Alan Chimacoff, principal of ikon.5 architects, Princeton University adjunct faculty member, and architectural photographer, knows—and appreciates—architecture like the back of his hand. “My perspective as a photographer is shaped by my knowledge, as an architect, of real and illusory space, a love of materials, and an abiding interest in an inherent contradiction between clarity and ambiguity,” he says. Most recently, the accomplished A&D professional launched his “abstract.hyphen.realities” exhibition at the FXFowle Gallery in New York City. The collection of photographs draws attention to the “hyphenated” world we live in and the resulting new and unexpected pairings—i.e. e-mail, marriage names, multi-tasking—via visible dialogue.
Here Chimacoff shares some insight into his viewpoints on design and photography with Contract magazine.
1. Can you tell us a little about the “abstract.hyphen.realities” exhibition?
The “abstract.hyphen.realities” exhibit is unique in interweaving two themes together, using alternating black and white and color photos in stark contrast to one another. The black and whites photographs are abstractions of real things—buildings, architectural elements, and “made” things, while the color photos are abstract paintings on asphalt and concrete “canvasses” of the yellow dividing lines on our roadways—governmental regulation of our vehicular movements—taken from the route I drive to work every day.
2. What do you hope spectators will take away?
I hope the alternating juxtaposition will cause viewers to become more aware of the benefit of looking closely at things, for both content and detail, and that the two themes will be understood as not so far apart, since both are about making things that we look at regularly and, more or less, take for granted. I hope too that the use of the word “hyphen” will cause people to wonder what things are important to us and to realize that sources of meaning and interest are everywhere.
3. How do you feel photography enhances architecture, or vice versa?
My photographs of buildings seek to express the buildings’ architectural essences. Unlike architectural photography, where the journalistic purpose is to explain and convey information about the buildings while being beautiful, these photographs have the liberty to set aside “information” in favor of idea and artistic purpose. I’m not sure photography “enhances” architecture as much as it might facilitate understanding it.
For architects in the process of design, I think there is an inevitable seeking of a “money shot” or “canonical view,” like the famous shots of Fallingwater and two Guggenheims—singular images by which the buildings are known and identified. That is a very powerful influence which, in turn, can influence or enhance photographic efforts.
4. How did you first become interested in photography? Was it everything you hoped?
I was fascinated by photography in the fourth grade at age eight. I loved to look at cameras and formed a photography club with two grade school classmates. I think I had an intuitive sense that photographs had meaning far beyond the obvious pictorial content of the photo itself. While concentrating on being an architect and an academic at Cornell and Princeton, my photographic efforts went to building slide collections for teaching. I realized several years ago that I had a “darkroom” in my briefcase, and my fascination with photography rekindled.
5. What do you feel has been your greatest success to date?
In architecture I have been blessed with opportunities to design buildings for many great universities—Columbia, Princeton, Duke, Johns Hopkins—but the greatest have been three important buildings for my alma mater, Cornell University. I am a newcomer to photography and, thus far, my greatest success is to begin to understand that my work is good enough to be taken seriously.
6. Who is your favorite designer and/or photographer?
To be honest, I am more than a little bit disenchanted by today’s prevalence of histrionic, a-contextual, “look-at-me” architecture. I love the work of Louis Kahn for its robust clarity, and of Jim Stirling for its shrewd iconoclasm; from earlier times, it’s Palladio, HH Richardson, and the mad anonymous visionaries who crafted the amazingly deceptive facades of Venice. My photographic heroes are Aaron Siskind, Paul Strand, and Minor White.
7. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I don’t really know. At my age (which is somewhat advanced but not to be disclosed) there is a lifetime of sources—from the forces of nature; the myriad things I have seen, learned, and taught; a reservoir of personal resources; and, I hope, a gift for inventing something out of the ordinary.
8. What advice/tips would you give to aspiring designers?
Concentrate on essences and fundamentals over trappings and what is chic and fashionable! Learn to build! Much of what is important is embedded in or facilitated by technology and a knowledge of it. Learn history. Learn and work in the best possible places and learn from the best. Mediocrity does not breed excellence!
The Gallery is in FXFOWLE's office, located on the 11th floor at 22 West 19 Street, and is open Monday-Friday from 9AM to 530PM. More information is available at www.chimacoff.com