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The Life and Death of Buildings

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The cyclical nature of destruction and construction in architecture is a fascinating topic to explore, but Joel Smith’s new book leaves readers wanting more, writes Andrew Mead

The photograph on the back cover of Joel Smith’s new book is of an office in the former Ford Motor Company headquarters in Highland Park, Detroit. Taken in 2009 when the complex had been vacant for 40 years, Andrew Moore captures a scene of metamorphosis, with lurid green moss sprouting from what once was a carpet. With so many abandoned buildings (civic, commercial, domestic), Detroit has come to epitomise the fate of the industrial city. Photographers have flocked there, perversely finding its decay distinctly glamorous, and no study of The Life and Death of Buildings could omit it.

Though Yale has published this book, it stems from an exhibition shown at Princeton University Art Museum, and its author is the museum’s curator of photography. His focus is on ‘the transit of artefacts through time’, the artefacts being both the buildings and the photographs. Drawn mostly from Princeton’s own collection, the images range from the 1850s to today, featuring buildings that are pristine, ravaged or more subtly marked by time. At one extreme is a near-abstract photo by Julian Faulhaber, looking upwards to an immaculate, hi-tech ceiling in a composition that recalls Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square. At the other, are the ruins at Karnak in Egypt, the ivy-swamped Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, and the Detroit moss.

‘Yesterday’s workplace becomes today’s vacant eyesore and will be tomorrow’s protected landmark’, says Smith, reflecting on perceptions that shift over time, and how images allow a building’s ‘story’ to be traced. He goes on to consider a photograph by Édouard Baldus of Saint-Eustache church in Paris in 1855. What now attracts the viewer’s attention is not so much the still-surviving church in the middle distance, but the market buildings in the foreground, which were swept away when Les Halles was so disastrously redeveloped.



Time changes the significance of the image and our own agenda supplants the photographer’s. This fact is central to the book and it lends cohesion to what can seem like catalogue commentaries to material that Smith happens to have at hand, rather than something more structured and substantial.

Threading through this miscellany is a story about New York. One evening in 1931, Alfred Stieglitz took a photo from his apartment window of skyscrapers dominating the neighbourhood and glowing in the twilight. Today, this scene might evoke the romance of the city, but Stieglitz was dismayed, lamenting the disappearance of the ‘rocks and bare places and trees’ he knew as a boy. Fast-forward to the mid-1960s and Danny Lyon documents the erasure of whole blocks of 19th-century buildings in his book The Destruction of Lower Manhattan (1969). This clearance was partly for the construction of Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center (‘difficult to love’, says Smith), whose own destruction figures in Thomas Ruff’s enlargement of an internet-found image. At this huge size, every pixel is as plain as the smoke and falling masonry in a work that deals as much with the transmission of news as with 9/11 itself.

These New York inclusions highlight the cyclical rise and fall of buildings, a more conspicuous theme of the book than their evolution over time. Although buildings that have been altered or added to over the years can become complex palimpsests that a photograph prompts you to decipher, there are few such shots here. In a section called The Sentient Wall, Smith examines the effects of weathering, but does so mostly by stressing the similarities between the photographs that Aaron Siskind and Minor White took in the 1950s of peeling paint, with the work of their Abstract Expressionist contemporaries.

As architects Mohsen Mostafavi and David Leatherbarrow demonstrated in On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time (MIT Press, 1993), which Smith doesn’t mention, this is a rich subject to explore. Noting the Modernist preference for an unblemished surface, they ask: ‘Is weathering only subtraction, can it not also add and enhance? This process always marks, and these marks may be intended, even desired.’ Among examples of enhancement, they cite the ‘soot and whitewash’ of many Venetian buildings, such as the Palazzo Ducale, and the harmony that comes from stone stained by copper as it oxidises and is washed by rain. They pursue a discussion that Smith only starts.

What’s really missing from Smith’s book is a sense of buildings being used, what Alison and Peter Smithson called ‘the art of inhabitation’. Apart from the workers demolishing lower Manhattan, people only feature in diminished form to emphasise a building’s scale. In the AJ archive (AJ 28.06.01), there is a folder of photos of the Smithsons’ Solar Pavilion, the weekend retreat they built near Fonthill in Wiltshire. Whether of children playing or of lunch guests around a table in the courtyard, those casual snapshots say more about the life of buildings than anything here.

Despite Smith’s eloquent images, The Life and Death of Buildingsis only a sketch for the book that could be written on this subject; a plate of canapés, not a feast.

Andrew Mead is a writer and former reviews editor of the AJ

 The Life and Death of Buildings: On Photography and Time by Joel Smith, Yale University Press, 2011, £28

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