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„Stealthy Pursuit“ of Buildings. Thaddeus Zupancic on his Photography of Brutalist Architecture in London

On occasion of the exhibition „Elbphilharmonie Revisited“ at Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Anika talked to three photographers, who  are well know for their architecture photography on the photo-based social network Instagram. In our interview they talk about work, Instagram and the architecture that fascinates them. Thaddeus Zupancic is one of the three interviewees. 

Thaddeus Zupancic, @notreallyobsessive on Instagram, is a former broadcaster and journalist. He moved to London in 1991 to join the BBC World Service and then remained. He created his Instagram account in July 2015, a few weeks before the British government decided not to protect the Brutalist housing estate Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar in east London from demolition. This scandalous decision was the reason he started systematically photographing modernist and Brutalist buildings in London, both those deemed safe and those under the threat of demolition or redevelopment. Photos are accompanied by information about buildings (and an occasional barbed comment about the state of modern architecture or society). His feed is now a mixture of high-end classics – such as Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre and Chamberlin, Powell & Bon’s Barbican – and more mundane, but socially important post-war housing estates. He has loved Brutalism since his teenage years, when he first saw the National Theatre. The Barbican followed a year later, when he went to see Michael Gambon as King Lear. “I don’t remember much of the production, but I distinctly remembered the concrete wonderland that was – and is – the Barbican,” he says.

What do you look for when you set out to take photos? Do you for example always have a spot in mind you’d like to photograph?
Yes, definitely. I usually do. For three or four buildings in London these spots are just wishful, because they are completely inaccessible – or in mid-air – and then you have to improvise. But for the rest, yes, I am quite good at getting to spots where I can take a photo from. I’ve been going around those housing estates and other buildings - I call that “stealthy pursuing” – for a very long time, so photographing them now sometimes really feels like taking a photograph of an already existing image in my mind. Not all of them, of course, there are parts of the city I spent decades neglecting or ignoring. For various reasons I have to work fast and as unobtrusively as possible. Plus I only have a small camera, a very useful Sony DSC-HX50. This has both limitations and advantages, of course, especially because I don’t use Photoshop or any Instagram filters. I do adjust or straighten photos and maybe change brightness and contrast, but these, I think, are really photographs of buildings “as found”. As Elain Harwood said, Brutalism demands “rigorous honesty”, so there you have it.

What is important for you when taking a photo of architecture?
I am neither a professional photographer nor an architect, but I am trying to tell a story, both with every photo in itself – whether it’s the whole building or just a detail - and with the narrative composition of the feed. If anything, I would like to think of myself as a documentarian, really. This also means that all contextual information about a building or a group of buildings – the architect, dates of construction, completion and so on – must accompany the photo. Or to put it differently: no information, no photo. Some information is readily available, but quite a lot is not. Admittedly I really don’t mind spending hours in various archives and I guess my profile name is really only semi-ironic… I love research, especially because one thing - or one housing estate - usually leads to the other. This is good also because I am, basically, a completist: I will “stealthily pursue” all buildings designed by a certain architect or an architecture firm I am interested in, at least those in London.

Are there any photographers that inspire you?
Yes, of course, absolutely. Let’s start with Edwin Smith, Lucien Hervé, Wolfgang Sievers and Julius Shulman. And then there are Hélène Binet, Nicolas Grospierre, Simon Phipps, Roberto Conte, Darren Bradley, Simon Kennedy and Daniel Hewitt. And Rut Blees Luxemburg, of course. I also greatly admire Wolfgang Tillmans both as an artist and, nowadays, as a political activist. But I think that the photographer who inspired me most was Axel Hütte. I used his London: Photographien 1982-1984 as a guide around London’s housing estates when I started exploring them in the early 1990s. The clarity, intensity and subdued beauty - both of the estates and Hütte’s work - are mesmerising. I lost my copy of the book somewhere, so if anybody has a spare one, for a reasonable price and not the stupid one on Amazon, please let me know. Thank you.

Who are the 3 people all of us should follow on Instagram?
Top 3 is such a cruel and unusual concept, isn’t it? Still, here they are:

@brutal_architecture on Instagram. Showcasing the beauty, menace and raw power of brutalist architecture around the world. Founder: @thefasthog, hashtag. #brutal_architecture

@brutal_architecture for enthusiasm, information and excitement

Alex Lafourcade on Instagram as @alex.out.of.the.blue.

@alex.out.of.the.blue for flawlessness

@decorhardcore in Instagram: „Hardcore Is Not For Everybody Listing pictures from Ebay, Emotional Furniture, Decor, and More.“

@decorhardcore for exuberance and purpose.
Can I now, please, list another twelve of my favourites?

Next time! Thank you for the conversation! 

[13 March 2016 at 08.09] The Blackwall Tunnel Building, Robin Hood Gardens, by Alison + Peter Smithson for the GLC; designed in 1966-70, built in 1968-72.

Durham Court, South Kilburn Estate, by the Brent Borough Architect’s Department under A.G. Beckett; 1966-68.

Tivoli Gardens and, at the back, Frederick House, Morris Walk Estate, by the LCC Architect’s Departmen; 1963-66.

Teplow, Aylesbury Estate, by Hans Peter „Felix“ Trenton of Southwark’s Department of Architecture and Planning; 1963-77.

Petticoat Tower, Middlesex Street Estate, by the City of London Architect’s Department; 1975.

Edrich House, Studley Estate, by George Finch of the Lambeth Architect’s Department; 1968.


Die deutsche Version des Interviews ist im Blog der Deichtorhallen Hamburg erschienen.
Cover Image: Thaddeus Zupancic, @notreallyobsessive on Instagram.

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