“I had a romantic drawing prepared. It showed what the reviewing stand on the Zeppelin Field would look like after generations of neglect, overgrown with ivy, its columns fallen, the walls crumbling here and there, but the outline still clearly recognizable. In Hitler’s entourage this drawing was regarded as blasphemous. That I could even conceive of a period of decline for the newly founded Reich destined to last a thousand years seemed outrageous to many of Hitler’s closest followers. But he himself accepted my ideas as logical and illuminating.”
Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich
Architecture is often an expression of an ideal, and even those buildings which appear brutally functional and without embellishment are still a reflection of an expedient and utilitarian philosophy. This expressive quality of architecture is particularly evident in the civic architecture of capital cities. For example, Washington D.C’s planned central sprawl is awash with classical trappings, from the Corinthian columns of the capitol building, to the fasces that rather incongruously decorate monuments like the seat of the statue of the great emancipator Abraham Lincoln. Mexico City, by contrast, is a curiously chaotic mixture of styles which perhaps suits the city’s frenetic energy, from Spanish colonial churches and early twentieth century art deco to the grimly angular modernism of structures like the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, and the airy futurism of the Cineteca Nacional de Mexico.
Onnis Luque’s Undercover focuses on one facet of architecture in Mexico city. In 2017 a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit the city, causing widespread damage and destruction, and at least 200 deaths. In the aftermath it emerged that many of the buildings that had collapsed or been badly damaged by the earthquake had been constructed below the required standards, something which was widely reported as the consequence of corruption between property developers and local planning authorities.
Luque’s photographs document these damaged and destroyed buildings. Hidden beneath shroud-like coverings intended to protect against falling debris, they give these structures a funereal air, as they become unofficial monuments to the many who were needlessly killed and injured. As well as the sense of a city in mourning, Luque’s shrouds also become a visual metaphor for what is thinly hidden and constantly on the verge of emerging in Mexico, a state of corruption which leads many people to treat the authorities with a caution normally reserved for criminals.
As well as the sense of a city in mourning, Luque’s shrouds also become a visual metaphor for what is thinly hidden and constantly on the verge of emerging in Mexico, a state of corruption which leads many people to treat the authorities with a caution normally reserved for criminals.
Corruption has many forms and many victims, and the context we bring to photographs as viewers is often as important as what they actually show. An added layer to the subject of corruption and state ineptitude then, is my own knowledge that this earthquake struck just days after an even more powerful one hit the coast near southern town of Juchitán de Zaragoza, also causing widespread damage and many deaths. In the aftermath of the Mexico City quake, much of the support for the clean-up in that economically neglected and predominantly indigenous part of the country was rerouted to the capital, which also received widespread international media coverage and generous donations from international organisations, foreign governments and celebrities. But as one Mexican friend told me, in Mexico City much of this help failed to materialise for survivors on ground who were left to find their own accommodation. It disappeared as it were, into thin air.
For audiences outside Latin America, Undercover might be their first introduction to Luque’s work, so it’s worth also nothing that this project is an interesting inversion of the relatively straight architectural photography for which he is perhaps best known. What is presented here is a sort of anti-architecture, using many of the standard tropes of the genre, but at the same depicting buildings which would be unlikely to fall before a photographer’s lens under different circumstances, many of them since or soon to be demolished, and all representative of the embarrassing shame of corruption.
By contrast, Jeffrey Ladd’s A Field Measure Survey of American Architecture is superficially a very different project. The starting point for it is the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) held in the Library of Congress just behind Washington D.C’s capitol. The HABS itself is a collection of disparate materials, including a large archive of photographs perhaps roughly analogous to English Heritage’s encyclopaedic Survey of London, but on a geographically far larger scale. Contained within the Prints and Photographs division (which also houses the far better known Farm Security Administration photographic archive), the HABS is a semi-systematic photographic documentation of significant buildings scattered across the nation.
From these photographs Ladd has composed a visual tour of the United States, travelling west along the approximate route of the Mason-Dixon line, a historical boundary which has often been considered to demarcate the north from the south of the United States, and which since the era of slavery was also used as a geographic shorthand for the boundary between those states where the practice was legal, and those where it was not. In the context of the rhetorical and sometimes actually violent ‘culture war’ engulfing the United States at the moment, this choice of route seems laden with meaning.
What both books, through their focus on a certain crumbling architecture, seem to point to, is the vast gulf that exists between the political rhetoric of great states, and the concrete realities on the ground for many ordinary people.
The photographs themselves are starkly beautiful and remarkably consistent in spite of the dozens of photographers responsible for creating them, and whose names form the front and back covers of the book. The images show a remarkable array of American vernacular architecture in a wide range of conditions. Some are tidy and well preserved, but many are shuttered, derelict, with bare rooms and empty walls, bare lightbulbs, broken windows and leaking roofs, stripped wires and burnt-out walls. As much as documents of historical sites, these buildings could just as easily be imagined as the scenes of crimes past or yet to come, a sense compounded by the presence of photographic scale markers and other rather forensic paraphernalia in some of the shots.
In viewing a set of photographs made by a series of disparate authors, brought together after the fact, I often find myself trying to imagine the non-existent photographer who might have made them all. Given the aesthetic and subject matter of these images my thoughts inevitably turn to the stark modernism of Walker Evans, a photographer often noted not only for his photographic sensibilities, but also for his deep interest in the overlooked everyday cultures and crafts of ordinary Americans. In Ladd’s book, it feels a little as if Evans has travelled forward in time, to turn his eye on an era when populist leaders claim to have the concerns of those who crafted these vernacular gems at heart, but in reality are as indifferent as the distant patrician leaders of Evan’s own time.
What both books, through their focus on a certain crumbling architecture, seem to point to, is the vast gulf that exists between the political rhetoric of great states, and the concrete realities on the ground for many ordinary people. These crumbling buildings may not be civic architecture, expressions of the state in the traditional sense of capitols and monuments, but they are representative of something at the heart of both nations, and many others across the world. And that thing, perhaps as blasphemous to draw attention to as Speer’s ruins, is the feeling of a dangerous state of democratic decay.