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Photography vs. Experience


Our design philosophy starts with the recognition that architectural photos are not architecture, and that photography is, in fact, not especially well-suited to the task of communicating architectural experience. Yet photos so thoroughly mediate our perceptions of architecture that it is impossible to discuss the one without the other. So I’ll begin this with a brief discussion of how photos represent, or misrepresent, the architectural experience of houses.

How do photos misrepresent architecture? I think they do so in at least three ways.

First of all, photos have an artistic objective of their own. They aren’t interested in representing the “truth” of a building so much as they are in creating powerful photographic impressions of their own. So naturally, they subject the art of the building to the art of their frame. After all, how many times have you seen a powerful image of a building, only to realize that the building itself is very un-exceptional? Nevertheless, we architects accept this demotion because we know that great photos also confer artistic status on their subjects, even as they deceive.

The second way that photos misrepresent architecture is by framing in just two dimensions an experience that is fully four-dimensional. Architectural photos can transport us for precisely this reason: they concentrate buildings into powerful frozen moments. And yet, while photos are great at capturing surfaces and materials, buildings are experienced much differently in person. Physical buildings are experienced with all of our senses and, just as importantly, in a continuous flow of time. As we move through a building, according to our own instincts, it unfolds to all our senses in ways that elude the camera’s eye.

Thirdly, photos misrepresent architecture by objectifying it. By holding a building at arm’s length, the camera’s voyeuristic eye emphasizes the object. But architectural experience is really subjective, more narrative-based and personal than visual. For instance, a great house, like a great novel, will have as many interpretations as it has visitors, or readers. While photos, on the other hand, frame for us a limited number of interpretations. And these specific interpretations belie the complexity of modern life. Minimal architecture offers a clear example of this, because spare spaces are so photogenic! Photos of minimal houses therefore draw us in, but life is really the opposite: ambiguous and complicated. So, for minimal houses to be truly successful, they must be complex and ambiguous in other ways, ways that are not easily shown in photos.

As this discussion unfolds, perhaps you see how a close consideration of architectural photography leads directly to design philosophy. But before we go there I’d like to highlight one more problem with photographic objectification: its association with the advertising of manufactured products. In fact, we are immersed daily in a sea of advertising imagery. And that imagery is designed to sell us manufactured goods. And all these ads leverage the promise of an experience to entice us. But in the end, the photo/product and the experience are different.

I saw a Mazda ad recently that demonstrates this perfectly. It opens with a close-up of a sporty red car while the narrator asks, “Is it possible to engineer a feeling? To create a design that moves you, before you even get in…?” Then we see the car racing up mountain switchbacks on a fall afternoon. Here, ownership of the car is equated with adventure. But buying this car does not transport us automatically to that mountainside. In fact, we will drive it to work every day through the very same traffic, even if we can briefly imagine ourselves on that mountainside.

With photos of houses, I believe, we are no less susceptible to the call of adventure than with such ads. But architecture has one very important advantage: architected houses are not manufactured! Architecture, in fact, offers us an unparalleled opportunity to reverse that process: to imagine first the environment we want to live in, and then to make it real! In essence, it offers us the choice of art over commodity. And in this way, residential architecture represents perhaps the last opportunity in modern society to experience directly the connection between our own imaginations and our values, and their realization in our immediate built environment: the houses of our dreams.

At this point, many philosophical conclusions can be drawn from the above. But for me there is one that stands above the rest (and you will have noted my obsessive use of italics). This is the idea that architecture is first and foremost an experience. And by experience I do not mean only the experience of living in the completed house. Yes, that experience is important too, and during the design process clients focus closely on how each future room will work and feel. But more frequently overlooked in the design process is the design process itself, and the amazing journey it offers. In fact, clients rarely come through it unchanged. Yet its full potential for personal growth is rarely tested. And this is unfortunate, in my view, because adventures are best measured by the growth of their hero(es): in this case, our clients.

From this perspective, then, houses can be viewed not only as ends in themselves, but also as the byproducts of guided intellectual adventures. And our design process can be understood to be more open-ended than confined by fashion, architectural styles or design dogma–in other words, the stuff you see in photos.

With this in mind, should you now look back at the photos on our website, I hope you will see them differently. I hope, for instance, that you will see in each project a unique adventure. And I hope that you will understand the variety of our “styles” as an indication of the wide range in our clientele. Should you look closely at any particular project, I hope you will understand that the choices made in it are expressions of our collective values and interests: client and architect together.

Inevitably, architecture offers us two experiences: one of imagination and creation, the other of occupation and interpretation. And in photos of our completed work I hope you can now glimpse moments of both.

 — James Merrell · March 02, 2017

Photo: Original by Raimund Koch. Distortion by James Merrell Architects.


James Merrell Architects

66 Main Street, Sag Harbor, NY 11963

(631) 725-9842


Click here to view James Merrell / Journal: Moby Dick and Modern Architecture

Click here to view James Merrell / Journal: A Laboratory for Architectural Design

Click here to view James Merrell / Journal: Discerning the Rational from the Modern in Architecture