I first started to figure out why I found architecture so appealing when I was still a student. It was because of the way it combined art with science. Science counterbalanced art’s arbitrary vagueness and art gave meaning to science’s dry strictness. Naturally I was not always successful in balancing the two but I nevertheless respected them equally. The last few decades however, aesthetics have been much more favoured and in the words of Franco LaCecla from his book ‘Against Architecture’, architects are increasingly ‘selling’ themselves as public artists. It seems that the mystic bond of art and science is broken, or at least severely damaged.
Thus a new kind of over-designed architecture has emerged and it is one that seems to be lacking in substance. Or is it that consciously the majority of architects choose to turn a blind eye to both practicality and social issues and instead obsess in a neurotic manner over colour palettes and high-tech finishes? Whatever the reason it is impressive that we increasingly overestimate aesthetics but still manage to let architectural art gradually slip further and further away. Of course discussing architecture as art is rather dangerous as it is highly subjective. Especially since there are so many other factors involved in its evaluation, like functionality, social and political impact and so forth.
Regardless of architecture’s complexity and multifaceted nature there is no doubt that it is an art and besides its ability to affect people’s lives in a very literal way, it can also have a strong emotional impact on them as well.
Again in my student years I remember coming across Le Corbusier’s famous quote:
“You employ stone, wood and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces. That is construction. Ingenuity is at work.
But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say: “This is beautiful.” That is Architecture. Art enters in“.
What Le Corbusier describes here is something that happens secretly and its mechanism is not easy to grasp nor copy. It is fleeting and vague but also strong and pervasive.
The photographs that Geraldo De Barros took throughout his career somehow manage to sum up everything that moves me about architecture. Geometry, axes and vectors and the casting of shadows. Penetrating magnifications of seemingly irrelevant structural details. The human scale. The vastness of nature and the way that architecture manages to tame it by providing cosy shelters.
Of course it is people who are emotional not buildings, but people live their lives in buildings and they get attached to their surroundings because this is the way they dwell, by getting emotionally involved. Years ago I read a book that explains that this happens because of crypto-religious tendencies*. Our primitiveness reveals itself each time a space acquires special meaning by association to our own personal life-story. Spaces get appropriated symbolically, a street corner is scary to me because it will forever remind me of a bike accident I had there and a particular cafe will seem depressing as it will always be the place where a lover broke up with me etc. Regardless of the fact that I partly agree with this theory, I cannot disregard the fact that it diminishes architecture’s ability to evoke emotional responses on its own, which I most definitely believe in as well.
Geraldo de Barros somehow manages to distil the essence of this bond between people and spaces without being graphic by referring to specific stories. This is why his photographs are truly poetic. A poet shares an image that resonates with feeling but rarely reveals the exact information that brings on the emotion. De Barros is considered a very important artist in Brazil though unfortunately he is not that known in the rest of the world. However he lived in Europe at the beginning of his career and he was very much influenced by that era’s artistic schools and movements. This is evident throughout his work, especially some of the Fotoformas reminded me a lot of Bauhaus photos of buildings or Moholy-Nagy’s photograms. The photographs on display at Photographers’ Gallery are either produced at the very beginning or the very end of his career as in the middle he was not that interested in photography. Apparently for quite a few years he was a successful industrial designer and he owned his own furniture company.
Looking through someone’s lens is as close as one can get to looking though their eyes. De Barros saw space and understood its geometry as intensely as he understood its symbolic possibilities. I believe he was moved by spaces the same way that architects are. He communicates his understanding of the world by the use of an architectural language that is stripped of mundane elements and thus is elevated to a higher level. The images resonate like music, they tremble and shake with feeling and beauty.
*Mircae Eliade (1959), The sacred and the profane, London: Harcourt
The exhibition will be on at The Photographers’ Gallery until the 7th of April.
See more about it at the Gallery’s website here
Geraldo de Barros website here