Architecture "no longer interested in anything
but its own image"


Owen Hatherley, photo by 3am Magazine

News: the way architecture is consumed through websites like Dezeen is "utterly disastrous", according to UK critic Owen Hatherley (above).

Writing about modern architecture and modern photography for the Photographers' Gallery website, Hatherley says sites like Dezeen and Archdaily "provide little but glossy images of buildings that you will never visit, lovingly formed into photoshopped, freeze-dried glimmers of non-orthogonal perfection, in locations where the sun, of course, is always shining."

He adds: "In art, this approach to reproduction is dubious enough, but in architecture – where both physical experience and location in an actual place are so important – it’s often utterly disastrous, a handmaiden to an architectural culture that no longer has an interest in anything but its own image."

Hatherley goes on to explore "the symbiotic relationship between photography and architecture", tracing the way photography helped popularise and market the modern movement from the 1920s – and even influenced the buildings themselves.

The early works of Le Corbusier were brightly coloured, Hatherley says, as were buildings by Gerrit Reitveld and Bruno Taut. "Yet by the start of the 1930s, the modern movement’s most famous buildings, like Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat or Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, were almost exactly as monochrome as the (many) photographs taken of them," Hatherley writes.

The article was commissioned by The Photographers' Gallery in London as part of a series of critical essays on photography in the 21st Century.

Owen Hatherley is the author of books including Militant Modernism, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain and A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain.

Photograph is by 3am Magazine.

  • elizabeth

    Yes, perhaps we have to retreat into this fantastical, unreal, perfect world – to escape from the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune that currently pervade with misportrayal and misrepresentation.

  • Justin

    No one cares anymore.

  • Reiko

    “Buildings that *you* will never visit” – indeed, how can the critics judge “authentic” architecture lovers when, suddenly, everyone is invited inside?

  • Laura

    That is absolute nonsense.

  • John

    Presumably the image of the critic adjusting his hair is far more suitable for consumption.

  • Are we to understand that the only valid experience is to physically visit a space? The sharing of ideas is one of the great tenets of human experience. Without physically entering one of these buildings, communication of the idea becomes important, both visually and with the written and spoken word. I agree that a lot of the description of some of the architecture on this and other sites can be somewhat lacking. Why are sites like Dezeen less valid than a lot of books on the subject, which I am guessing Mr Hatherley has at home?

  • JayCee

    Perhaps he should learn how to write well-constructed and concise prose before attempting to crticise design aesthetics. Mr Hatherley’s writings reek of the academic who skipped practice. Or perhaps he is just a blogger firmly entrenched in the form of media he is now challenging.

  • Wadi

    It’s interesting that Dezeen is publishing this comment and it would be even more interesting to have a statement from Marcus Fairs or even a discussion about this topic.

  • h.a.

    This is only half true. Sites like Dezeen do a great job to promote architecture. The quality of the displayed buildings is not always the best, but I have come to know fantastic formerly unknown architects here (as well as in Archdaily or Plataforma Arquitectura). Perhaps if the quality was more strictly checked it wouldn´t be only a matter of consuming images.

  • paraphernal

    Hatherley is an agent provocateur, just because he buys his undies from Agent Provocateur. Yet it is true that architecture has become an object of instant consumption (and replication), grace to sites like Archdaily and Dezeen, or rendering companies like Mir and Crystal CG.

  • Kenneth Smythe

    Hatherley is making peepee into the wind.

  • roland

    This is really outdated.

  • lucian

    I second on the need for a response from Dezeen. I agree with the original essay, and find really creepy the way people in the comment section are being so defensive against an opinion that is so clearly accurate.

    • Here goes then…

      Speaking personally, I find striking how architecture is still largely represented the same way it was 100 years ago: via static 2D photographs.

      It wasn’t just the pioneering architectural photographers and the early modern architects who colluded to market the then-new aesthetic of modernism – magazines (and books) were very much part of the story too. Editors lapped up these heroic, seductive images and their legacy survives in the form of the still-dominant “portrait” (ie front cover or full-page image) and “landscape” (double-page spread) formats.

      Now we have the internet and digital technology but mostly we are still disseminating the same type of imagery as our paper predecessors were a century ago. Photoshop is just an electronic airbrush, after all. Very few architects are even commissioning decent video of their buildings, for example, let alone more adventurous forms of documentation. They use sophisticated software to model their buildings but still resort to blokes with tripods to immortalise the end result.

      Rather than being “utterly distastrous” for architecture, sites like Dezeen are a powerful new platform for presenting and discussing architecture in new ways, in front of far bigger and more diverse audiences than the old magazines (and their hermetic writers and critics) ever managed to reach. It’s a huge opportunity. As the tilt-and-shift lens was to modernism, the pixel will be to the next movement.


      • KIKI

        I think Dezeen and Archdaily are alternative good ways to see architecture, especially for me because I live far away in Indonesia and can’t go to many places that have great architecture. This website can provide much besides just 2D photographs.

  • alister

    A fascinating read. On a similar note:

  • I find it interesting that Dezeen refers to the words “the way architecture is consumed” in its introduction.

    It is hard to deny that the culture of architecture is increasingly defined by the internet and by an astounding consumption of images on a daily basis. The opportunity given to reach a broad public through web platforms means that anyone would try to gather as much “I Like” as possible by resorting to the immediate appeal of smoothed away pictures with blue skies.

    The words of O. Hatherley are pretty harsh when depicting “an architecture culture that no longer has an interest in anything but its own image”, but one can definitely wonder if the communication of architecture is not utterly determined by a pervasive glamour that resides in instantaneous images, while consideration about how projects responded to contexts or to briefs tends to be lost.

    It is true that sites like Dezeen and others offer a valuable platform for exchanging opinions with a much broader audience than available before through conventional media, but it feels that a consistent discussion is often drowned by an overwhelming flow of topics and images from all over. And the cause certainly resides in a trend where architects resort to creating that “wow effect” in any way they can to reach a level of broadcast.

    Hatherley couldn’t be wrong in mentioning that “physical experience and location in an actual place are so important” and these aspects shouldn’t be lost when we look at published works. It may be true, in that sense, that it could be interesting to have more videos of architectural projects, but I would definitely be interested to know more about what Marcus understands by “more adventurous forms of documentation”.

  • smartinos

    Your choice of iconography is deleterious. At least in this article :)

  • Architectural writer Douglas Murphy has shared his thoughts on this topic on his blog (as well as pointing out my misspelling of “disastrous” in my earlier comment above):


  • Architekton

    Perhaps a more constructive line of discussion would be to explore how new (or more “naive”) methods of representation might ameliorate some of the self-deceptive characteristics of conventional representation. There will probably always need to be a certain philosophical component to provide guidance – in new media as in photography. Photographers can make a choice to take whole-building-in-context shots, ‘clutter’ consequences be darned (Architect magazine sometimes does this, which I appreciate).

    On the other hand, I have lately appreciated the textural impressions conveyed by close-up architectural photography. These abound on websites but are edited out of magazines. +1 for the websites. In that vein, I fear that were the websites more discriminating (as was suggested above), we would pare out all the “ugly” stuff that gives at least a glimmer of an idea how civilly the building really meets its surroundings.

  • Derek

    The problem isn’t the consumption of architecture. It’s architecture firms producing buildings that are primarily meant to be experienced as images. Gimmick and “wow” trump human scale and practicality far too often.

  • The argument against websites like Dezeen and Archdaily as presented by Owen Hatherley is a latent argument against what is commonly known as “progress”. Not sure why, but the architecture critic always seems to be naively nostalgic and a bit behind the 8-ball. Remember that “slowness” approach to architecture, essentially defending architects who are mentally challenged in a profession they probably should never have joined?

    So far, Dezeen and Archdaily only give me anxiety about all my shortcomings. I have been designing/building a project on and off for five years to take nice photos of, but given its SLOW development it’s really been a physical experience for me.

    Anyway, dreams happen in seconds, so can the design and experience of architecture. Critics are like people who spend hours studying Jazz music for patterns and technical attributes while some kid picks up the horn and jams out some new stuff the critic can’t explain and needs more time to explain and instead of explaining the new stuff – like Techno!?! – or something they say the kids have all gone to crap… old people.

  • Mr T

    Well maybe some people will never visit and without sites like Dezeen and Archdaily they wouldn’t even know they exist.

    This way also means it’s useless to buy architecture or design magazines. Or maybe people are admitted to “talk about architecture” only in Mr Hatherley’s living room, or at his favourite hair dresser parlour.

  • nick

    Owen Hatherley explained in this interview why this way of architecture promotion is “utterly disastrous”. A good addition to this article: