The Barbican's sweeping survey of architectural photography occasionally struggles with its focus, says Isabel Stevens
In the history of photography, buildings are crucial. The Barbican's survey of the photography of architecture in the modern age (defined as anything after 1930) makes it clear that when artists wished to upturn expectations of what could be photographed and how, their gaze fell on prosaic urban architecture.
Those wanting to see some of the most heralded photographs of the 20th century – particularly those shot in the US from the 1930s to the 1970s, when the country's built environment was changing radically – should head upstairs. Arranged chronologically and by artist, highlights include: Berenice Abbott's Depression-era survey of iron and steel's domination of Manhattan, all horizon-squeezing skyscrapers and gargantuan bridges, yet encompassing the slums in their shadows; Walker Evans's infamous record of his 1936 tour of the Deep South, exposing its vernacular quirks; and Bernd and Hilla Becher's photos of "anonymous sculptures" – in this instance water tanks – shot from the late 1950s on, their dimensions identical but their surreal and alien architectural forms anything but.
Interspersed among these photographic greatest hits are some nice juxtapositions and the odd surprise: straight after Evans's testaments to the Depression come sleek kitchens and glistening pools courtesy of Julius Shulman's glossy images of 1950s and 1960s Californian lairs, odes to modernist living created for the magazine Art & Architecture.
Meanwhile, the identikit reality of the West Coast urban landscape – and the isolated, automobile-dependent life it propagated – is exposed in Ed Ruscha's 1967 aerial shots of car parks. The inclusion of these lesser known, people-less abstracts makes you wish that Constructing Worlds' curators, Alona Pardo and Elias Redstone, had taken more such risks with anti-spectacles, pursuing the less lauded and more idiosyncratic with greater vigour.
Indeed, there are few discoveries. The only two non-Western photographers – Hiroshi Sugimoto and Guy Tillim – fall into the category of "usual suspects" and, while there are images aplenty charting architectural intervention and decay across China, India and South America from Nadav Kander, Lucien Hervé and Iwan Baan, it's a little dispiriting that so few native photographers are represented. In particular, Kander's quasi-romantic and wistful vistas of people dwarfed by China's burgeoning infrastructure offer little new.
Ruins in Constructing Worlds are too often picturesque. In Simon Norfolk's records of Iraq and Afghanistan's war-ravaged buildings, crumbling structures glow yellow and blue in the gloaming. His photographs of Afghanistan's nascent property developments, with their flamboyant facades and empty swimming pools, are more disquieting. Tillim's investigations of the now-dilapidated apartments, hotels and civic buildings constructed across Africa at the height of decolonisation are similarly melancholic, often treading familiar mournful-lost-utopia ground, yet occasionally achieving greater nuance.
When Tillim isolates details of everyday life, such as washing hanging off crumbling balconies, hinting at the humanity within, or wires cascading down a stairwell in Luanda to the private generators below, there are glimpses of real lives and social divisions.
Constructing Worlds brings together numerous different types of architectural photography – celebratory, critical, curious – but many of its participants opt for abstraction, particularly when interpreting expensive or iconic buildings. Hervé's survey of the metamorphosis of Chandigarh in the late 1950s is the most dramatic example, followed by Sugimoto's contemplative, out-of-focus landmarks and Luisa Lambri's minimal slithers of Frank Lloyd Wright interiors. Hélène Binet's fragmentation of Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin struggles amid such company.
Jumbo-sized prints dominate the more recent material downstairs – buildings are presented as structures to inspire awe. Despite this, the show finishes as it starts: on a quiet, sobering and topical note. Baan's 2011 record of the unauthorised occupation of the 45-storey Torre David in Caracas does not seek to grab attention and, most importantly, it is about people – the skyscraper's 3,000-odd residents, who were finally evicted in July – as much as architecture.
Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age
Images: Flowers Gallery; Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg; Luigi Ghirri Estate and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York; J. Paul Getty Trust, Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute; Perry Rubenstein Gallery, Los Angeles; 303 Gallery; New York and Sprüth Magers, London;; Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection