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Photo opportunities

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Making photographs of completed projects is one thing. Using them to enhance the design process is another

When he was profiled in AJ 22.4.99, Niall McLaughlin said: 'Although I'm fond of my buildings, I'm more interested in the process of designing, the process of craft and getting it right.'

This interest in process has taken an unusual turn in one of his current projects - the new bandstand for Mendelsohn and Chermayeff's Grade I-listed De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill in East Sussex.

We're used to photographers making the most of a finished building, or sometimes recording its construction. What McLaughlin has done instead is involve a photographer - Adam Brown of the Brixton-based agency Photofusion - during the design stage.

The reasons for this collaboration are twofold. One is to do with the quest for 'a common visual language' which can communicate to clients who may not be attuned to conventional architectural drawings. The other, says McLaughlin, 'is a way of enriching the final design, of discovering and incorporating extra dimensions to it.'

McLaughlin traces his concern with a mediating visual language back to his new chapel for a Carmelite monastery in Kensington (AJ 29.6.95). There his discussion with the client body of friars was made easier by using a reproduction of a late medieval painting: the quality and fall of light in it were something his design would try to capture. The first proposals for his much-publicised photographer's hide at Pytchley, Northamptonshire, fused photograph and collage. The current collaboration with Adam Brown was a logical next step.

The bandstand for the De La Warr Pavilion is comprised of a carbon fibre shell on a lightweight steel frame. In its form, it looks set to provoke entomological associations in the way that the Pytchley hide has done, for there is something of a giant insect to it - an impression that is encouraged by its being moveable. 'There is an implied rotation in the plan of the existing pavilion, ' explains McLaughlin. 'Indeed, the suggested movement is so strong that it is difficult to put a fixed object into it - not to mention one's reticence when dealing with so significant a building.'

The collaboration has involved eight or nine Sunday sessions in which McLaughlin and two colleagues from his office - Silke Vosskoetter and Sandra Coppin - have joined Brown in his Brixton studio and darkroom. In return for the use of Photofusion's facilities, they have agreed to run a day-long workshop at the agency on the content of these sessions.

Over the weeks, the four collaborators have experimented with materials (zinc mesh, corrugated plastic, etc), with form, with light (reflected and refracted), and with movement. Using a black paper background, and customising a projector so that narrow beams of light could be directed onto models of the bandstand, they have produced a series of prints.

Some - at least at first glance - are rather enigmatic abstractions; others communicate more readily.

In discussing the material generated during the course of any design, McLaughlin makes a distinction between 'seduction' and 'dissection':

certain images are seductive, encouraging the client (or the architect) with a sense of the project's possibilities; but these must be supplemented by more analytical images which dissect particular proposals and test their feasibility.

Each of the three photographs reproduced here has its distinct character. One, created early in the collaboration, shows light passing through and reflecting from the bandstand's canopy, though in its apparent abstraction - not so different from a photogram by Man Ray or Laszlo Moholy-Nagy - it best fits McLaughlin's 'seductive' category. Another, looking down obliquely on the model from above, is much more of a 'dissection' - an obvious tool for explanations to the client.

The third is somewhere inbetween. Although, to be moveable, the bandstand must be relatively light, it has to withstand the uplift that gusts of wind might produce. McLaughlin envisages that, wherever the structure migrates to on the terrace in front of the pavilion, it will be fixed to the (Grade I-listed) paving at four points. By chalking the 'feet' of the bandstand model, and physically manhandling it during a number of flash exposures, the collaborators' could capture its anticipated movement in one conflated image, both descriptive and alluring. As well as the mechanics of motion, 'it helped us to understand the sort of spaces the structure would generate - how it charged the spaces before and behind it, ' says McLaughlin.

The structural and acoustical questions which the collaboration touched on have of course been subject to precise technical analyses (Price & Myers for the structure, Paul Gillieron for the acoustics). McLaughlin doesn't photographic sessions have provided so much as the imaginative supplement they have given to the project.

As envisaged, the photographs have been used in discussions with the client and other interested parties at the De La Warr pavilion.

Doubtless - a spin-off for Brown, perhaps - some could hang in a gallery with no reference to their architectural pretext. For McLaughlin, though, the process from which these images emerged is pre-eminent.

'On an Open House day I can give a 20-minute talk on one of my designs, ' he says. 'But architecture usually has to operate when it's silent. You have to imply a narrative, not stand there and deliver it.

So there must be a stored richness in what you create.

The more ways that you can represent a building to yourself as you make it, the more likely it is that the finished work will acquire that richness. That's why a collaboration like this has its value.'

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