24 August 2009

Archival Magpies

the role of photography in the work of Measured Architecture

Matthew Woodruff

If you’re a collector, you’re a collector, and we are collectors. We collect furniture, books, old bones, plants, music, collaborators and eccentric friends. We also have a profound desire to catalogue the world; to gather textures, colours, forms, effects, places and moods. Starting at home we’re searching for tidbits that could find their way in to our work. Photographs are seductive because of their transparency. Do they represent things, or are they things themselves? A collection of photographs is seductive as well. It’s substantial (due to quantity) and ephemeral, for the meaning often lies in the space between the images. The digital age only enhances this contradiction, with our collection existing as it does only on the office server, and in a few ratty printouts. What, beyond the knowledge of it, do we really have?
As archivists we draw meaning from a group of images. Our desire is to record everything that exists, as a means of understanding it. Do shadows fall differently on a wall than a floor? How does concrete age? Which walls get graffiti, and which don’t? We have inventories of stains and plants, of forms and textures. We’re interested in the liveliness of old spaces, and the sterility of new ones (including ours). Where does that come from? Photographs are a good way to explore this.

Our practice is grounded in the belief that architects are storytellers. We tell the story of the site and the path of the sun, the story of construction, and the story of daily life. We also tell the story of our client’s values. As communicators we find that photographs help us to explore these stories and then tell them effectively. Photographs can be tremendously powerful, as much because of what is left out as what remains within the frame. A photograph is a way of simplifying chaos. The problem of course is that life itself is not so easily digestible.

Each project in the office starts with a pinup wall filled with images, and the first few meetings are always spent with clients gathered around this wall, seeing what they respond to. Because we use images to start thinking about a project, the narrative of similar spaces, of effects and experiences, modified by our discussions, becomes our departure point. But, we are wary of the pitfall of the Facebook generation, which can confuse photographing something with actually seeing it. It’s not enough to have the document, it has to be understood, absorbed, digested and reworked. At best, each photograph represents an idea, but it must contribute to the project and reinforce the concept as a whole to have a place in the building.

The virtual world (and images, especially photographs, don’t have much weight as things themselves) has created a virtual life, where the record of an event or a place, becomes a surrogate for it, thus creating a filter to the past. In contrast, our process is deliberate and only begins with the click of the shutter. The best images are tagged and printed, pinned up and rearranged in a search for meaning. Certain images become touchstones. Why is this? We like to think it’s because they communicate a mood, but perhaps it’s just because ordinary experiences are delivered in bite-sized pieces. Our buildings tend to solidify slowly around events and we use photographs as surrogates for the experiences we are planning. It’s meaningful to a client to explain where they will see this or that shadow, or the colour of the light by pointing to a picture. It makes an abstract idea come alive.

Ultimately, architects are shameless magpies. We would be fools if we argued divine inspiration over mimetic skill. However, by accepting the visual language of modern life, and surrounding ourselves with these stimulants, we can absorb, digest, work and rework them, until they finally appear as ideas in our projects. In the end, we can trace the thread of a shadow from Cairo to a house in Vancouver.

Woodruff, Matthew. 'Archival Magpies' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Matthew Woodruff and On Site review

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