Drawing Parallels: Architecture Observed, by Quintin Lake

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In his 2009 book Drawing Parallels, Quintin Lake has paired architectural photographs taken in different places worldwide which echo each other in terms of some formal element, allowing the reader, as the title suggests, to draw parallels between them and in so doing find in them more than the sum of the parts.  The photographs are prefaced by a couple of somewhat overblown essays by Richard Wentworth and Hugh Cumming giving an indication of the book’s purpose: playfulness in tandem with the serious intent to encourage the viewer to view the world with a fresh eye for what are too often its overlooked details, and the ways in which space is used (or one could argue abused).  Pairs are drawn from places near and far (the first from Oxford and São Paulo) and compare and contrast structures old and new, permanent and ephemeral.  The book is organised into a series of fairly self-explanatory, if sometimes arbitrary, chapters, each focusing on a particular aspect:  ‘Seeing shapes’, ‘Surface and texture’, ‘Organising space’, ‘Shelter and home’, ‘Memory and place’, ‘Architecture as stage set’ and ‘Urban horizons’.

Having set up the pairs and provided clues in the captions, it is left to the viewer to work out why they have been linked.  It may be easy: similarities or contrasts in size, shape, texture and colour, randomness versus order, closed versus open, rural versus urban, human-scale versus monolithic and so forth, but at times there seems to be something deeper than superficial attributes at work.  Sometimes it is subtle: a small ancient dome with two flanking towers from Iran forming a clever refrigeration system is shown opposite the Barking Creek Tidal Barrier which the description likens to a ‘giant guillotine’.  The caption reads ‘Buildings without precedent’.  Why would Iran and guillotines be associated in Lake’s mind?  To reinforce the point, Cumming points out that the Zoroastrian Tower of Silence seen on a hill in the distance was used for sky burials, with vultures stripping the corpses’ flesh.  All sorts of comparisons spring to mind looking at the two photographs.

More bluntly, a woman in a chador being photographed by a man at Persepolis, Iran, is opposite a man photographing young ladies in brightly coloured period dresses in Venice.  The contrast in costumes and attitudes could not be starker.  Islamic sexism even extends to door knockers in Iran it seems, with heavy macho ones for the men and light ones for the women, installed so the sexes do not interact.  The critique is not always focused on religion-dominated culture of course: two multi-coloured park benches of different sizes shown next to two arches, one bigger than the other, is captioned ‘Related scale’.  The juxtaposition takes on a deeper significance when one reads the descriptions and learns that the benches are in the Fallen Monument Park, Moscow, and the arches are part of the Hungarian parliament building in Budapest.  The latter possess a sense of permanence missing in the former.

The photographs are enjoyable to look at and often insightful, but any well-travelled photographer with a large enough collection could do something similar – especially if the constraints are this flexible – then leave the reader to do the work of interpreting the result; dressing the collection up with a philosophical layer in the introductory essays cannot make it profound.  To refer to Henri Cartier-Bresson as an influence, and Lake as pursuing the ‘decisive moment’ on his ‘urban safari’, is misguided.  Also, using the word ’optimistic’ in conjunction with soulless megacities, as Lake does, raises the distinct possibility that he doesn’t have to live in one; many of their residents would probably disagree with the adjective.  On the plus side we are reminded how close to each other we are as humans, wherever and whenever we live, and how similar the solutions used in architecture and the organisation of lived space often are irrespective of location, and it can never hurt for it to be reiterated.  I did learn too that there is a building designed by an architect even worse than Birmingham’s Selfridges, because it is on the opposite page – built the same year, it is in Seoul.  I cannot imagine why anyone thought sticking disks all over the outside of a building was a good idea.

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