As an architect specializing in projects that involve cultural and institutional landmarks (I have worked on an addition to the New Jersey State House and the upcoming renovation of the Statue of Liberty), I am accustomed to seeing firsthand the aging impacts of both nature and man on architecture. It was a delight, therefore, to see this new show at Princeton’s Art Museum that takes as its theme transformations in the life of buildings as observed through the lens of a camera. The thematic focus of the show, “The Life and Death of Buildings,” presented an opportunity to exhibit the range of the museum’s extraordinary collection while exploring issues of memory and change that are integral to both architecture and photography.
The transformation begins at the introduction of the show. Photographs depicting the Pyramids, the Temple of Apollo, the Temple of Kukulcan, Chichen Itza — what Yeats called “the monuments of unaging intellect” — are visual reports. But quickly these images are followed by images of change. Buildings are moved, demolished, erased by natural forces, bombarded in war, added to, and disembodied. If a form seems knowable, it is multiplied as in Bernd and Hilla Becher’s “Cooling Towers Wood-Steel,” a series that can be read as the same corseted form in different guises. A building site, Peter Keetman’s “Baustelle,” depicts the potential of construction, with tools and material readied for action. There are more operations on these bodies than an episode of Dexter, and it’s all caught in crime-scene black and white.
The case for the cycle of building life is laid out in compelling narrative detail. From the heroic civic realm we are next presented with the single family house — but first as a series of prairie homesteads. These postcards from the edge, depicting elemental houses with their stolid owners in the scene, give new perspective to the harsh environment of home ownership. And after the individuality of the houses it is startling to see the built, serial form of a Levittown look-alike in William A. Garnett’s. “Housing Development, San Francisco.” This is a building type, and a culture, that has radically transformed over time, and the photographs compress the span of years.
A quick change of lens offers the wall itself as subject. These surfaces are planes of inscription that register fugitive light, or, as in Lynne Cohen’s “Motel Room” of 1979, an opportunity to collapse deep space and different scales in the uniquely photographic mode. Aptly called “the sentient wall” by curator Joel Smith, these images work in flat frontal space not unlike an abstract painting.
If these images begin to seem too abstract, with composition the generator of meaning, the tide of human affairs perpetually ebbs in this show. Buildings are the stage-set for excruciating loss, as in Robert Capa’s “Hankow, China” of 1938, as well as moments of deep humanity, as in Dmitri Baltermant’s “Tchaikovsky,” 1945, an image of soldiers gathered round to listen to a piano-playing colleague with an almost beatific light penetrating from an artillery shell hole in the wall. The buildings are deeply engaged with the life of the participants to the point where they become doubles.
The digital revolution, with its ubiquitous proliferation of imagery, is artfully captured in Tim Davis’s “Coliseum Pictures (The New Antiquity),” a collection of hand-held cameras showing different tourist views of the Coliseum. These are, after all, contemporary postcards, more than likely soon to be on Facebook. The photograph represents our way of apprehending — serial images, frozen in the moment, and everyone a photographer. And the subject itself is transformed in the recording. As Susan Sontag observes, “The photographic purchase on the world, with its limitless production of notes on reality, makes everything homologous.”
If there are indeed too many images, too much data, to the point that it all becomes photographic blurriness, the show points a way forward. Two works in the show capture this best of all and offer a kind of creative synthesis.
The first, Zhang Dali’s “Demolition, World Financial Center, Beijing,” on first reading depicts a skyscraper under construction, rising out of the rubble of a low-rise building site. A breach in a wall frames the lower part of the construction. But further study reveals what appears to be a steel template, in the outline of a human profile, leaning against another wall. The breech in the wall corresponds to this cutout. The demolition is actually the artist’s profile, and he has inscribed his vision into the photograph and invited us into the space. The interaction with the site of building and demolition is active, participatory, and engages the audience in constructing the work. Rather than a passive scene of observation, the photographic work of art becomes a kind of theatrical moment.
The second work is quite simply a startling coda to this show. It is more sculpture than architecture or photograph, but it has a kind of half life in both states. Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Tilted House” of 1979 was known primarily through the photographs he made of his incisions, removals, and displacements of the single family house. His operations on the house body were unembellished and raw, an artist making process subject. Here are actual fragments of the tilted house, four corners of eave, wall, and roof placed in their approximate spatial relationship. We sense the absence of the house, the excavations of the artist, and the acute sense of time that has elapsed in the life of the building. It represents a kind of doubling back over the overall arc of this show.
The test of the effectiveness of this show is its impact on vision. I walked out and saw the campus buildings as sites suspended in momentary stasis, with transformations by weather as well as by our own additions and demolitions resulting in a kind of living history. There is pathos in this perpetual change that reflects our own lives and that the photograph captures in an artful instant.
“The Life and Death of Buildings,” on view through Sunday, November 6, at the Princeton University Art Museum. Admission is free. 609-258-3788 or http://artmuseum.princeton.edu.
Keynote lecture Saturday, September 10, 5 p.m., McCosh 10. “Mapping History, Marking Time” presented by Anthony Grafton, professor of history, Princeton University, and Daniel Rosenberg, associate professor of history, University of Oregon. Followed by reception, 6 to 7:30 p.m., at the museum.
Farewell is the principal of Farewell Architects LLC, 200 Forrestal Road, Princeton. 609-681-2484. www.farewell-architects.com.