In “Realism Re-Presented,” Allen and Vassallo discuss photography and its role in documenting architecture and the built environment as a filter of abstraction. Find an extract of their conversation featured in NESS 1.
Jesus Vassallo: I like to think that within the history of architecture there is what I call a realist impulse, which is a recursive thing. It also seems to me that architects who feel this impulse gravitate towards photography as something that enables architecture to make reference to things outside of itself and to engage with the reality of the world around it. I think this condition has to do with the way in which we have come to understand architecture and the built environment as two distinct categories. I have always found this a fascinating thing, that architecture and the built environment—at least in the minds of the architects—are mutually exclusive. […] For instance, since the advent of modernism, there has been an anxiety about the political role of art: when new realist practices started to emerge in the postwar period, it was all about this capacity of art, abstract art, to start making references to something outside of itself in order to regain some degree of social relevance. […] Then the question is: if architecture and the built environment are different things, and if architecture is an artistic discipline which wants to make a reference outside of itself in order to engage in a realist discourse, then, the thing outside of itself is the built environment. This is problematic; how do you make buildings that are about other, less self-conscious buildings? In this context, photography becomes the tool for architects to approach the built environment already with a certain filter, not only of selection, but also a filter of abstraction.
Stan Allen: What you are saying resonates, for me, specifically with the postwar period in Britain and the Independent Group. If you think of Nigel Henderson and his relationship to the Smithsons, for example. It was very much a way of opening up architecture to the world of the everyday, and in his case, the asphalt city. But today we are living in a very different moment…
JV: For instance, I like to compare the relationship of Venturi and Scott Brown with Ruscha’s images to the relationship between Herzog and de Meuron and the photography of Thomas Ruff. […] Both of them deal with issues of superficiality, substantially, and in many ways. And something similar happens if you think about the Smithsons and Henderson and how their influence compares to the relationship of Caruso St John and Thomas Demand; again, both pairs deal with materiality as the defining locus of realism, but in a very transformed way.
SA: They are working also with an awareness of the history of the intervening period—Ruscha in particular because there is a lot of his sense of detachment in Thomas Demand’s images. The model and the photograph both distance you from worldly concerns. The world is there, but filtered through flat, deadpan copies. It’s interesting because in the earlier examples you described, photography has sort of an evidential value, a truth value. But that self-evident truth value begins to be more ambivalent when you move closer to the present. But I think there’s been too much emphasis on the emergence of the digital as the hinge point: the idea that photography’s truth value is undermined because of the manipulability of the photographic image. But I think that what you are saying, and I think it’s true, is that it’s not actually technology-dependent. It happened long before the widespread availability of digital photography. The doubtfulness of the photographic image is not simply related to digital.