From Manhattan’s thrusting skyscrapers to the elegant ruins of war-torn Afghanistan, a spectacular new show celebrates the drama of modern archi

Constructing Worlds begins with Berenice Abbott’s iconic Night View, New York, 1932, a black and white image of illuminated skyscrapers taken from the top of the Empire State Building. Abbott’s evocation of an almost magical modernist metropolis echoes though the entire exhibition, which ranges from 1932 to 2011, but her way of seeing was influenced by Eugène Atget, whose studies of a much older city, Paris, so captivated her that she acquired most of his archive on his death in 1927.

“As a result,” writes David Campany in his catalogue essay, “an equivocal take on progress – looking askance or awry at the white heat of modernisation – became an important part of serious photography.” It has been that way ever since – even though, as this exhibition shows, form as an end in itself has captivated certain photographers, from Lucien Hervé to Hiroshi Sugimoto, as much as it has driven architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. 

“Since the earliest days of photography,” write the curators, Alona Pardo and Elias Redstone, “architecture has been the medium’s most willing accomplice.” Leaving aside the fact that one could say much the same of landscape or portraiture, Constructing Worlds does a good, if highly selective, job of illustrating the often tricky relationship between buildings and their representation in photographs. 

Torre David #1 – facade, 2011 (Caracas). Photograph by Iwan Baan Torre David #1 – facade, 2011 (Caracas)
Torre David #1 – facade, 2011 (Caracas). Photograph by Iwan Baan Torre David #1 – facade, 2011 (Caracas) © Iwan Baan

It is, of course, impossible to explore every aspect of the relationship between architecture and photography in a single show, but I struggled to grasp the underlying approach, not least when the groundbreaking American New Topographics movement of the 1970s is all but overlooked. Curiously, Lewis Baltz is central to Campany’s catalogue essay, but his work absent. And where is Robert Adams, whose long exploration of the manmade suburban environment, combines formal rigour with a pioneering eco-political undertow that is missing here?