Gemma Tipton: Art imitates life, and life messes up art

Nothing clutters up an architect’s vision quite like people and their things

An artist who once worked at the Getty Center in Los Angeles told me a funny story. The artist was Robert Irwin, who designed the gardens, and also famously described his collaboration with the museum's architect, Richard Meier, as "more like a war". There was this system of warnings, he said. They called it the "Meier Alert". An advance lookout would advise of the arrival of the complex's architect, whether by chopper or limo, and telegraph (or more likely text) the news to those working in the whiter-than-white series of boxes and circles that sprawl across a ridge in Brentwood.

Immediately the curators, conservators and administrators would, according to Irwin, whip their family photographs, cuddly toys, kitsch cups and miniature cacti off their desks, so that by the time the silver-haired patrician figure arrived, everything would be, as he saw it, perfect.

Most, if not all architects prefer their buildings to be photographed before the people move in, but does that mean architects essentially dislike people, and would prefer their creations unsullied by the touch of humanity? Not exactly, or, perhaps more accurately, not all. It’s more likely they want their buildings to do a tricky double act, which is to house people and events and also to embody ideas.

Speaking about some of the things that drive him, Meier has said that “to express spirituality, the architect has to think of the original material of architecture, space and light”. He also remarked, “I think white is the most wonderful colour of all, because within it one can find every colour of the rainbow”. He’s right about white, but it’s also a complete bastard to keep clean. And another thing about conjuring up spirituality through space and light is that when the people move in, transcendent moments get cluttered up with the paraphernalia of real life.


In the 9 Lives exhibition, seen at both the London Festival of Architecture and Kilkenny Arts Festival last year, curator Emmett Scanlon showed before and after images from nine domestic Irish buildings – before and after their owners took up residence. The differences were intriguing, even though the "after" images had been elegantly styled; the books, wellies, children's toys and wine glasses all artfully arranged, just so.

How different real life is. Those piles of envelopes waiting for a second life as a shopping list, the mug of biros you really need to check and chuck out, the nest of bags from chi chi boutiques that are too nice to put in the recycle bin, the tangled nest of scarves and hats ready to be grabbed when the temperature plummets, the best bits of the papers that you’re saving for a second read: in short, those things that make a house a home. In this way, the buildings we live in sit between different states: house and home, possibly evocative architecture and place of shelter.

Philosopher Karsten Harries adds another layer when he writes about the protective nature of buildings. In his arrestingly titled essay Building and the Terror of Time, he describes how while, obviously, buildings are there to give us shelter and warmth, to recover that mythical space of safety we yearn for; they also shelter us from the more existential threat of ceasing to exist. Built to last for many lifetimes, we want our homes to be steadfast, even as we and the things around us grow old and die.

Fleeting moment

For that reason, photographing architecture immediately after completion is all about capturing that single, fleeting moment of perfection. Still, it’s a lot to ask of bricks and mortar, even with the addition of natty timber, plate glass, poured concrete and zinc. Perhaps an alternative is to focus on the moments; the fragments, corners, shafts of light, ceiling arches, meetings of materials that give us those instants of wonder. That’s where architectural photography comes into its own. In the exhibition Fragments, which opens at the

Irish Architectural Archive

on Merrion Square, Dublin this Tuesday, celebrated Czech photographer Ester Havlová focuses on those shadows, spaces, edges of stairwells and patterns of grey on grey in buildings, empty of people, from around the world. Seen this way, they’re more like artworks, created to express moods and meanings. Looking at her brilliantly judged images you can lose yourself easily in drama, silence, energy and calm. Perhaps that’s what architectural photography does best – rather than show us a building as it really is (because isn’t that when it’s fulfilling its more practical functions?), it shows us what it strives to be, the more spiritually lofty Sunday best version of itself. Pop along to the archive, itself a wonderful building, on Culture Night, for a brilliant series of those moments of perfection, the shots of buildings as artworks. And then judge for yourself which is best, the reality or ideal of a building, its practical or aspirational side. These are buildings as artworks, and wonderful for that. But as we all know, art – however it might nudge up against it, echo it and imitate it – isn’t life.

Ester Havlová gives a public lecture at 45 Merrion Square on September 13th at 1pm.