Choose five or six buildings and for each produce between two and four images that describe effectively and attractively the way in which these spaces are used.
For each building, it is important to conduct some research beforehand, either archival or personal, or both, so that I have:
- a good understanding of how and why it was designed the way it is
- an opinion on its effectiveness as a usable space.
Try to encompass variety in the choice of buildings including in size and purpose.
Write a short statement in my learning log giving my understanding of the function of each building, the way in which it was designed to achieve that and how well you believe it succeeds.
In addition, describe briefly how I initially set about showing the important features of each building photographically, and what I learned photographically during the course of shooting the assignment.
The buildings I have selected to photograph are:
- The library of a professional body
- St Pancras International
- Kew Gardens’ Palm House
- Wimbledon stadium
- Canary Wharf underground station
- Tate Modern
Building 1: The library of a professional institution
This listed building, in the heart of Westminster, was built between 1910 and 1913 in a “monumental neo-classical design”. Many of its rooms have crystal chandeliers, French walnut or oak panelling and fine works of art. The library that I have photographed is reserved for the use of the institution’s members and contains a world-class collection of specialist books. The international prestige of the institution that owns the building, together with the building’s Westminster location go a long way towards explaining the quality of the facilities. This library, whose features are protected by listed status, has evolved over more than 100 years and contains both historical archives and the latest digital information. However, as a facility for its prestigious members, this library has more than a merely utilitarian function. It embodies the history and achievements of the institution and its membership.
My opinion of its effectiveness is that as a ‘flagship’, a room that conveys heritage and status to its users, this library is very effective. It is undoubtedly a world class facility. Libraries such as this hold knowledge that is not yet, and may never be, available digitally. However, storage space will always be at a premium and my images also show that from a user’s perspective, the ever growing content may be crowding in on the working space available.
Surely this sitting area is the epitome of what many might imagine such a library to look like. The grouping of leather chairs provides a comfortable location for discussions. The sitting room like lighting emphasises that this is a private rather than public space. The highly ornate fittings, especially the fireplace, and the line of busts embody the wealth and prestige of this institution.
This high level view from the gallery shows the remainder of the room and gives an indication of how the space is organised. Large green leather topped tables are provided for working. From this viewpoint we get a sense that although the room is very grand, useable space is at a premium.
The view as seen by a standing user of the library. Journals are densely stacked on top of free standing shelves. As must be the case for all libraries worldwide, the ever growing collection of knowledge threatens to overwhelm the available space.
The user’s view from a seated perspective. Again, the tradition, values and prestige of the institution dominate the senses. The atmosphere and apparent functionality of this library contrasts sharply with the digital world in which many of us now live.
what i learnt
The photographic challenges of this location were different than than those of the other buildings I have photographed for this assignment. There were multiple light sources with very different temperatures which meant that I had to work carefully in post production to try and achieve the best white balance possible. There were also extremes of contrast and I had to resort to HDR for one of the images, A3-1D. Fortunately in this location I was able to use a tripod, and although finding suitable points of view amongst the furniture took time, (I spent about four hours photographing the location), I didn’t need to resort to extreme ISO ratings in order to make images. If I were to shoot the location again, it would be nice to have access to a tilt and shift lens as the use of a very wide angle zoom has meant that inevitably some of the verticals and horizontals in each image are distorted – but as the brief for this part of the course states, this is not architectural photography.
The quality of this location, meant that I was able to experiment with many compositions. I tried to avoid what I saw as cliches, say a coffee mug alongside an open book for example, and concentrated on trying to convey the aura that users of the location might perceive. I also deliberately varied points of view to provide both an overview and also the perception of a potential user of the library. Only one image, A3-1B, contains an actual user of the library but this was helpful to give a sense both of scale and usage.
Building 2: St Pancras International
St Pancras took over from Waterloo as London’s Eurostar terminus in 2009 after an £800m renovation programme that began in 1996. The iconic train shed, the arched cast iron station canopy, featured in many of the images, was constructed in the 1860’s and was then the largest of its kind in the world. The renovated station needed to both to function as an international station, for which very long platforms are required, and as a ‘destination’ or ‘location’ in its own right – calling for prestigious shopping and eating facilities. The latter have been created within the original station undercroft. To emphasise its role as a destination, public art is also displayed within the station, notably the 30 foot high ‘The Meeting Place’ statue by Paul Day and a statue of Sir John Betjeman who campaigned to save the original station from demolition. During the 2012 Oympics, St Pancras will provide a shuttle service to the games and this explains the presence of the Olympic circles at the station.
Whilst planning to photograph this ‘building in use’, I have been very mindful of certain characteristics of its function. It is somewhere that you arrive, wait and then depart. For those arriving it perhaps sets their first impressions of the capital and the country. Travelling is stressful and tiring, this building also needs to be provide some respite for its users whilst remaining efficient.
A woman and child hurry through the engine shed to reach a domestic departure. The international platforms on their left are glassed off and have an air of exclusivity. The spectacular archwork of Barlow’s engine shed wraps around the scene and makes it clear that this is no ordinary place. Curiously, the station was surprisingly quiet during this particular visit and so perhaps I was fortunate to capture such an uncrowded moment.
To the west of the station is the glorious St Pancras Renaissance hotel and the nearest platform interfaces with those splendid facilities – hence the appearance of a leather sofa close to the platforms – something that surely would be completely incongruous in the setting of any other railway station. One of the uses that I identified for this building was ‘waiting’ and surely there could be few more pleasant places to wait than that occupied by this gentleman. Note also the gothic splendour of the former booking office now a wine bar / restaurant within the hotel.
New arrivals pause to take photographs of themselves by the Betjeman statue – surely evidence of this building’s status as a destination – somewhere that people want to record that they have been. In the backgound the Olympic rings promote the near future of the station whilst echoing the shape of the famous St Pancras clock by Dent.
As I worked on this project, a related theme occurred across many of the locations – possible a future personal project in its own right. Whereever I looked, St Pancras, Tate Modern, Kew and so on, commerce was increasingly heavily integrated into the design and use of the building. Indeed, in some, I could credibly argue that commerce had almost become too fundamental and had begun to intrude into the buildings’ primary functions. In this example, I was able to take advantage of the split level design and juxtapose the commercial redevelopment of the undercroft with the platforms in the engine shed above. Perhaps the lure of the shops goes someway to explaining why there are relatively few people in the station’s main areas.
what i learnt
I took many more photographs of St Pancras than those selected and as in earlier assignments, I initiallly found it easier to include people in the images by using a wide angle lens that meant that nearby people did not necessarily realise that they were included in the frame. Passengers at a railway station do not expect to be photographed but I found that on the whole, by being confident and looking like I knew what I was doing, I was able to move freely throughout the station and capture the images I was looking for.
I had a clear idea, before shooting of how I wished to communicate the function and use of this building and so I was able to structure my approach to capure the ideas of arriving, waiting and using this ‘destination’ building. I hope that it comes through within my images that I think that St Pancras is a spectacular building and a great success in both its design and its use.
Building 3: Palm House, Kew Gardens
The Palm House was constructed between 1844 and 1848 and has gained iconic status as the world’s most important surviving Victorian glass and iron structure. It is a grade 1 listing building. It was specifically designed for its collection of exotic palms and is topped by an uninterrupted space for the spreading crowns of tall palms. The design of the Palm House is essentially that of an upturned ship. Heating pipes beneath the iron gratings provide the hot steamy environment required by tropical plants. The floor layout is based upon planting in beds rather than pots and this enables wider pathways and seats for visitors. The South Wing contains plants from Africa and the Indian Ocean Islands, the main central section houses plants from the Americas, the North Wing shows plants from Asia, Australasia and the Pacific.
In photographing this building I was mindful of its dual purpose – to provide a viable environment for exotic plants to thrive and to provide a location in which people can view those plants. Of course for many visitors the iconic structure will also play a key role in their visit and so I have also tried to show the uses of the building in the context of that structure. In approaching this assignment I have also borne in mind that the Palm House environment is hot and humid and is not very camera friendly. I have had to be careful to avoid condensation problems on the lens and within the body.
The ground floor of the Palm House is criss-crossed with paths that follow the iron-gridded heating ducts. The bushy nature of the exhibits means that it is not possible to frame a shot giving a complete overview of the glasshouse. Here I have elected to capture an intersection, showing both visitors and the context of the iron arches and glass of the upturned boat design of the Palm House. The use of a very wide angle lens has enabled me to show an extreme field of view whilst making use of its optical characteristics to emphasise the geometry of the wrought iron framework. The abundance of light is an important part of the function of this building and hence it was important to capture that sense of light within this series of photographs.
As stated in the research statement preceding these photographs, this uninterrupted space at the top of the building is pivotal to its function as a glasshouse. However, it is also vital to the user experience, it gives them the opportunity to walk through the ‘canopy’ of these rare palm specimens. For this image, I pre-positioned myself and waited quite some time for this family to begin to walk into the area where I had chosen to position them. They provide a nice sense of the scale of the platform and of the trees. Again, the use of a very wide angle lens enabled me to explore the wrought iron archways and capture the sense of light through the glass.
I was mindful of the need to try and capture the visitors interacting with the main purpose of the glasshouse – the palms. I had seen this particular specimen from the balcony and I waited for around 45 minutes before some visitors came along and looked up at the plant. This nicely illustrated both the scale of the specimens and the sense of wonder induced in the visitors.
My final image at this location once again seeks to capture the interaction between visitors and this place. Interestingly, my standing by this tree, apparently photographing it, acted as a catalyst and attracted other visitors to come and look at it. This woman came into frame very quickly and I had a split second to frame and capture the moment as she stared up at the plant. Again through the use of the wide angle lens, she had no idea that I was photographing her.
what i learnt
When I first walked into the glasshouse I was concerned that I might not manage to create the images that I hoped for. Despite it being a glasshouse, light levels were really quite low but more than that it was initially difficult to work out how I was going to frame images given the jungle-like nature of the foliage. Also, given the nature of the place, visitors were clearly not expecting to be photographed. I resolved these problems by taking a long walk around, sitting on a bench for quite a while and really focusing my mind on how I might be able to say what I wanted to say. I then made more progess, albeit slowly, and I also took quite some time to make sure that I thought I had enough useable images before I left. One of the results of this on-location deliberation is that I think that these images have a more ‘storyboarded’ feel than some of the others in this project. There are context shots, a middle ground and a (relative) close up. The weakest of the images is the first one, and were I to re-shoot, this is the one I would concentrate upon.
Within the assignment, I am asked to comment upon whether this building is a success. In this case my view that it clearly is – it’s a very specialised place with and international reputation and a considerable history – but is succeeds in use by both types of its users, plants and humans.
Building 4: Wimbledon Stadium
I live within walking distance of this stadium and so know it reasonably well. Built in around 1928 the stadium is England’s premier greyhound racing track. Weekly races are held on Friday nights. On Sundays, the stadium hosts stock car and banger racing. There is a large glass fronted grandstand as well as a much larger, (and mostly closed), stand for standing spectators. Bars and ‘food to go’ feature prominently in most people’s night out at the stadium.
Of the buildings I have chosen to photograph, this is the one in which people will feature most prominently. This building only comes to life when it is being used; outside of race nights it is largely a structure without a purpose. The only time I can gain access to the building is race nights and so I will be shooting in very dark conditions with high contrast from floodlights etc.. Having visited race nights before I know that no flash is permitted as it distracts the dogs and so I will be working at maximum aperture and maximum ISO. I hope to capture the interaction of people with the event and each other.
On visiting a greyhound race night at Wimbledon Stadium it is soon apparent that the dog track is the least used part of the building – the real action takes place on the terraces and around the bookies in particular. Greyhound racing is about money not dogs. Here I have used a wide angle lens to shoot the punters from amongst the punters. The left hand side of the image gives a sense of the crowd on the terraces and the brightly lit grandstand to the left. To the right, the track, and beyond the unused terraces are empty in contrast.
The terraces are very dark and the track is relatively brightly lit. However, I soon learned that greyhounds move incredibly fast and shooting an image that combined the spectators and the dogs required patience, a motordrive, and lots of practice. The spectators only interact with the races in very short bursts of about 2 minutes and so I had to shoot the finish of quite a few races before successfully capturing this shot. My motordrive was nowhere near fast enough for this type of work nor was my lens fast enough to provide a shutter speed that could freeze the dogs in motion – although some of the sand kicked up by the front runners has been caught in mid-air. I’m pleased with the way that this image captures the fenced off divide between the spectators, many of whom must peer at the race through wire mesh, and the track. Separation and segregation were quite apparent to me at this location, the dogs and owners on the side of one fence, the punters in the cold and dark on the terraces and lastly, those sitting in the warm eating and drinking in the grandstand but very removed from the physical sensations of the race going on outside.
After the race comes the payout. Punters immediately form queues by the bookies’ stands and cash in their slips. Large wads of cash are on view. It’s a fundamental part of the experience of a night out at Wimbledon Stadium. Note that despite the activity at this stand, the completely empty terraces in the background hint at just how marginal these events have become.
Unlike the terraces, the glass fronted grandstand is very busy. I found this part of the building very interesting because you have people sitting in a darkened space, looking out through glass, trying to see very fast-moving dogs from quite a distance. Naturally this means that many will watch them on the monitors and so you have the interesting paradox that people have travelled to, and paid, to visit a venue where they then watch the events on TV screens – interesting. Of course, the social aspects, the betting and the food and wine explain why they are there.
I decided that the best way to capture the essence of this building was to shoot along the line of the seating area just as a race was finishing. Photographing inside this area was very conspicuos and so I used the final moments of a race to hide the sound of the camera going off, (I was using a motordrive to maximise my chances of capturing a useable image). The exif data reveals just how dark it was inside the grandstand. The role of eating and drinking is also captured within this scene, in respect of the latter, note the plethora of beer glasses along the benches.
Note that I can use fill light in post production to produce a ‘better lit’ version of this image but then noise becomes a real problem.
what i learnt
The other buildings within this series are huge successes, often internationally recognised and acclaimed. This building is different, it’s a survivor, gritty, marginalised and with an uncertain future. The success it enjoys is in fact based upon those characteristics – people visit it because its unusual, a throwback to a different time and different rules apply. I was cautious about photographing it, there was a possibility of being confronted but by being confident and open my visits passed without incident. Technically, this was really quite a challenging location, very dark, fast moving and very high contrast in the spot lit areas
Building 5: Canary Wharf Underground
Canary Wharf station opened in 1999 and is used by more than 40 million people a year. It is said that each rush hour the population of a small city passes through its gates. As the gateway to London’s financial district, this station was designed to be iconic and Sir Norman Foster’s design is often compared to a cathedral. The station is connected to two Docklands Light Railway stations by underground shopping malls and in recent years the area has become a major tourist and shopping attraction at weekends.
This is also a building I know well as I use it every working day. Like St Pancras, (building 2), this is a building you pass through, you arrive, often wait and then leave. However, the cathedral-like interior and the space age design is quite unlike any other underground station – certainly in London only Westminster underground comes anywhere close. In photographing this building I have sought to capture its scale, by showing the relative smallness of its users, and also its function. Escalators feature frequently in my images partly because they are a major feature of this building but also because they represent what it is all about – being in transit.
The initial descent into the ticket hall at Canary Wharf is quite spectacular. It involves some of the longest escalators on the underground, but unlike other stations, it is an experience of light and space rather than a very restricted view. From this initial image, made riding the escalator, it’s already possible to see why Foster’s design is often referred to as a ‘cathedral’. The diminishing size of the people as they approach the vanishing point gives a clear indication of the epic scale of this building. People can be seen in transit, buying tickets and standing waiting this is clearly a highly functional space and its size gives it the capacity to achieve its objectives.
Looking back towards the escalators in the previous image, and at a later time of day, emphasises the futuristic design of this location. The spectacular entrance canopy acts as a focal point for those entering and leaving the station whilst the huge concrete slabbed ceiling suggest that this is engineering on an epic scale. People seem small and lack individuality in this space, they are transient, passing through and being ‘processed’.
Descending down one further level from the ticket hall brings the Jubilee line platforms into view. This is why people come to this building. By shooting at a fortuitous moment when people are able to walk straight off the end of the escalator into a departing train I’ve managed to emphasise the idea of transit – the fundamental function of this building. Note how the building has become much more utilitarian and less of a statement as we approach its functional heart.
A part of the user’s experience will aways be waiting – and I’ve spent more hours than I care to think about waiting at Canary Wharf – I have chose to capture that aspect of using this space. These three people waiting on the west bound platform are completely oblivious of the fact that I took several shots of them. Like all habitual users of this building and the related transport system they come pre-equiped for waiting and passing time – they have books. Although the platform area is highly utilitarian concrete and steel cladding, note how the oversized station sign serves to highlight the this is a ‘destination’, a statement station.
what i learnt
I was apprehensive about photographing Canary Wharf. It’s the sort of venue where I need time to ‘get my eye in’ but I also knew that tight security means that I would attract attention and so I needed to photograph efficiently. I got round this by making several different visits during the course of the day, making shots of a particular area and then going on to mentally shoot and plan the area for the next visit. Looking back on the selected shots, I hope that my decision to repeat the use of escalators works for viewers. For me there is a clear connection between these and the efficient transitory experience of using this building – I would understand though if some found it repetitive.
In terms of the assignment question ‘is this building an effective useable space’ then my answer is ‘absolutely’.
Building 6: Tate Modern
Tate Modern opened in May 2000 and I can still remember watching the build up to its opening in a TV documentary series that covered its long slow transformation from the former Bankside Power Station. It is the most visited modern art gallery in the world with approaching 5m visitors annually. The museum has five levels of which the largest, the Turbine Hall is five storeys high with 3,400m of floor space. Its success means that it is currently being extended with the additional space opening in time for the 2012 Olympics.
In thinking through which buildings I would choose to photograph I wondered if Tate Modern was a stretch too far. It’s an iconic and much photographed building – does the world need another photograph of the Turbine Hall and if so, how could I make mine original? Beyond the Turbine Hall I was keen to capure the interaction of the users with the place, this was another building in which people would feature quite prominently.
As I had anticipated, the Turbine Hall was the most challenging space, both artistically and technically, of any of those I photographed for this assignment. It was made even more challenging by the fact that the current exhibition, ‘Film’ by Tacita Dean, is an 11-minute silent 35mm film projected onto a gigantic white monolith standing 13 metres tall at the end of a darkened Turbine Hall. I experimented with a variety of viewpoints and, noting the different ways in which people choose to view this film – some sit on the benches, a couple lie on the floor in the middle ground and a solitary man watches from very close to the screen – I chose to try and place these different interactions with the film into the context of the whole of this part of the Turbine Hall. This was when I ran into considerable technical problems as below.
Tate Modern’s website refers to a ‘darkened’ Turbine Hall. In reality this means incredibly dark and of course tripods are not permitted. I tried a variety of images and tried placing my camera on the floor, on the benches and on the balcony with with little success – stability was only achieved at the expense of an uninteresting viewpoint. Eventually, I recalled reading some years ago about the idea of a string or cord ‘tripod’ and so I improvised one using my camera strap and shot the above wide open with a 0.5s exposure. I’m hoping that the image can be viewed as acceptably sharp in the circumstances, clearly it will not withstand printing at A3 size.
Continuing with the theme of capturing how people use this space, this image of the room, containing the installation ‘Staircase III’ by Do Ho Suh , picks out a number of themes that intrigued me as I worked on this part of the assignment. Firstly, I was struck by how many visitors quickly photograph the exhibit and then move on. It’s almost as if the acquisition of that photograph has become the way in which they interact with the art – little time is spent looking at or thinking about the art work, the photography, often on a phone, is the trophy – proof that they have been there, that they have ‘seen’. Secondly, I noticed how many people walk straight through a room, not pausing or discernably ‘looking’ at the art at all – in this case the woman, fourth from the right, did just that. Does the sheer volume of art on display in this building contribute to these effects? Is there simply so much to see that quality time cannot be spent? Interesting questions perhaps for another future private project.
The ‘Interactive Zone’ at Tate Modern is a relatively small part of the building that makes use of the ‘landing’ space between stairways and galleries. It’s aim is to offer visitors insight into the art currently displayed from the Tate permanent collection. Both of my last two images were made in this area. Interestingly, since making the last two images in this assignment, Waldemar Januszczak has written about the perhaps excessive amount of video in galleries such as the Tate. I can sympathise with that point of view and that sympathy also makes it more difficult for me to be clear cut about whether this part of the building ‘works’. It has engaged viewers, its strident colours and shape make it visually striking but at what price? Personally I find it a shallow distraction from the art but, if the objective is simply to give visitors information about the art, then, as can be seen, it has worked.
My final image was made in the same area of the gallery. Like the previous photograph I felt that the gallery was being perhaps too self-referential in its approach in this area. The fact that Nicholas Serota appears so prominently in this image reflects my take on this although I should make it clear that I hold Mr Serota and his work in very high regard – and of course, I have made a choice as to who was on the screen when I fired the shutter. Again, putting my opinion on the content of the gallery to one side, does this part of the building deliver what it was designed to do? The answer of course has to be yes, simply look at the number of people who have paused on this landing, leaving standing room only, to find out more in the ‘interactive zone’.
what i learnt
Tate Modern is surprisingly photographer friendly. I made photographs in almost all the galleries and even the shops! It’s also a complex ‘ecosystem’ in its own right – four images are far too few to try and describe Tate Modern. As I worked many other projects suggested themselves to me. Two that appealed particularly strongly were a project to consider how people view the art, especially through the taking of fleeting photographs, and also the commercial machine that is Tate Modern. The prominence of gift shops, cafes and opportunities to spend money struck home forceably and I made several images of these.