Iwan Baan, Torre David 2011.
Iwan Baan, Torre David #2 2011. Image courtesy of the artist and Perry Rubenstein Gallery, Los Angeles

The Constructing Worlds exhibition at the Barbican challenges perceptions and understandings of the built modern world we live in today.

It brings together 18 photographers from the 1930s to the present day, each with a unique approach towards photographing architecture.

The chronological journey begins with Berenice Abbott’s documentation of New York and the construction of the iconic Rockefeller Center in 1932, a time of economic, political and social uncertainty.

Against the backdrop of the Great Depression, American photographer Walker Evans escapes from New York to capture rural America in a straightforward yet intimate way.

He looks at “the ones who have been the most severely affected, but is elevating the everyday and the vernacular”, explains Alona Pardo, co-curator of the exhibition.

Constructing Worlds_Nadav Kander, Chongqing IV (Sunday Picnic), Chongqing Municipality, 2006
Chongqing IV (Sunday Picnic), Chongqing Municipality, 2006. Photograph courtesy of Nadav Kander and Flowers Gallery

The photographs reflect global, international, social and political issues, says Pardo, as we move from the upper to the lower gallery. “Location and geography have changed, but you get the same issues being brought up about living conditions, urban density and rapid migration in Latin America, China and the Middle East.”

Ecological and environmental issues are also raised. Bas Princen’s image of ‘Cairo’s Garbage City’, shot in 2011, is a captivating panorama depicting residents stashing the Egyptian capital’s garbage in their own roof terrace.

Nadav Kander takes us to China depicting fisherman perching in front of a half-completed bridge on the banks of the Yangtze River. The atmospheric pale yellowy mist of pollution suggests the impact of rapid industrialisation on the community in an almost poetic way.

Designed by the Belgium architectural practice Office KGDVS, the overall scenography of the exhibition manages the balancing act of presenting the work of the 18 different photographers in a very consistent and convincing way.

The exhibition brings it home how much of our visual vocabulary originates from the past 80 years and how it has been refined by the construction of contemporary cityscapes.

It may help to step back from the global issues raised to gain a clearer perspective of the photography as a whole. At other times though, more confined spaces force us into engaging intimately with the issues, such as with Hiroshi Sugimoto’s poignant blurred photograph of the World Trade Center, or Hélène Binet’s more psychological and lyrical work of the Berlin Jewish Museum – two images that will compel the viewer to silence.

Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age is at Barbican Centre, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS until 11 January

Constructing Worlds_Thomas Struth, Clinton Road, London, 1997
Clinton Road, London 1997. Photograph: Thomas Struth


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