Wide Angle

Beauty Isn't Skin-Deep, It's in Buildings' Bones

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2008

The economy may be in free-fall, but the photographs by James Stokoe on display at the American Institute of Architects headquarters capture the Washington area in a moment of boom times. For almost eight years, the photographer has haunted construction sites, looking for beauty amid the chaos as buildings go up or, sometimes, come down. Many of his images were captured at several of the city's more recent architectural icons: the new stadium, the Newseum, the National Museum of the American Indian.

Stokoe calls his exhibition "accidental architecture," by which he means the transient shapes and forms that are created in the making or unmaking of "intentional" architecture, or finished buildings. He is fascinated by the shapes of scaffolding and construction elevators, by the colors of insulation and fireproofing materials, and the way construction barriers and temporary sidewalk coverings refashion the streetscape.

Photographs are inevitably a reduction of the real, and the primary thing that has been reduced in Stokoe's overview of construction sites is noise and chaos. Buildings are reduced to patterns of steel, forests of lumber, ghostly skins of unfinished walls. The other senses are left conveniently out of the picture. There is no cacophony of beeping concrete trucks backing up to dump their viscous cargo. There is no dust in the air. There is no blast of infernal summer heat as pedestrians, forced off the sidewalk, tread on baking asphalt streets to avoid construction zones that inevitably spill beyond their wooden barriers.

Stokoe's basic intent is to show the ephemeral beauty of shapes and forms as buildings are built, a beauty -- if you accept that beauty is the right word for it -- conveniently forgotten as the building takes form and is opened for use. Photographs of process are usually made to educate, instruct or enlighten, whether they're a step-by-step guide to a recipe in a cookbook, or a bracing tour through the basics of heart surgery. The camera demystifies something that is confusing or terrifying.

But Stokoe is not particularly interested in process, or didactic images. His show is grouped by the basic visual elements of the construction site -- scaffolds, elevators, concrete forms, sidewalk barriers and so on. The captions he has written aren't a guide to process or materials. Rather, they belong to the jargon of the art gallery, and the photographer cites not architects, but artists, such as Gordon Matta-Clark (who photographed buildings in semi-demolished condition) and Robert Smithson (who explored new definitions of the picturesque through human intervention on the landscape) as predecessors.

Of sidewalk barriers, he says, "They establish zones with different rules and expectations where the chance forms of construction are given license." The metal tools of construction scaffolding partake of "the excitement" of the "performing arts and cinema." Steel girders create "as much a choreography of nuance as bravado."

There's nothing wrong with this particular sort of language, other than it doesn't really make any sense. Sidewalk barriers don't, in fact, give license to chance forms of anything. Licensing generally takes place in a city office where permits and other construction documents are issued. And the choreography of nuance and bravado is really the photographer's doing (and he might as well take credit for it).

Artists have, for centuries, discovered and celebrated the poetry of decaying buildings. Part of the perverse but enduring fascination of disaster photography -- cities devastated by earthquakes or war -- is the revelation of forms beneath the surface, the yawning view into a living room missing its walls, stairwells that lead to nowhere, roofs that hang in the air, covering not architecture, but piles of ruined masonry.

There is also a peculiar Washingtonian fascination with seeing what's behind the walls. If one could create a numerical ratio that compared the nefariousness of what happens inside a building with the utter blandness of its exterior, large districts of Washington (think K Street) would rate very high. The fascination with a building seen during construction is that it is transparent. The walls and barriers and rigorously defended corner offices that will define the layout of power are all absent, and the building has a certain, transient innocence.

But Stokoe keeps his focus so tight that one can't really get much of this old-fashioned, building-stripped-bare vicarious enjoyment out of his images. You can, however, see the detail of brick, and some of the best of his pictures are sharply delineated images of old red-brick walls being propped up while new construction looms all around them.

If you can look at Stokoe's images solely as art, they have a neutral quality, inoffensive and sometimes interesting. But seen in the context of their setting -- the utterly horrid AIA headquarters building -- they also inspire thoughts about architecture, as a field and a profession. And what begins to nag you while looking at Stokoe's imagery is the realization that Washington's buildings are covered with god-awful material. The poetry Stokoe (who is also an architect) finds in construction sites, the Mondrian-like shapes created by unclad girders and support columns, is poetic in large part because it is as yet unspoiled by cheap precast concrete, faux-brick veneers and badly aligned metal panels. Stokoe's photography reveals a hidden modernist fantasy, suggesting that we might actually live in a more beautiful city if we stripped our big, square metal tent frames of their lousy, Home Depot-esque skins.

And yet even as you enjoy that insight, it's difficult not to be repelled by what might be called a classic architect's blindness in all of this. Only someone willing to intellectualize process and create abstract aesthetic games from reality could find the process of building as innocent as Stokoe's photography suggests. Building sites may be fascinating and dynamic, but they are not beautiful. They are, in fact, much more horrendously intrusive and disruptive than anyone involved in the building business -- architects, contractors, developers -- will ever acknowledge. The humanity of street life is stolen from the people, and neighborhoods are turned into zones of din, dirt and dissonance.

The endlessly extended construction at the U.S. Capitol is maddening not just for the spiraling cost, but for the delay, which has stolen the beauty of the building from the people of the city for years now. One may argue that cities must build to renew themselves. Yes. But if you went to a surgeon who told you, "We can fix your tendon, but you'll have to stay off your feet for about four years," you'd think twice about the operation. If given more of a say in how construction transforms their world, ordinary citizens might well think along similar lines before acceding to major new building projects.

Stokoe's show doesn't fail in its intended objective. He finds consistently interesting imagery in construction sites. It's the objective -- the aestheticization of construction -- that seems hollow. Where he is looking for beauty, most of us can find only nuisance. That might well be the definition of the chasm that separates the worst of architectural thinking from the ordinary desires of mortals who inhabit real buildings in real cities.

Architecture of Construction: Photographs by James Stokoe is on view at the American Institute of Architects Headquarters Gallery until March 27. The gallery is located behind the Octagon Museum at 1735 New York Ave. NW and is open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Admission is free.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company