions of young architects and supported them across their careers (Christian Norberg-Schultz and Paolo Portoghesi, as an example). Any scripted commentary is merely a press release and can't be considered criticism. In some rags that might be difficult to differentiate, though I still believe in the power of good criticism, not so much to say "this is good, this is bad" but to open people to different ways of thinking about architecture and the environment. Do you have an example of what you refer to as monstrosities kindly treated by reviewers? I'm curious as to what/who that may be.

    anon2 - Thanks for the long reply, though I think you misunderstood my argument (if any, given that these posts don't start with a clear argument so much as a thought or idea that spills out). I'm not praising one award over another as much as I'm saying that how awards are judged is important to their acceptance in the field and by the public. If one award values the actual experience of a building over glossy images, to me that means more.

    Also I don't agree with your take on including people in architectural photography, but I probably think about it differently than you do. You seem to think about it in terms of uncontrolled occupation of the space by people, but I think of it in terms of a controlled, compositional way. One reason that photographs don't feature people is that they're usually shot before the building is occupied; it may have some furniture but it's yet to be used. Given that situation, a photographer could use models (in the general sense, not wafish and pretty sense) to bring out certain qualities of the space. I recall some photos of Bernard Tschumi's student center at Columbia University that used a woman in a red dress in almost every shot, a la Schindler's List but in color photographs. I realize that this technique would further what I seem to be rallying against, but it would be an improvement over photographs free of human presence (in some cases but not all; I still think some images are aided by being sparse).


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