The Image is the Building

A photograph I shot was on the cover of this month’s issue of Domus India (March, 2013).

The Cover Photograph
The Cover Photograph

I had shot this at 400 ISO with my Nikon D 7000, and what was published was a fairly tight crop of  the original image (below). Another, less cropped version of the same photograph also appeared in the article on the Museum of Tribal Heritage in Bhopal designed by Kamath Design Studio in the same issue.

The Original Image
The Original Image

It must have taken some very skilled raw editing to get an acceptable cover image out of something shot with what is essentially an amateur camera at what is not a low ISO setting. This is definitely not something I’ve been able to achieve with the Nikon ViewNX2 software that comes bundled with the camera. Since a majority of the photographs featured in the article were shot by me with this camera, I think I might be better off investing in a good raw converter instead of a Nikon D600 which I have been eyeing ever since its release.

My camera geekiness aside, this article on the Museum in Domus has given me a lot to think about, both as an architect closely involved with the design of the building, and as the photographer who shot most of the images seen of the building. But before I go further, I must confess that I have not yet read anything by Susan Sontag, not read On Photography, nor read anything else of significance on the role of photography in architecture and the media. What I write here is a lay person’s opinion based on a single experience –

I had started  working on the Museum of Tribal Heritage when I was still doing my bachelor’s degree in architecture. It was very exciting to be working on this project because it was the first time I was applying my newly acquired knowledge of architecture in a professional setting. Preparing a setting-out plan of the complex, interlinked circular and rectilinear shapes taught me the need for accuracy and discipline in drafting and dimensioning a drawing.

I was also responsible for preparing a 3D model of the building which was used in presentations and discussions with the various stakeholders in the project.

External Views from the 3D Model
External Views from the 3D Model
An Interior View from the 3D Model
An Interior View of the Introduction Gallery from the 3D Model

Despite being involved in the project from its outset, I was not able to travel from Delhi (where I was studying) to the site in Bhopal until after I finished college some two years later. But when I did visit the site, it was quite amazing to see the actual building. What made this experience especially surreal was the fact that the site engineer drove us in his car straight into what was the main visitor’s (pedestrian) circulation spine of the museum. The building was bigger than I had imagined. And yet, when I got out of the car and walked around, it seemed to have a very human scale – a scale of a village street, not the scale one usually associates with a museum building.

The circulation spine where I drove in with a car on my first visit to the site.
The circulation spine where I drove in a car on my first visit to the site.

After walking around the building, I soon got my bearings and started observing deviations from the plan and defects in construction, like any architect would. The building eventually took over five years and many more site visits to build, and the museum is still to formally open as of March, 2013.

When we were contacted by Domus India about their wanting to feature the project in their magazine, we were very excited by the idea. Like most architectural publications around the world today, the team at Domus asked us, as the architects of the building, to provide them with images for the article. What we gave them was a photographic “walk-through” of the building with details of where in the building each photograph was shot from, and what the photograph showed. Other than basic project drawings, this was all the information on the project that the Mumbai-based team writing the article had. Even as someone so closely involved with the design, having prepared its setting out plan and 3D model; actually experiencing the building physically and spatially gave me a completely new perspective on its design. I was therefore fascinated by the article on the Museum that appeared in Domus titled “Debating Tactile Engagements” when no one from the magazine had seen the building other than through the photographic images we had supplied them. The article goes on to talk about the scale of the building, the delicacy of the steel structure supporting large spans, the way the building negotiates the terrain of the site and engages with the local climate. It is understandable that time and financial constraints make it impossible for every architectural critic to visit every building they write about. But as an architect who respects the opinions of serious critics of design, it makes me wonder if I should design for the user or design for the camera in an age where pixels are equal to perception, where bits can travel across the planet but bricks stubbornly stay rooted in walls, where ones geographic location is immaterial but “ecological footprint” is supposed to matter, where global weather data is available at a keystroke but the sound of subtly directed rain water is lost in the din of esoteric discussions on design philosophy.