Architecture Fan Boy

Darren Bradley is an acclaimed American photographer best known for his instagram feed @modarchitecture with over 113k followers. It documents (mostly) modernist architecture from around the world. Decor Punk hooked up with Darren to ask him about his work…….

Can you start by introducing yourself for those readers new to your work? 

Sure. I consider myself more of an architecture fan boy than a photographer, to be honest. If I wasn’t photographing architecture, I’d be doing something else related to architecture. For me, the photography is just a way to relate to the buildings that I love, and to try to get others to see in them what I appreciate. 

I’ve noticed you appear in some of your photos, like an architectural Hitchcock. How and why did this start?

Yes, that’s true. I don’t really enjoy being photographed, to be honest. I think that’s true of most photographers. But I also think that it’s important to capture the humanity of architecture, as people are what give architecture meaning. So I will typically frame a shot and wait quietly, hoping for someone to come into my shot, and discreetly take the photo when they walk into the right position.

But sometimes, I wait a long time and if there’s nobody there, I will just do it myself. So I’m doing my best to come across as a random pedestrian. I suppose there’s something Hitchcockian about that, since he was known for always giving himself a quick cameo in his films. In any case, I hardly have any photos of myself, except for those shots where I put myself in them. 

What do you look for compositionally when photographing a building? 

Every building has something that it’s trying to say… There’s always a sort of over-arching statement or design theme. I try to compose my photos to emphasize that element or theme, while de-emphasizing anything that dilutes it. 

When was the last time you were really impressed by a space? You’ve shot  a lot of spaces, so does this amazement, this surprise, still happen?

It still happens. Perhaps a bit less now, but I’m always seeking that out. Architecture to me is really a visceral experience, and what I love about it most is the feeling I get when I’m in a space. So as a photographer, I’m forever frustrated by trying to convey the feelings a space can give us through a two-dimensional medium like a photo. But back to you original question. You asked me about the last time I was really impressed.

There are some buildings which – no matter how many times I experience them – still elicit the sort of butterflies in my stomach that I am always seeking out. For example, the Beinecke Library at Yale, Phillips Exeter Academy Library, and the Geisel Library at UCSD. Funny that they all also happen to be libraries… There are many other buildings, as well, of course. The Salk Institute is another example. 

One of our most popular posts is of Pam and Paul’s house in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains which you photographed. What can you tell us about that day?

I’ve actually had the good fortune to have visited that house several times, and have even stayed there overnight a couple of times. The architect who designed it, Craig Steely, is one of my best friends. And the owners who commissioned it are also friends. So the photos that you have seen from that house were actually taken on several different days, months apart. Regardless, it’s really a magical house and a wonderful place to spend time. It’s so calming there, and peaceful. 

One of the parallels between architecture and photography is the understanding of light and shadows, discuss.

Yes, absolutely. Louis Kahn said “the sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building”. I usually hate photographing architecture in grey, overcast days. Yes, it’s moody and that can be interesting, but it also renders the light completely flat and two-dimensional. Shapes and objects become featureless and drab.

Architects – especially Modernist architects who designed in the mid-20th century, were acutely aware of how light and shadows could change the shape and appearance of a building. They created textured blocks and concrete forms that made different patterns on the walls as the shadows moved across them during the day. They had deep overhangs and sculptural screens, and clerestory windows and walls of glass to let in light or conceal it, depending on the need. But these efforts often pass unnoticed to the average person. They are often fleeting.

Most people are too busy living their lives to stop and notice the reflection of water on a ceiling, or the shadow pattern cast by a screen block wall into a living room on a sunny afternoon. But photography is the study of light and shadows. Through a photograph, we are able to capture these fleeting moments – which are often passing unnoticed and considered trivial – and make people stop and notice them. Not just for architecture, either. One of my favorite photographs is called “Untitled (Cocktail on a Plane)” by William Eggleston. To me, it perfectly exemplifies what I try to do with architecture- get people to appreciate the beauty in a trivial, everyday moment or object, such as a building, and appreciate the fleeting nature of the light and shadows, and the effects they can have on these objects. 

What differences do you see in the role of the architect today compared to the modernists of the past?

I think people held architects in more reverence and respect in the past than they typically do today. There was more of an appreciation for their art and skill. Nowadays, many people think they don’t really even  need an architect – they’ll just do a design themselves. (They say the same thing about photographers, by the way). But the Modernists of the past were respected and even revered in many cases. Some of them like William Pereira and Edward Durell Stone made the cover of TIME Magazine! Tract home developments would hire architects to design neighborhoods and use that as a selling feature.

That still happens (for apartment buildings in major cities, mostly), but it’s extremely rare. Architects in the mid-20th century were often seen as social engineers- reinventing how people should live. They had revolutionary ideas that were a drastic departure from the traditional ways of living that had endured for centuries. Some of those utopian visions turned into dystopian nightmares, as social housing projects became high crime areas, and were seen as dehumanizing. Those projects weren’t the majority, but have unfortunately contributed to a sort of backlash about architecture that is only just recently starting to recover.

The reaction by the general public throughout the 80s and until very recently was Post-Modernism and then a sort of pseudo-historical pastiche. It’s only recently that you’re starting to see commercial tracts of single-family homes and other non-commercial structures embrace Modernist design again. 

You’ve been to London a few times. Which was your neighbourhood & favourite building to photograph here?

Yes, I love London and have spent a lot of time there over the years. The Barbican and neighboring Golden Lane are my favorite spots to spend time. I also love the Southbank complex. These are examples of Modernist, Brutalist architecture that are actually very successful and well loved and appreciated by their residents and visitors, alike. There are always new angles to appreciate. The Barbican is like a tranquil oasis in the middle of the busy City of London, near the financial district.

Which city on your travels has been the most rewarding to visit?

There are so many, it’s hard to narrow it down. I have been lucky to live, work, and visit so many great cities for extended periods of time all over the world. But honestly, my most rewarding experiences are as much about the people I meet there as about the buildings I see. Canberra, Australia, stands out to me for many reasons.

It’s a thoroughly modernist city from its beginnings (designed initially by Frank Lloyd Wright’s lead designer, Walter Burley Griffin), and is full of under-appreciated Modernist structures. But my love of that city is especially due to all of the great friendships I have made there over the years. I was even invited to give a TEDx Talk about Canberra architecture a few years ago, which is available on YouTube, I think. 

Finally how do you see yourself moving forward in this current climate?

I honestly have no idea what to expect at this point. I don’t think anyone can know. I have a history degree, so I always try to look at examples from history to understand the world today. But I can’t really find a precedent for this… not even the Spanish flu of 1918, really… I’m just trying to work through things one day at a time, like everyone else.

I feel very fortunate, but I really feel worried for all of my architect and designer friends, as well as everyone else who is out of a job or working freelance and not sure what’s in store in the coming months and years. My only hope is that things get back to normal quickly and that we can all go back to doing what we love. We’re all in this together.

Thank you! 

All photography by Darren Bradley

See more and follow Darren on Instagram at @modarchitecture

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