For over 40 years, Kenneth Wyner has photographed Washington’s more enchanted private homes for architectural firms and shelter magazines.
Now it’s his turn to build.
For his exhibition “Structure of Spirit, Design of the Heart” at the American Institute of Architects, Wyner has taken his collection of images — depicting interiors worth coveting, as well as monuments and public institutions — and transformed them, digitally enhancing the photographs to create a fantastical version of the city’s architecture. Using Photoshop, he has turned these structures into an architect’s wild dream, offering a possible future of architecture that is both expressive and expansive, with buildings that occasionally have the ability to float.
Washington’s architecture, for many, is defined by neoclassical buildings — heavy, limestone and marble monoliths that stretch along the Mall. Newer, modern structures — such as the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue and House of Sweden overlooking the Potomac — that trade classical features for glass and steel cause a stir still.
But these are all stereotypes, according to Wyner. His images reveal an intimate look at the more adventurous side of the city’s architecture, found in private commissions. The homes are constructed with diverse, and often environmentally friendly, building techniques that look to the future, providing the ideal subject for Wyner’s hypnotic, meditative compositions.
Of course, it’s clear that a private home in Glover Park designed by Travis Price, for instance, is not suspended in air, or built with oxidized copper walls for wings. Wyner does not hide the fact that his viewers are being manipulated. Here photographs can lie, and it requires only a careful look to see how he has spliced the images. That may take away some of their mystery, but these wealthy, decadent homes still appeal to the voyeur in us all.
It’s easy to gape at the historic barn in Leesburg that is part of a private 500-acre estate designed by Blackburn Architects. The interior is composed with floor-to-ceiling windows, rehabilitated wood and plush fuchsia sofas. But the building has also taken on a bit of the fantastical: Wyner has used Photoshop to seamlessly attach a mirror image, thereby turning this design haven into a cavernous space.
With Wyner’s digital adjustments, a house in Great Falls designed by Lorena Checa Architects for Buddhist teachers Tara Brach and Jonathan Foust seems to grow into a cathedral, as the massive windows open to the surrounding woods stretch and bend into impossible — but, if achieved, inspiring — forms. The structure becomes a sustaining organism, responding to the house’s green features (such as the composting toilets).
For the Potomac house of Dick and Jane Stoker (also backers of the exhibition), Wyner focuses on the couple’s art collection, enhancing a Frank Stella painting and a George Rickey stainless-steel sculpture in view through mirroring panels that stretch the carefully composed space.
Working as an architectural photographer is already a kind of balancing act, especially in private homes where achieving that still, dynamic shot requires a quick eye and a lot of patience. In his virtual constructions, though, Wyner has all the power.
He adds structure to these images by using a range of unlikely materials as backing, such as brushed aluminum, recycled cardboard and No-Lite Fabric, a heavy drapery that can block out light. For a Chevy Chase house designed by Ponte Mellor Architects, Wyner prints the image on voile, a sheer, gauzy material typically used in clothing or window treatments. The result, light-filled and sculptural as it hangs from the ceiling, depicts the private nightclub in the house’s basement (complete with psychedelic lighting and a faux tree) along with the client’s daughters, posed on the dance floor.
In using these commercial materials for printing, Wyner finds his strength, as his images take on unsuspecting textures and properties. The prints on cardboard have rugged edges; the images on brushed aluminum shimmer with holographic effects. Such variety strengthens his photographs of monuments and cityscapes of Washington, New York and Hong Kong that accompany the private interiors.
A nighttime photograph of the Filene Center at Wolf Trap, split and mirrored, radiates in silvery particles on its brushed aluminum backing as light is emitted from the stage in a surge of electricity. The National Archives building — itself a ripe example of the neoclassical movement — picks up the same holographic effect as its image surges in a frenetic upward view of its facade. These structures — mainstays of Washington culture — have never felt so full of energy.
The images of Washington, in particular, need this visual diversity and intensity, as their subjects are among the most familiar — and most exhausted — for every amateur, professional, tourist and local alike. One prime example is Wyner’s aerial shot of the Washington Monument and the city beyond, with a repeating effect that makes the Tidal Basin undulate in wide ribbons with unnatural colors, calling to mind old hand-tinted prints (a technique Wyner used at the start of his career). He takes a more abstract approach with his view of the Mall from the base of the monument, layering mirrored images and circling the structure with only the tops of the surrounding buildings to allow the sky free rein amid a ring of floating American flags.
Wyner’s photographs may initially appear overly celebratory in this respect, but what they offer is a fresh view of what most Washingtonians barely glance at: their city, which can easily become background noise but is actually full of giants.
O’Steen is a freelance writer.
by Kenneth Wyner, through Oct. 28 at the American Institute of Architects, 1735 New York Ave. NW,
Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.