Architectural Geology

Introduction: The Seeing, Not the Scene

It was in high school geometry class (sophomore year) that I first became aware of Zeno’s Paradox. This stated, roughly, that if you had a distance to traverse, and with each step you exactly halved the remaining amount, you would never arrive at your destination. It was a fascinating idea.

In an attempt to both entertain and irritate my physics teacher at the time, a retired Air Force Colonel from Alabama, I devised and presented, with mathematical proof, Citret’s Paradox. It stated that All Distances are Equal to One Another. The proof was simple: since (a) any distance is the measure of a line between two points; and (b) all lines are comprised of an infinite number of points; and because (c) infinity must always be equal to itself; it must follow that; (d) all distances are equal. My victim was more irritated than amused.

For more than 25 of the intervening 30 years I have been a photographer. As there seems to be a universal human need to identify and classify, I am often asked what kind of photographer I might be. Nearly everyone, whether a photographer, painter, doctor, lawyer, philosopher–has been asked a similar question. My answer has always been that I photograph landscape and architecture. Certainly that answer reflects the obvious fact that the literal subject matter of my work has been landscape, which is to say “the land”, and architecture, which is to say “buildings”. But there has always been an uneasiness in that answer. There are images that have presented dilemmas in terms of classifications: when “the land” and “buildings” were combined in a photograph; when the land displayed human presence, and yet no buildings were present; when buildings exhibited similar characteristics to land forms; etc. It became apparent (for neither the first nor last time) that the “obvious” answer was a terribly unsatisfying one. The distinction between “landscape” and “architecture” became an increasingly artificial and arbitrary one for me.

After all, do bees or beavers, both of whom practice their own intricate form of architecture, draw a distinction between their own constructed world and all else in the “natural” world? I won’t attempt to get inside the mind’s of those creatures, but speaking as a human, I suspect that most of us make no serious distinctions between a beaver dam or a bee hive and the rest of the natural landscape. They are merely an integral part of that landscape. So why do we view our own structures, or representations of those structures, as being so distinctly separate?

So nearly thirty years later, I find that Citret’s Paradox has risen once again. In this incarnation it states, that Any Photographic Subject Matter can be Equal to Any Other Photographic Subject Matter. Specifically, it tells me that the photography of the natural landscape and the photography of architecture are no different from one another.

This is not meant to convince anyone that the Empire State Building is the same as Half Dome. In fact, it is not an attempt to convince anyone of anything. There is no mathematical proof accompanying this version of the paradox. It has far more to do with exploring a state of mind, or state of awareness, than anything else. How we think about something has a great deal to do with how we relate to that thing. After all, the world of objects, as they literally appear to the normal human eye, is pretty much the same for every one of us. A rose is a rose is a rose. Yet Irving Penn’s rose is not the same as Ansel Adams’ rose.

I proceed on the faith that my photographs do a far better job of interpreting my reality for me than do my conscious thoughts. This faith is not blind. It is the result of over 25 years of making pictures: evaluating, editing, rejecting, accepting, and constantly working to improve them. It is fair to say that on some level I have come to look to my photographs to tell me what I already know, but am otherwise unable to articulate. Conversely, it is also fair to say that until I have achieved my own subjective understanding of a particular subject, even if it’s an unconscious understanding, I am unable to photograph it effectively. (The obstacles we encounter when trying to make “good” pictures, particularly in a medium like photography, often seem to be technical in nature. Yet how often do we see the technical problems evaporate once we have a clear idea of what it is we want to say. This is not meant to suggest that technique can be ignored if one possesses a particularly deep and understanding nature. Under any circumstances, good craft requires adequate technique.)

But I have strayed from my point, which is that two seemingly different types of subject matter are not so different at all. Certainly there are times when a building is nothing more than a building. (As Freud once said, “Sometimes, a cigar is only a cigar”). But there are times when it can become something else, to the eye’s mind at any rate (to turn a phrase).

In 1962, the comedian, advertising man, and philosopher, Stan Freberg, released his epic album, The United States of America, an irreverent history of our nation’s founding and early years. In it, we find Christopher Columbus, immediately upon landing, confronting a band of natives. To their leader he says, “I’d like to take a few of you back in the boat with me, to prove I discovered you”.

“What you mean, ‘discover us’?”, answered the chief. “We discover you.”

“You discovered us?” an incredulous Columbus asks.

“Certainly! We discover you on beach here. Is all how you look at it!”

And so it can be. The literal reality that we so easily take for granted might be anything but obvious, and seemingly preposterous ideas can make inevitable and logical sense. It depends entirely upon “how you look at it”.

Architectural Geology

The respective genres of Landscape and Architectural Photography seem to be self explanatory and rather clear cut. When we hear “landscape”, we expect to see pictures of “the land” and its related elements: sky, water, foliage, etc. The word “architecture” brings to mind pictures of buildings: antiquities of Rome or Egypt in exploration photographs of the 19th century, residences, offices, and skyscrapers (inside and out), in the pages of current slick color magazines, or “fine art” photographs of urban or rural structures.

Seems simple enough, yet the adaptability of language creates problems. For instance, how often do we hear of the “political landscape”, or the “urban landscape”. Suddenly the word takes on some variations in meaning. To further complicate things, those referring to pictures of the “urban landscape” might customize the term to “cityscape”. Pictures of the ocean are often called “seascapes”. So is the operative word here “scape”, distinguished by its prefix? Treescape? Carscape? Peoplescape? Animalscape? (Goatscape?) Doesn’t seem very practical.

And then there’s the fuzziness of the word “architecture”. The noted architecture writer and critic John Ruskin coined the phrase: “architecture is frozen music” in a poetic attempt to help define architecture for himself and his readers. Those of a perverse frame of mind might turn that around to define music as “melted (or thawed) architecture”. And then there are always phrases like, “the internal architecture of DNA”.

The point of all this is that the words we use to define and categorize cannot be wholly trusted. We may need them in our attempts at communication, but at every turn they can be twisted and interpreted in ways that don’t express precisely what we mean. (Perhaps that is why they are so useful. How many of us know precisely what it is we mean at any given moment?). This discussion could easily become a linguistic or etymological treatise, but that is something I am unqualified for, not to mention uninterested in. What does interest me is redefining, for my own practical purposes, the categories of photography that most of us have come to use and accept so readily. They simply do not work as identifications or descriptions, and as such make the job of presenting photographs, not to mention making them, much more difficult and confusing than it ought to be.

Ideally, it would be nice not to have to verbally identify our pictures before presenting them. But the world doesn’t work that way. Place a stack of photographs in front of most viewers, and they will feel uncomfortable not knowing (or thinking they know) what it is they are about to see. “Are these landscapes? portraits? architectural?” If we don’t categorize them, the viewer usually will. (Of course, they probably will anyway, regardless of what we say).

What is a Landscape

To restate the question posed above, does “landscape” refer only to “the land” and assorted variations on “the land”? If we accept “urban landscape” as a worthwhile designation, is that to be distinguished from “rural landscape” or “natural landscape”? Is Golden Gate Park part of the “urban landscape”, or does “urban landscape” refer only to buildings and roadways piled on top of one another? The park is certainly not a “natural landscape” though it is comprised of many of the same elements of one. Golden Gate Park is in fact a classic example of the discipline of Landscape Architecture, yet a park scene would hardly be referred to as an “architectural photograph”, though perhaps it should be.

As a photographer I am drawn equally to all of these various “scapes”: the urban, the wilds, the rural, the built environment, the fresh, the decaying. When the camera is on my shoulder and the eyes set in automatic pilot, they all offer equal fascinations, whether isolated or in combinations. There came a point when I realized that as a photographer I related to all of these as integral parts of the “landscape”. The realization came during, and to some extent because of, a specific project I was engaged upon.

From 1990 to 1994, I photographed a massive construction site in the southwest corner of San Francisco. What drew me to it from the start was not that it was a building in the process of becoming, or even that it presented such interesting shapes, volumes and textures. The way I could best articulate it to myself (at the time) was that it was a landscape that changed, both subtly and dramatically, on a daily basis. This was a unique situation in my experience, and it kept me visually riveted to the site for five years. There’s an old New England joke that goes, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute”. This was a case of, “If you don’t like the landscape, wait a minute”. It would literally change, if not before your eyes, in a matter of hours or days.

It was, I believe, more than a year into this work that I reflected upon the fact that I perceived this environment as a “landscape”. Perhaps it wasn’t a traditional “landscape”, yet I knew that it was the appropriate term. It may have been incipient architecture, or to use Ruskin’s analogy, music in the process of freezing, but to me it was simply a fascinating, ever changing landscape. I didn’t care, and for much of the first year didn’t know, what it was going to be (a sewage treatment plant, as it turned out).

It was the realization that this environment was, in my eyes, as much a landscape as Yosemite that threw my notions of photographic semantics into complete chaos. If that was a “landscape” (and there was no doubt in my mind that it was), then what exactly is a landscape? The old rules, imprecise as they were, didn’t apply.

So I have endeavored to redefine landscape. Sounds like a presumptuous task, but there is really very little presumption involved. As an artist, one needn’t be effected by the same constraints as, say, a structural engineer or a physician. If either of those individuals go around arbitrarily redefining their vocabulary, the results could be bridges collapsing and patients dying. There is a need in those fields, among others, for language to relate directly and precisely to an established body of tangible knowledge. It is a matter of public safety, not to mention convenience. We, as photographers or artists, are running no such risks. (In fact, our real risk would be to concern ourselves at all with conceptual “safety” or “convenience”). If a definition doesn’t work, we are free to throw it out and make up a new one that does. As long as no one else is forced to accept it, there is no crime. All that matters is that it works for those who choose to use it.

This definition can be best expressed as a sort of equation or analogy:

A landscape is to human experience what a stage set is to a play.
In other words, a landscape is the venue or the geographic location in which an event might take place. Of course, the word “event” is another that might need defining in this context. For our purposes, let’s just say that it can be a literal “human” event, or a symbolic, psychic, or totally imaginary one. The event might have already happened, it may be about to happen, it may never happen; but its territory is the “landscape”.

Of course, as with any analogy, difficulties arise. One friend is uncomfortable with this definition because she feels it subjugates the landscape (meaning, I take it, “nature”, or the “natural landscape”) to a subservient position to us humans, and she is profoundly disturbed by this idea. If that were in fact what I was suggesting, I would be equally uncomfortable with it. It must be remembered that I am not redefining landscape in the sense of “the land”, but rather what constitutes a landscape in the photographer’s eyes. There is a big difference. I don’t believe it is being overly anthropomorphic to state that only people make photographs. To my knowledge, grizzly bears and bark beetles do not take pictures. So if the discussion is about photographs, it must be assumed to be from a human point of view. From that perspective, all that is “out there” as potential subject matter is in fact conceptually subservient to our purposes. (Appropriating a landscape for the purposes of a photographic image is hardly the same as appropriating it for a strip mine, a housing development, or a shopping mall).

Another possible objection to the analogy might be that even if one accepts the notion of the “territory”, as opposed to the “event”, there will always be certain landscape photographs, (and we all have our favorites to which this might apply), that are so magnificent and “alive” for us that they transcend “location” and become an “event” in themselves. All I can answer to that is that each viewer/reader must modify the definition in any way necessary for their own personal use (assuming they choose to accept it, wholly or partially, in the first place). If one sees exceptions to this dichotomy of “landscape/event”, that’s fine. There are points at which any definition begins to break down. (It would be great to repeat here the old cliché that “the exception proves the rule”, but I have never had a very good idea of exactly what that means. The only thing that occurs to me is that the existence of exceptions proves the rule that all rules have exceptions. Hardly seems worth the trouble!).

There is another criterion that exists simultaneously with this “stage set” idea as part of my definition of landscape. It is that:

A landscape is in the constant state of becoming something else.
This has more to do with the photographer’s own awareness of the landscape than it does with literal description. Since all of us, animal, vegetable, and mineral, are moving along on the same stream of time, it might seem obvious that we’re all in the process of becoming something else at any single moment. Obvious though it may be, it is worth stating, because it introduces the idea that landscape is as much a process as it is a physical location. It is this process that is central to the concept of architectural geology.

What is Architecture?

For purposes other than commercial architectural photography, it would be well to forget the idea of “Architecture” with a capital “A”. That is, the notion that architecture is designed by an architect, and has a moment when it is “finished”, and looks the way it is “supposed” to look, at least in the architect’s or builder’s mind. (More on this in appendix: Architecture as Architecture).

So if that is not architecture (in the generic sense, or with a small “a”), then what is? I take the broadest possible approach to this question. I consider any landscape (remembering our definition of landscape) where evidence of human presence is apparent as being “architectural” in nature(so to speak). This can be a landscape as dominated by structures as Walker Evans’ photo of the mills of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, or as subtle as a Robert Adams photo of a beer can by the Columbia River.

It could be argued that taking this inclusive view of what comprises architecture serves the purpose of rendering the term virtually useless. That may in fact be my purpose for taking such a view. As I mentioned before, I am looking for a definition that resists the easy categorization of photographs along the simple lines of the conventionally accepted notions of the “literal subject matter”. However, I would contend that the term is not at all useless, merely broad enough to allow the photographer easy movement within its ample constraints. (As it was with the definition of “landscape”, this definition of “architecture” has less to do with architecture per se than it does with the perception of, and the consequent photographs of, architecture).

Architecture as Landscape

A geologist might view primal physical forces as falling into one of two categories: 1) those that build land forms, and 2) those that erode or modify land forms. Examples of the former might be volcanism and the thrusting and uplift of fault blocks, and examples of the latter the actions of streams, glaciers, gravity, wind, and frost.

One could restate these primal forces to apply to architecture: that there are forces that create buildings (or any architectural edifice), and there are forces that erode them. In this context, the forces that “create” could be stated quite simply, by our own definition, as “human activity”. (Geologists are now beginning to recognize “human activity” as making significant contributions to conventional geology, both as a “building” and “eroding” force. It would be fascinating to see, one, two, twenty, or one hundred million years from now how our cities, hiways, dams and bridges, not to mention our landfills, will have been absorbed into the geologic record). Many of the forces that erode and modify architecture are the same as those that erode and modify land forms: gravity, time, and weather. (Glaciers might not qualify because most of the time, humans aren’t short sighted enough to build structures in their paths). Intrinsic to the life of buildings is one other agent of change, and that is human use. A building’s adaptability to changes in use is as natural to its evolution as stream activity is to a mountain valley’s. (For an eloquent exploration of this idea, read Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn; Viking Press, 1994).

We are now confronted with the notion that “architecture” has an evolution and “life-cycle” much like any other landscape. Seen this way, the distinction between “architecture” and “landscape” as different photographic subjects becomes unnecessary. Each is merely a reflection of primal physical forces: those which build, and those that erode. (Can it really all be as simple as “what goes up, must come down?). In this light, all human activity becomes merely another facet of nature’s forces. This may not be a useful or desirable point of view politically, particularly from a conservationist standpoint, but from a photographer’s, or any other artist’s, it liberates us from the need to inadequately label our work. (There is an inherent redundancy in the phrase “inadequately label”, since it is my belief that most of the labels and categories that are applied to creative expression of any kind, be it photographs, paintings, music, whatever, are not only inadequate, but detrimental. In my somewhat cynical view, it stems from a widely held misconception that states: “if we can name a thing, we must therefore understand it”).

The idea of “Architectural Geology” can be an effective umbrella for a certain attitude in looking at our surroundings. I hope it is supported by its own internal logic, but ultimately it is unimportant whether it is or not. What is important is the realization that the contemplation of architecture, by any definition, is the contemplation of all human endeavor. The scale is irrelevant: it can be Walker Evans’ steel mills or Robert Adams’ beer can. Photographs of architecture are about the monuments we build to ourselves, and leave scattered over the land. They are about materials and how they age and decay, how they catch the light and throw it back. They are about our passions and indifferences; our humor and pretensions; our creativity and idiocy. They are a portrait of humanity itself.


Architecture as Architecture

“A major culprit is architectural photography, according to a group of Architecture Department faculty I had lunch with at the University of California, Berkeley. Clare Cooper Marcus said it most clearly: ‘You get work through getting awards, and the award system is based on photographs. Not use. Not context…’

“…In London, architect Frank Duffy fumed to me about ‘the curse of architecturalphotography, which is all about the wonderfully composed shot, the absolutely lifeless picture that takes time out of architecture– the photograph taken the day before move-in…’”

—from the chapter, Magazine Architecture, from Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn
There is a moment in the life of any building when it is no longer being built, and it has not yet begun to “erode”. That, generally speaking, is the moment when the “architectural photographer” is called upon the scene to document it for the architect’s (or builder’s or developer’s) portfolio. It is this point in the evolution of a building that is unique from any other type of landscape.

While landscape, as we’ve defined it under the concept of “architectural geology”, is a continuous process with building and eroding forces acting both sequentially and simultaneously, this “physical law” is for all practical purposes suspended in the case of a freshly completed structure. The forces of building have ceased, and the process of erosion has yet to begin (except on the microscopic, and hardly visible, level). It is a moment analogous to Michael Jordan at the height of his jump, poised for that brief instant just before the release of the ball towards the hoop. No longer going up; not yet coming down.

It is at this uncharacteristic passage in the building’s life that the architect will choose to have the work documented for posterity. This is for a very good reason: it is, more than it will ever be again, as close a reflection of the architect’ s conception as possible. It may perhaps be, to the trained eye, a reflection of the processes that built it, but it has yet to display the forces of erosion that will inevitably go to work upon it: time, weather, gravity, and that most insidious of all, from many architects’ view, changing use. (Frank Lloyd Wright would often forbid his clients from changing his structures in any way: from repainting to remodeling, to rearranging {or replacing} the furniture, which he would design to visually match the building. Comfort and ease of use were of no concern to him). Photography at this moment floats, like Michael Jordan himself, outside the realm of “architecture as landscape”.

For the photographer who is called in at this moment in a building’s life to serve the architect’s needs for documentation, the job is no different than it would be for any type of commercial illustrator. All of the photographer’s creativity and skill is required, but it is in the service of the architect’s vision of the structure. This is the job for which he or she is hired, and, if the assignment is accepted and is to be responsibly completed, all other agendas must be put aside. When the architects whom Stewart Brand quotes lament the “curse of architectural photography”, my reaction is to point out that it is they, the architects and the magazine editors, who dictate the content and style of the work. I also know from personal experience that one of the architects he quotes (neither of the two above) as being critical of architectural photography is entirely self-serving when assigning photographers to photograph his own buildings.

As architectural photographers we should take great professional pride in effectively and beautifully rendering our client’s work. That is the job we are being paid to do. However, let’s not confuse what we do in this context with “art”. The work requires photographic skill, and an understanding of and sensitivity to architecture, but we are documenting the architect’s art, not creating our own.

This in no way means that we do it without injecting our own creativity. Anything but! How well we serve the client (and our professional selves as well) depends entirely upon our own creative sensibilities: how we light a scene, select features to emphasize, create a sense of space and of scale, and how we tell the visual story of the building.

Of course, there will always be examples when illustration crosses the line into art. One might even say that should be the goal each time an assignment is accepted. As long as the photographer never looses sight of the fact that the client’s needs take precedence over their own aesthetic criteria, this approach can, as the physicians might say, “do no harm”.
Mark Citret