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Katherine Shonfield

Each time I bounce round with a new set of holiday snaps my non-architect friend groans. It's because, she says, of my systematic erasure of everything pertaining to human interest from the images. It is as effective as if one of those 1980s bombs had just dropped - you know, the ones architects liked - that killed all forms of natural life while leaving buildings and cities pleasingly intact.

Apparently with the explicit purpose to shame us out of this regrettable tendency, an exhibition of the work of the photographer Brassai has opened at the Hayward Gallery in London. Brassai depicts Paris through the medium of its nightlife, for which read people.

Along with the work of other great artists of Paris, the nineteenth-century novelist Emile Zola, and the contemporary film-maker JeanLuc Godard, Brassai focuses his gaze on that most human of figures, the prostitute. In his photographs, she embodies the essence of the city, and is the human whose presence reveals the complexities of Paris, through her occupation of its streets and interiors.

But the most practical and surprising architectural insight of this stunning work concerns street furniture. When people are absent in Brassai's photographs, the figures of street furniture take over. Like characters in a theatrical chorus when the main protagonists depart, lamps, handrails and signs take centre stage. This man makes portraits of railings. And they are revealed in the watches of the night as variously ethereal, threatening, entrancing, and, of course, enigmatic.

Street furniture in most architectural lives is what the high street chain Accessorize is to Haute Couture. We are aware that loads of money is spent on it, but we are convinced it has a minor relationship with the real, serious stuff of building. See this extraordinary Hayward exhibition and think again.

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