One of the problems with architectural photography is that no one actually lives like that.
In the same way that air brushed supermodels make some of us feel insecure via the pages of glossy magazines, showhouse photo shoots and atmospheric architectural imagery can cause the most well adjusted to have qualms about our present-from-Killarney shamrock mugs and witty animal-shaped teapots.
It can also cause a gap in understanding between the profession that creates the spaces in which we live and work, and the end users of those spaces - ie everybody else.
Nine Lives, an exhibition that has just opened at the National Craft Gallery in Kilkenny, aims to change that, to bridge the gap and start conversations that could lead to the commissioning and making of more functional and more special spaces, at every scale.
Walking through the exhibition, curator Emmett Scanlon points to pictures of a Steve Larkin Architects’ house in Co Wexford.
From the initially “perfect” elegant-yet-empty scenes, people begin to make the spaces their own.
A little girl bashes at a drum kit, friends play guitar, and rooms become populated by books, family photographs, an exercise machine.
“There’s a house that is thriving on being used,” he says. “Use is what makes architecture of value to society.”
To many architects, a building’s ideal moment is at the point of completion, before it is handed over to the client to be cluttered with the detritus of life and become scuffed, chipped, painted, added on to.
Even art galleries, a dream architectural commission, are most frequently photographed by their designers empty save for the occasional shaft of vaguely mystical light.
Scanlon agrees, saying “this is also a show about photography, about how buildings are portrayed”.
Process of designing
Nine Lives features the work of Ireland’s newest generation architects, exploring through drawings, writing and photographs, the process of designing.
But it’s at its most interesting when it looks at what happens once the people move in.
Artist John Graham's Home Studio, designed by Maxim Laroussi of Urban Agency, is a gorgeous serene grey box of a space.
In the architects’ photograph it appears as a glowing space for gentle contemplation.
It’s fun to see it in the next shot filled with shelves, mismatched chairs, plug-in heaters, paper, canvases, portfolios and a music player.
“I hanker after serenity in my head,” says Graham, whose work is available from the Graphic Studio, and will feature in U-Turn at The Library Project in Temple Bar from September 4th to 26th.
“But serene concrete boxes in reality are another thing entirely.”
Graham’s favourite element of the finished studio is the light - “the way it enters from four different directions, so if you’re there all day you feel the light moving in a particular way.
“If I had been more practically minded, I would have focussed on building something more flexible. The problem is that nothing stays the same.
“You discover, sometimes too late, that you’re trying to do something for a specific purpose, but your purpose changes all the time.”
Given the choice between practical and interesting, most architects will opt for interesting. The best of them can provide us with both.
The issue is that very few people will ever commission more than one, if any, space of their own in a lifetime.
So how can we learn to communicate what our needs are, and to understand how those needs will inevitably change, so that an architect can be enabled to make the best possible spaces?
According to Mary Enright, who worked with Ryan Kennihan on her Co Galway house, a great deal comes down to trust.
“He asked what I had in mind, and as is often the case, I knew more about what I didn’t want. I didn’t want the type of dormer house that’s been built everywhere over the past 10 years. But I liked him and I trusted him. He presented two options, and we went from there.”
“We began with the traditional farmyard as a model that was found in the neighbouring field and throughout the surrounding countryside,” says Kennihan.
“The materials, forms, structure and planting are all in some way native to the shores of Lough Corrib, but the house is very much bespoke for Mary.”
Enright’s courtyard-style house traps the sun, and is a welcoming space. Inside, the colours are pared back, white and grey, to make way for the colour to come from her daughter, Kara Enright’s paintings.
In Nine Lives, the voices of the clients are for the most part absent, though the photographs present glimpses of children’s toys strewn about the place, and bicycles propped up against windows and in alcoves.
The voices of the architects come through in statements that illustrate the ever-present problem of professional jargon.
Larkin’s description of his Co Wexford house is fairly typical: “Vertical space is stacked through the section and punctuates horizontal space opening to the landscape.”
From dog racing to aviation, all interest groups and professions have their own in-house terminology, nonetheless, it can be daunting for outsiders to get to grips with it.
But for all of us who can’t help sullying the once uncluttered surfaces of our polished limestone counters with kitchen gadgets, and who discover that the distressed concrete of a post-modernist splashback doesn’t always marry well with pinned up shopping lists and children’s drawings, this is an exhibition that will enable you to take heart and maybe even inspire your very own grand design.
Nine Lives is at the National Craft Gallery, Kilkenny, until September 27th.