In the frame: Contemporary Architects Series

Click to follow
TWO OF the most vigorous art forms of our century - modern architecture and photography - have combined to create a third form that is distinct from either of its parents. Whereas architecture makes space for us to inhabit, and photography records our lives, architectural photography is - perhaps more than any other type of photography - a purveyor of dreams, spinning a romantic fiction of the world we have made and can make. Buildings are captured in the full beauty of their youth, in a good mood and with all their make-up on: they are sculptural forms stripped of their context, with the tedious clutter of the land- or cityscapes in which they stand magically dissolved outside the frame of the lens. These dream-shapes house interiors in which we will never feel too hot or too cold, stifled or draughty, miserable or alone, in which we'll always be comfortable even though there isn't a chair in sight. Such buildings will make us weightless, unencumbered, perfectable, and such photography sells the dream of endless space, the American Dream of endless possibility.

It's all a great big lie, of course. We know that. We know that the sheen on that pure concrete surface will soon be tear-stained, that without the luminous light of the photographer's swirling, tobacco-filtered sky that daring passageway would just be narrow and dingy. And in books as beautiful as Benedikt Taschen Verlag's Contemporary American Architects and Contemporary European Architects ( pounds 9.99 each), each of which dissects the work of 15 individual architects 'who have caused a furore over the last decade', we almost come round to thinking that, instead of the photography being the servant of the structure, first and foremost a recording device, the opposite has happened and the structure seems to exist to be photographed - or, at least, to exist most vividly in the unreal splendour that only photography can accord to it.

Take, for example, the Las Vegas Library and Museum in Nevada, designed in the late Eighties by Antoine Predock (whose Zuber House, in Arizona, is shown above). Predock is at pains to reject the notion that he is an 'adobe architect', although his strong flat forms and sometimes brilliantly subtle muted earth colours mirror his desert sites. The Zuber House is described as having 'a rather forbidding exterior, almost fortress-like' but a gently gleaming interior whose qualities are increased by the fresh water running through the house. The Library, though, appears to have the fortress bit without the luminosity, and despite the dramatic, big-sky photo in this book you can just imagine being a weary researcher groaning at the thought of another day in the library, knowing that nothing about the structure will lift your heart and take away your headache.

The question, though, is whether it matters, this glammed-up imagery of new architecture. It's a truism that the fashion industry uses photography to peddle images of impossible and sometimes faintly ridiculous perfection; it is accepted as a necessary and welcome part of the process by which we weave our dreams. In that respect, the difference between these two volumes is significant. The Europeans seem determined to slough off the bothersome detritus of a heaped-up past by imposing severity on themselves - the Italian Mario Botta, for instance, with his massive, bleakly striped facades, or Nicholas Grimshaw's brilliant and steely British Pavilion for Expo Seville. Where we might expect soaring glass and girders (in the American work), we find examples of a new vision that is curvier and cosier. One such is the Lawson/ Weston House in Los Angeles, a quirky, vaulted, higgledy-piggledy creation by the young Californian Eric Owen Moss. And where Botta, building on a small scale in the Ticino region, makes no concession to the surrounding landscape or neighbouring building styles, Moss talks about homey things like the kitchen and the view of the sea.

All of which, perhaps, is only to say that we want what we haven't had - or haven't had enough of, at least. These two excellent books present architecture as a fascinating intellectual discipline, and as an art form everyone can enjoy as an onlooker. But the unpeopled glamour of these images does not give us the feeling that the new, in architecture, is somewhere we want to live, even if we can - and that's the pity. Disappointment - the shock of the real - is a dangerous thing. It might send our planners scuttling back to the safety of theme-park thinking, leaving adventurous architecture to the glossy books.

(Photograph omitted)