Back to Basics

As my time as an architecture student comes to a close this May, it has caused me to reflect on what I have learned, what I am learning, and how much I still have yet to learn.  I have worked in the field for quite a few years now, so the balance of my academic and professional experience is starting to reconcile.  One of the classes I am taking this semester is architectural photography.  Admittedly, I took it to justify the purchase of a fancy new camera, and to prepare myself for an architectural pilgrimage to Europe this summer.   At the beginning of the semester, I knew little to nothing about formal photography.  What I didn’t expect, however, was how this class would help me think about design.

My architectural education (probably like most of you reading this) generally started with abstract concepts like space, light, material qualities, textures, shear, statics, etc.  As I moved closer to a master’s degree, the focus turned to professional practice, systems, structures, comprehensive studio, and BIM.  The challenge was to integrate the “higher” properties of design with the more practical activities like construction documents, point loads, and bathroom layouts.  Ideally, the successful architect will be able to accommodate all of the above in a highly efficient, functional, and pleasing design.  As I got closer to graduation, I wondered how I could bring my educational experience full circle.  Architectural photography, I believe, has helped me do just that.  It is not the technical aspects of photography necessarily that has done that, i.e. exposure, f-stop, white balance, etc.  It has been the concept of looking at design from another perspective, in fact, ANY other perspective.   When looking at photographing a building, one considers the lighting in the space, the textures, the composition, the people in and around it, the colors, etc.  All of these things have helped me to consider how I design my own spaces.  It has caused me to think deeply about how lighting will affect the texture of a wall as it washes down the surface.  It makes me think about how people will perceive the visual composition of structural elements over a window or the lines in the floor of a lobby and how they move people through the space.  It has caused me to think about how the building will light at night, where the fire valves and meters end up on the façade, if trees will block the expensive metal lettering on the parapet, etc.  We often get caught in our own designs, and it can be tough to remove ourselves from it and see it (literally and figuratively) in a different light.

So as I and many others embark on life after grad school and build our careers in architecture, it is important to remember where our passion for architecture comes from, and more importantly, how we fuel that passion going forward.  Everyone has their own muse, and it changes over time.  It can be easy to get bogged down in budgets, bids, and BIM but no matter what we do, or how complicated things get, we should always remember that sometimes it helps to bring things full circle, and get back to the basics.  Stop and look at your work critically every now and then from someone else’s point of view, like an architectural photographer might, and see if it influences the way you design going forward.

Stephen Cole
AIAS UC-Denver Chapter President

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