Speaker Discusses Interplay of Photography, Architecture

Hasnaa Benlafkih

Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Architectural History John Harwood’s Clarence Ward Lecture Series invites acclaimed architects, architectural historians and theorists to speak with Oberlin College students. This past week, Assistant Professor of Art History and Architecture at the University of Michigan Claire Zimmerman came to Oberlin to present her essay “Photography into Building in Post–War Architecture: The Smithsons and James Stirling.”

In her talk, Zimmerman discussed the architects Alison and Peter Smithson and James Stirling, who belonged to the same generation yet have come to occupy two sides of a historical divide between late modernism and postmodernism in architectural history. As all three of their architectural works show the effects that photography had on professional practice throughout the 1950s and the 1960s, Zimmerman relates late modernism and postmodernism to two issues that were central to the transition between them: the rapid increase of commercial images in post-war British society and changing attitudes to singularity and multiplicity in cultural products such as buildings, a change related to that increase.

Speaking to an audience of Art History majors and a few faculty members, Zimmerman’s lecture paid particular attention to Peter and Alison Smithson’s Hunstanton Secondary Modern School and James Stirling’s Leicester Engineering Building. Zimmerman brought to attention the importance of these buildings as “image-dependent” since photography contributed to their creation as well as enabled them to participate in the architectural discourse of their time.

Most importantly for Zimmerman, the different approaches to imagery that the Smithsons and Stirling adopted reveal ideological differences. She compared Stirling’s work to photomontage and the Smithsons’ work to documentary photography; the former seeks truth in representation where the latter embraces fiction. Accordingly, Zimmerman views the Smithsons’ building as one where modernist discourse on architecture’s social function is taken as truth while Stirling’s building belies his view of the same discourse as utopian.

Throughout the lecture, Zimmerman captured the audience’s attention with slides of fascinating photographs, including an image of James Stirling hiding among the roof trusses of the Cambridge History Faculty building he designed.

At the lecture’s end, Zimmerman answered her audience’s questions thoroughly before the conversation digressed into a discussion of Detroit’s dilapidation and, more generally, photography’s role in the popularity of contemporary “ruin porn.”

Claire Zimmerman’s “Photography into Building in Post–war Architecture: The Smithsons and James Stirling” can be found in the April issue of the journal Art History.