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Shane O’Toole on Architecture and Photography

Interview Date: 22-02-2013
(More interviews from this person)

VIEW the entire interview on VIDEO!

Many architects worldwide share the passion of photography for various reasons. What is your relationship with photography? Do architecture photographers do better this kind of work?

That’s again the question of the relationship of photography and architecture and photography and architects; it’s a very difficult one! I think that architects are trained to see things in a particular way and they do. I used to take a lot of photographs; when I was younger, even as a child, I always brought a camera with me when we traveled as a family and later as a young architect, I always brought a camera with me. Now, I don’t. I guess I stopped bringing a camera maybe ten years ago. And the reason for that was that I found that when I had a camera, I didn’t actually look at what I was looking at. I looked at the picture that I was framing and it was only afterwards when I would go home that I would actually see what I should have seen when I was in the place. So now, when I go to a city, for example, I don’t take photographs, I try to look instead and try to remember what I’m looking at, to lay it down in my memory, rather than just to record it in some other media. I think that’s very important and I live with that, I’ve also changed my behavior in visiting cities. Before, I used to behave like an American and I would try to see as many things as possible. Now, when I go to a city I say only one thing; spend three or four hours looking at that one thing. (If there’s more things, come back another time)

We can say that most architecture photos of buildings do not include any people. What are your thoughts about including people in your photos? Is it important to photograph a building in use or empty?

Absolutely in use, but it is not very common. People like Iwan Baan are bringing this back into architecture. Forty years ago, people like John Donat always insisted on showing buildings in use, so there were always people. There are problems, but there are also joys of doing this, because the clothes that the people in the photographs are wearing go out of fashion very quickly, so straight away when you see a photograph on the 1970’s of a building you have that building in that moment if there are people in it. If there are no people in it, it remains a kind of an abstract subject and a lot of architects prefer that. They prefer to get an iconic photograph of their building as the prominent record. They also don’t like it when people take over their buildings, because they change things and too much architecture in recent decades has been made for the purpose of a single photograph rather than for a use, for life serving its users.

Many architecture theories and a lot of people think that contemporary architecture is designed in ordered to be well photographed. Doing this work, do you have this feeling of buildings that are not designed to serve specific needs but are rather iconic and self promoting?

It’s absolutely true. Most architects are happy with the set of photographs and they lose faith and lose belief, or maybe have no belief in the future of their buildings once a photograph’s been taken, once the wrong furniture comes in, once the building starts to age and I think this is a perversion of architecture, it’s ethically wrong. I mean, what it does is to deny architecture the possibility of embracing time and change, as one of its dimensions.

What do you think is the difference between seeing a picture of a building or a place and visiting that building or place yourself? How does architectural photography explore the relationship between the perception of space and the experience of space?

I don’t think that photography relates to space. I don’t think you can ever in dimensions adequately represent the three dimensions of architecture, particularly the added dimension of time, as you move through a space. So, that’s not to my mind the purpose of photography; the purpose of photography is different, it has to do with marketing, of course. You know, without a photograph of a building, we probably wouldn’t know what existed and then we wouldn’t be encouraged to go and visit it, so it’s a very important first call and also because I am involved with Docomomo and with the Preservation of Modern Movement Architects from the 20th Century, I am very aware that the original photographs remain, perhaps, the most important archive of the first intentions for the building which will change through in time. But when we come to intervene in that building later on, we must always go back to those photographs as representing the intention of the creator.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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Shane O'Toole by Conor McCafferty

Shane O’Toole

Architect, Historian, Editor, Curator
Country: Ireland


Shane O’Toole is active as an historian, author, editor, curator, broadcaster and campaigner for threatened buildings. He was a co-founder of DoCoMoMo International in Eindhoven in 1990. He has been President of the Architectural Association of Ireland and Director of the Irish Architecture Foundation, and was Ireland’s Commissioner for the Venice Biennale in 2004 and 2006. He was a founder director of urban design collective Group 91 Architects and ran his own architectural practice during the 1990s.

His awards include the Grand Prix of the Krakow Architecture Biennale (1989), the Architectural Association of Ireland’s Downes Medal (1996), finalist in the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture – Mies van der Rohe Award (1996), the UIA’s Sir Patrick Abercrombie Prize for town planning and territorial development (2002) and a Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland’s Triennial Gold Medal commendation (2003). A member of CICA (the International Committee of Architecture Critics), he was named International Building Press Architectural Critic and Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009 and 2010. His biography of Liam McCormick, ‘North by Northwest’, co-authored with Dr Paul Larmour, was commended in CICA’s triennial book awards at the UIA Congress in Tokyo, 2011.

:: Photo information and credits:
1 > The Ark in Temple Bar, Dublin, Shane O’Toole and Michael Kelly for Group 91 Architects
Photo courtesy © OPW / Office of The Taoiseach
2 > The Ark in Temple Bar, Dublin, Shane O’Toole and Michael Kelly for Group 91 Architects
Photo courtesy © Kate Brangan
3 > The Ark in Temple Bar, Dublin, Shane O’Toole and Michael Kelly for Group 91 Architects
Photo courtesy © Moreno Gentili
4 > The Ark in Temple Bar, Dublin, Shane O’Toole and Michael Kelly for Group 91 Architects
Photo courtesy © Peter Zoeller
5-7 > The Ark in Temple Bar, Dublin, Shane O’Toole and Michael Kelly for Group 91 Architects
Photo courtesy © Temple Bar Cultural Trust
6 > The Ark in Temple Bar, Dublin, Shane O’Toole and Michael Kelly for Group 91 Architects
Photo courtesy © Bill Hastings
8 > The Ark in Temple Bar, Dublin, Shane O’Toole and Michael Kelly for Group 91 Architects
Photo courtesy © Matthew Thompson
9 > North by Northwest (book cover)
Profile photo © Conor McCafferty