In this profession, renderings are a mostly benign fantasy world filled with translucent giants, acontextual hipsters, shimmering surfaces, and indeterminate light sources. Once the project is built, the rendering becomes obsolete.
But what about architecture photography? In a medium that presents itself as a faithful mirror of reality, how much idealization is tolerable? In Flint, Michigan, this question has grown into a major point of contention in the weeks since the opening of a much-anticipated public art installation.
Here's a quick recap: Earlier this year, the Flint Public Art Project and AIA Flint held an international design competition for a temporary pavilion and event space in a downtown parking lot. Two Islands, a trio of architects based in London and Madrid, won the $25,000 award with a proposal to build "Mark's House," a mirrored structure set on a mirrored base. By reflecting the city around it, the project hopes to reflect residents' experiences in the economic crisis—the Mark in the title is a fictional victim of foreclosure—and seeks to inspire new uses of public space. The winning renderings swept the blogosphere last spring and, when "Mark's House" opened last month, so did the professional photos.
A rendering of "Mark's House" and a photo of the finished installation. Rendering courtesy Two Islands; photo © Gavin Smith
Outside of Flint, where the narrative followed a simple arc from renderings to installation to publicity, "Mark's House" was a success. Inside Flint, it was a different story. Because of schedule and budget constraints, the architects had to use reflective Mylar for the cladding instead of the adhesive mirrored panel listed in their proposal, a substitution that drastically changed the look of the installation. In hot weather, the wood structure contracts, causing the reflective film to ripple; rain and cool temperatures smooth it back out. At its sleekest, the cladding passes for shiny metal panels, but at its wrinkliest, it resembles aluminum foil. "One of our colleagues joked that it looked like a Jiffy Pop bag," says Stephen Zacks, executive director of the Flint Public Art Project.
If the renderings set residents up for disappointment, the official photos elicited rage. In the professionally shot images, which made the rounds on design sites (including ours), the project resembles the renderings. The community's own photos—taken in all weather and, sometimes, from intentionally bad angles—are far less charitable. In the discussion thread on a designboom post displaying the pro photos, commenters attempted to set the record straight, posting links to a particularly gnarly shot on MLive, Flint's local news site.
The appearance of "Mark's House" varies according to weather conditions. Left: A photo of "Mark's House" that appeared in local news coverage; © Scott Atkinson. Right: A photo taken by Flint Public Art Project executive director Stephen Zacks.
Photo © Stephen Zacks
Commenters lobbed accusations of Photoshopping, but the photographer, Gavin Smith, told MLive that he did no postproduction work on the photos (a statement that has us eyeing the cloudburst in the top image somewhat uncomfortably).
Zacks attributes the structure's smoothness to luck. "I don't think it's looked as smooth on any other day," he says. Zacks also took some photos himself, and they fall somewhere in between Smith's sleek shots and MLive's crumply ones.
Because architects and their clients, both of who rely on strong pictures to attract business, foot the photography bill, architecture photos are always more advertisement than journalism. What, then, is the photographer's responsibility? Does he or she have a duty to serve the public, and not just the paying client? What is the design press, anyway—journalism or advertising?
Photos that make poor journalism could, in the end, sour advertising, too. Writing in Places last spring, architect Belmont Freeman lamented the encroachment of digital perfection on architecture. "One might argue that the production of hyper-idealized images of architecture is itself a form of art and that nobody is harmed by it; but that is not the case," he writes. "I fear that the proliferation of such photographs leads clients and the public at large to expect from architecture and architects a degree of quality—perfection—that is impossible to deliver in the real world."