Architectural photography

Subject: Art
Type: Informative Essay
Pages: 20
Word count: 5030
Topics: ArchitectureDesignDocumentaryFilm AnalysisGeography
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Summary

Architecture has been a subject of photography ever since the first modern picture was taken. The popularity of this depiction persisted through the 19th and 20th century and continues to develop in the 21st century. While architectural photography may have begun as a documentation of structural form, the paper demonstrates its evolution towards more aesthetic components. Before the advent of photography, the depiction of structural forms in 2D took the form of paintings, such as the work of Michelangelo. However, photographs have a degree of clarity that enables noting of features that are otherwise absent to the naked eye. An interplay of elements emerges in the connection between light and shadow, and the differences in this interaction while capturing elements of the exterior and interior forms. The distribution of light and shadows determines the perceptions of texture and structure. It is also the achievement of appropriate balance between these elements that enables the creation of atmosphere and moods as the photographer intends. Further, it becomes evident that the photographer relies on the advancement of technology to reduce the manual manipulation of the photography process in achieving desired shots. As such, with modern software, most of the balance is achieved in post processing, against during the actual photography. Depending on the purpose of the architectural photograph, the intensity of aesthetics and technical alteration will differ, as demonstrated by various architectural photographers. The commercial productions may have more artistic enhancement, as they aim to cover or emphasize imperfections, than the documentation photographs. Even as technology in architecture enables rendering, it is unlikely the results can rival those of the photograph. The essence of the architectural photograph appears to derive from the fact that the hint of surrealism that accompanies the image promises to deliver the intended mood and emotion, exactly in the form that the photographer intends.

Introduction

Photographers over the last few centuries have shared the experiences of the architect, forming a symbiotic relationship between the two forms of art. The first permanent photograph, taken in 1826 by Nicephore Niepce, was an architectural photograph depicting a view of buildings (Schulz, 2012). The form of photography has persisted in popularity over the years, with the still form making it popular for depiction both by the professional and the beginner. Initially, photography may have solely been an attempt to document and keep memories even in the architectural image. In the post-modern context, both architecture and the architectural image must work across the boundaries of the real and the seemingly surreal (Natalie, 2012). While architecture may rely on the solidity of its materials to create perception, the image of architecture is dependent on the intentions of the photographer. The combination of natural and ambient light, both in the architecture and the image of architecture, therefore, becomes a crucial feature in the degree of perfection desired (Natalie, 2012). Advances in photography and technology ensure this aim is met as closely as possible. Thus, the current trends and state of architectural photography induces the question, what is the intention of the photographer in their display of architecture? Beyond displaying and documenting its form, does the photographer pursue any immaterial features? Can architecture be used to evoke certain feelings, or act as a frame for events? This paper intends to explore these possibilities, exploring various contexts of architectural photography, and the interaction between shadow and light towards accomplishing the intentions.

History of Architectural Photography

Before the advent of photography, the two-dimensional depiction of architecture was made by bold painters like Michelangelo and Raphael (Schulz, 2012). For instance, Raphael’s painting, The School of Athens, incorporates both the people and the interior of the school. The painting includes intricate details such as the carvings that are inside the structure, the walls and windows, as well as the arcs that define the form of architecture. Nevertheless, these early forms of pictorial representation failed to account for the differences that can be shown in modern photography, such as variations in lighting and the place of shadows (Light Planners Association Inc, 2000).

The first photograph, coincidentally, was an architectural photograph. Niepce took a photograph from his window in 1826, making this the oldest surviving permanent photo (Schulz, 2012). By 1841, photographs of buildings were circulating in an album in Paris, with the field gaining popularity by the end of the 19th century (Schulz, 2012). Notably, the intention of this early photography was the transfer of ideas from foreign cultures, making the main intent documentation and reproduction. The photographs existed in a cumbersome form, which was mostly due to their static and conservative elements. The early twentieth century saw an evolution of the camera, and of photography, resulting in changes in the architectural views. Between the wars, American professional photographers often exercised their skills solely on practical items such as factories and silos (Harris, 2002). However, post the Second World War, small cameras encouraged spontaneous photography among non-professionals (Schulz, 2012). The advancement is regarded as the basis for modern photojournalism, making the main purpose of the art documentation and enabling press and advertisement.

In the 1950s, artistic architectural photography gained some popularity, with major photographers like Bernd Becher documenting the decay of buildings using this approach (Schulz, 2012). Regardless of the form of architecture, photography between the 1950s and 1970s escalated the intensity of interest in this art form. By the end of the century, the prices of architectural photography collections had reached prices unimagined (Natalie, 2012). By the beginning of the 21st century, and the advances in digital technology, architectural photography had undergone changes in the focus of intent and the range of methods used in its execution.

The Traditional Role of Architectural Photography

Architectural photography, in the traditional context, majorly served a documentation purpose. The 19th century saw buildings become popular object of photography as they displayed cultural significance and the evolution of societies (Natalie, 2012). Unlike other forms of art, architecture is invariably only experienced through sight. Seeing the object physically, or as depicted in a picture, satisfies the same desire to behold the item, or at least attempt to accomplish the need (Nemeskeri, 2016). Notably, by the end of the 19th century pictorial depiction of architecture dwelt solely on having the pictures travel as far across the world as could be accomplished (Natalie, 2012). In this regard, the depiction of form remained central to the intent of the photographer, against any other social or visual outcomes that could be pursued.

Initially, architectural photography appears to focus on the depiction of architectural design and form. The focus is understandable, considering the role that the evolution of architecture has played in the progressive historical distribution of power (Sowers, 2000). As such, traditional photographers will often be seen functioning in a more documentary than artistic capacity, capturing the passage of time and the changes that accompany the forms. For these forms of depiction, it is likely that they will accompany explanations and details regarding the design of the buildings in question (Schulz, 2012). The plans of such buildings may also be included, allowing an objective comparison of the photograph with the finer architectural details of design.

Architectural photography in its traditional role, therefore, focuses on the depiction of form for primarily documentary services. The role eliminates the need for any artistic manipulation, objectively capturing the building or part of it in the intended and original manner. Nevertheless, the advancement of time has ensured the evolution of photography, enabling a more significant interplay between architecture and photography as art.

Forms of Architectural Photography

Architectural photography has a tendency toward representation through its subject matter. The built environment is always a ready exhibition for the judgment of the relationship we have with the world, representing the desires held by majority of the people and their idealized lives (Nemeskeri, 2016). Per this form of representation, the built environment is intended for human consumption (Nemeskeri, 2016). Nevertheless, depending on the intent of the photographer, the message communicated in the final image may conflict with the actual message given in the original architecture (Sowers, 2000). The extent of conflict will often depend on the form of architectural photography depicted, and quite often, the desired effects.

Documentary photography limits its communication to facts, effectively managing to walk the line between visual perception in a neutral sense or value representation (Schulz, 2012). For this reason, the photography will often be present in magazines or brochures, accompanied by details of design and descriptions. The photography intends to depict the form in its most authentic state, making the built form the centre of importance and not the photo itself (Harris, 2002). The precision and accuracy that is present in documentary photography is likely to lack in postcard photos. The latter is only proof of presence, and is rarely useful for any commercial or formal purpose. As such, postcard architectural photography will often involve oversaturated features and minimal regard for the technical aspects of the same (Schulz, 2012). A similar situation is present in vacation architectural photography, and the elements of built form are neither critical nor worth the image. The focus of such pictorial representation will often be the location, minimizing the value accorded to the actual architectural forms (Schulz, 2012).

Architecture presents seductive elements that contribute its being integrated into the advertising process. Advertising architectural photography involves the incorporation of certain elements of the modern built form into adverts, allowing the enhancement of the perceived product value (Harris, 2002). Schultz (2012) elaborates that modern architecture represents high quality of life and glamour, ultimately enabling the final advert representation to challenge preconceptions and induce appreciation. Artistic architectural photography, on the other hand, will often be on display in galleries as a piece alongside other visual forms. Notably, this form of photography diminishes the value of the architecture, often focusing more on the intent to convey certain themes (Schulz, 2012). The result is that the message of the photographer supersedes the message of the architect, possible alienating the original message of the built form in the process. In this regard, the various forms of architectural photography achieve different intentions both as art and outcomes of practicality.  The intention of the photographer influences conversely their choice of equipment and the application of technique in their expression of architectural elements.

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Techniques of Architectural Photography

Architectural photography employs various techniques, enabling purely functional reproduction to deliberately artistic abstraction. Schultz (2012) persists that it is impossible to obtain a completely authentic architectural photo, as there is always an element of abstraction even if it prompted by the view being two-dimensional. The perception of a building in a photograph differs from its real perception. Architect Von Gerkan has argued against the possibility of any architectural image being reality, emphasizing that the presentation from the lens is always an illusion (Schulz, 2012). While majority photographers may strive to maintain high levels of accuracy, an amount of technical manipulation may be required to highlight features. Changes to architecture like decay may not be easily visible under normal lighting conditions (Light Planners Association Inc, 2000). However, it is the extent and type of technique that differentiates the image from being a functional representation to a piece of art.

The initial forms of architectural photography used camera positioning to ensure the authenticity of the image. Sowers (2010) elaborates the importance of perspective while reviewing earlier forms of two-dimensional depiction of architecture, noting the importance of relational space and architectural space in such representation. Before the advent of the digital camera, the view camera enabled positioning of the focal plane perpendicular to the ground to enabled the achievement of a controlled perspective (Sowers, 2000). The digital single lens flex camera overcomes this requirement, enabling control on the depth of field and the lenses without necessarily demanding ground placement (Natalie, 2012). The camera has the capability to reproduce up to 12 contrast stops, enabling its covering the elements of analogue film. RAW processing also enables overcoming over-exposure and reduction of sensitivity to high contrast (Sowers, 2000).

The choice techniques during photography will often heavily rely on elements of light and shadows, determining saturation and contrast in the image. However, further changes are possible with processing software, allowing more artistic appearances of architectural elements. Shultz (2012) emphasizes that the influence of a built form photo using techniques such as omissions and exaggerations to the point of decoupling the visual essence of the building from that of the photo transforms the image into an artistic form. In exploring these features of technique, Kelley (2013) explores the features of Shulman’s Kauffman House with respect to the manipulation of light. The exposition reveals three separate exposures; the sky getting fast shutter speed, the interior lighting receiving slower speed, and the interior lighting being the slowest (See Appendix 1). The placement of objects and individuals on the photo is also critical as it assists in the process of controlling light. In the post-modern context, the clarity of these features could be achieved in the processing using specific software as photoshop (Kelley, 2013). Nevertheless, it serves as evidence of long standing techniques to achieve clarity in architectural photography against an emphasis on authenticity.

Light and Shadow in Architecture and the Architectural Image

Schielke (2013) explores the concept of light and shadow in the design of architecture, and the interplay between these aspects in defining architectural presence. Kahn’s philosophy accords both shadow and light equal importance, elaborating light as the maker of material and the material serving to cast shadow (Schielke, 2013). The shadow is given the importance of not only invoking fear, but also presenting mystery and the presence of danger when combined with appropriate quantities light (Lobell, 2008).  As such, many built structures that recognize the importance of the shadow as rivalling that of the light will often have a build that creates shadows against protecting users from the light. This relationship between the light and the shadow is perceived as a traditional architectural element, which was especially emphasized in the Christianity era (Lighting Planners Associates, 2011). The correct interaction is essential in creating a mood, enabling the same building the ability to create different atmospheres at given times of the day depending on exposure to natural and artificial light.

The interaction of the light and shadows differentiates the approaches to internal and external architectural photography. Often, the choice techniques will differ, as will the equipment required for the acquisition of quality architectural images. For external architectural photography, it is usually vital to include the landscape as part of the display (Harris, 2002). Being outside, the external photography often relies on natural daylight or moonlight. However, the photography may occasionally rely on lighting from street lamps or the interior of the building, implying it can take place in all situations except in complete darkness (Schulz, 2012). Interior architectural photography depicts more lighting constraints than in the exterior. Here, ambient light from outside may be applied or the same from the interior. It is also possible to use natural daylight, especially where there are transparent materials dominantly used in the architecture (Natalie, 2012). However, since the architecture is immobile, the architectural images can always be processed and illuminated later, enabling a balanced scheme without the assistance of photographing adjustments (Schielke, 2013).

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Achieving the architectural image requires intensive perceptions of both the natural and artificial light. Exterior photographers especially require the ability to not only capture in extremely good weather, but also catch the right angle of the sun. the work of the sun is to ensure that the elevated shot captures both the texture of the architecture, the richness of colour used in the built form, and the perspective created by the interaction of light and shadow on the building’s exterior (Harris, 2002). Kahn’s philosophy insists that the outside is meant for the sun, while only the inside should be for people to work and live in (Schielke, 2013). It is imperative, therefore, that the natural light can emphasize this difference when captured in an image. Harris (2002) notes that straight-on elevation shots are best accomplished when the angle of the sun is at 45o to the elevation pane, as it ensures that strong relief features on the surface appear as shadows in the image. The approach minimizes the need for additional processing for images that have been captured in the natural light. However, this angle is only suitable for the creation of effects such as modelling structure and texture. For photography that seeks to depict form, a 90o angle between the lens and the sun will result in better depiction of the form, and consequently create a three-dimensional quality (Harris, 2002).

Interiors will often have a combination of light sources available that are visible to the naked eye. The sources may include artificial light in the interior, or from the exterior, and natural light from outside. However, while the variation between the shadow and the light may be discernible to the eye, it is often too detailed to capture adequately in a photograph (Sowers, 2000). It is the interplay between the elements that determines the mood of the interior, and thus, losing the detail would eliminate the communication in the image. Shadow in silent spaces acts as a form giver (Lobell, 2008). Therefore, the creation of adequate shadow and light contrasts in interior photography requires the use of fill-in lighting. The correct application of fill in lighting should create the illusion of there having not been any additional photographic elements, with the transition in contrast being naturally gradual (Harris, 2002). While the fill in lighting is diffuse in nature, it may remove the actual form depending on the point and angle of application (Harris, 2002). Notably, however, the application may be used for artistic effect, or where emphasis on shadow may create the desired feelings in the intended audience.

Shots of the interior have an element of complexity due to the presence of furnishings or the interior décor (Schulz, 2012). Rarely will the photographer have the chance to take shots in an unfurnished interior, resulting in the fixings having greater significance than the overall structure of the building. As such, interior architectural images must balance the ambience such that they demonstrate successful interplay between interior design and the overall architecture (Light Planners Association Inc, 2000). People will readily be attracted to the components of décor, implying that any object that fails to enhance the appeal of the image should be removed from the shot (Harris, 2002). Feeling is essential in the interior images, less than it is for exterior shots, implying more for the need to balance the degrees of shadow and light to convey the desired atmosphere. Even more critically, the photographer has a more limited standpoint, being in the same space they are meant to capture (Schulz, 2012). Depending on the size of the room, the position of the photographer will enable the determination of depth and parallel appearance that the image will project of the room.

Light and shadow, therefore, are expected to play similar roles both in the architecture and the architectural image. Light has transcended functionality, and its interaction with shadow is now used for the creation of atmosphere (Harris, 2002). In the same manner, the image of the architectural form is expected to communicate the atmosphere, especially where the photography targets functional documentation or advertisement. The balance between the elements can also be adjusted to change the communication, such as in the creation of art with dramatic effects. Such change is easier while photographing architecture as it does not move, as compared to the same changes in filming moving objects or people. Therefore, sophisticated equipment may be minimal while accomplishing this form of photography as opposed to, say, a photoshoot of people or the creation of film (Schaefer & Salvato, 2009).

The Architectural Photographer

Architectural photographers will often have different areas of focus, approaches, and preferences regarding architectural forms. While some photographers have fantastical tendencies, others have maintained strong attention to the actual detail and the accurate depiction of the built form as it is. Reviewing a few of these photographers may help elaborate what lies in the process of architectural photography, other than simply depicting the built form.

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Dennis Gilbert

Gilbert is a renowned British photographer; whose focus is on the capture of architecture in its real and most accurate form. For Gilbert, the photography encompasses viewing the elements from the exterior and the interior. Gilbert demonstrates maximum utilization of choice materials and light availability especially while capturing interiors. Maximizing on buildings with glass interiors, the images captured by this photographer since the 1980s enable encompassing the movement that is impossible to include in otherwise opaque interior walls (Cohn, 2013). Further, the images also emphasize the use of the glass to control light and shadow in the interior of the building. Consequently, the ability of this photographer to capture the exact mood that building interiors depict has been essential in the creation of displays of commercial architecture. His work was part of the 2010 display of the architecture that was Thomas Heatherwick’s UK pavilion (See Appendix 2).

Marten Elder

Elder is based in Los Angeles, and his photography takes a more artistic than functional component. The photographer captures the architecture of the city, but uses techniques in processing and editing to dismantle the same and display it in a more visual manner (See Appendix 3). His work is intentionally designed to provoke thought, against displaying the architecture for view by the audience (Cohn, 2013). He idealizes the concept of a different cityscape from the current design, encouraging reconsideration in the mind of the viewer regarding what the city would be against its current form. As such, the focus of the images is not the architecture, but on the message he wishes to convey after the reconstruction.

Cyprien Gaillard

While the focus on majority architectural photographers may be on sensationalism, Gaillard’s output may be crudely termed as unsensational (Cohn, 2013). The photographer diversifies in form, expanding the traditional definition of items that deserve architectural appreciation. His work defies the perception of architecture outliving mankind and being treated in more of a monumental manner. On the contrary, Gaillard focuses on figures on the brink of decay or collapse, and not old buildings but the product of contemporary architecture (See Appendix 4). The built forms that are part of his photography collection are often in fragments or intentionally collapsed, being displayed per his perceptual preferences. Gaillard challenges the lover of architecture and their perceptions of forms that are worth the photography. His expanse of complete buildings, demolished ones, and falling forms demands that the viewer question their individual limits or architectural worth.

David Leventi

This architectural photographer manages to combine the presence, or rather, absence of occupants in his photography to create similarities of atmosphere in forms of immense differences. Leventi focuses on expansive structural forms, with some of his major works including opera houses and prisons. While the aura of the former would be one of leisure, the angles chosen by Leventi abscond these qualities and instead highlight its loneliness and some element of eeriness (Cohn, 2013). The loneliness is already clear in the empty prison images, which becomes complimented by the subversion of the appearance of the atmosphere of the opera. As such, Leventi’s photography is focused not on defining the actual nature of the forms, but on drawing out unidentified components that would otherwise be invisible to the observer of the architecture (Cohn, 2013).

Alternative Application of Architectural Photography

Architectural photos will typically show the appearance and stature of a built form, detailing components that may often be missed to the naked eye. It is important to consider that, as photography continues evolving, so does the technology in architecture. Currently, models for the generation of 3D designs of architectural forms exist, allowing rendering of designs before the beginning of the actual building (Natalie, 2012). Consequently, the architect can present to the client the intended form of the building, eliminating the possible role of his existing portfolio. Dating back to the first photographs of architectural forms, the images have been used for deeper analysis of the structures and the identification of possible faults. In this regard, contemporary photography is applied for different purposes and approaches, enabling the pursuit of commercial, documentation, and emphasis roles for this area.

While architectural photographers may emphasize the design and structure of built forms, they also tend to explore spontaneous interactions between the structures and the surroundings. Quite often, the buildings will rely on the landscape to create meaning, especially for exterior shots, as opposed to existing in isolation as could be accomplished in an interior image (Harris, 2002). Regardless, the architectural photograph will always be tinged with a hint of surrealistic form that is impossible to reproduce in paint or a rendered design of the same (Natalie, 2012).

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The commercial perspective of architectural photography must be the most expansive application of the art. Unlike paintings, pictures can be so perfect as to enable the identification of imperfections on the original structure that would otherwise be imperceptible. The use of architectural images for commercial pursuits implies that architects can show their portfolio of buildings to prospective clients (Schaefer & Salvato, 2009). In the same manner, the photographer can use the images as a form of art for their individual displays. Inevitably, architectural photography with commercial intent implies the need to exhibit the structures in their best form. The photographer is bound to choose the correct angles for the depiction of patterns, as well as the correct form of lighting and shadows to create the required mood (Harris, 2002). The implication is that the images meant for commercial purposes will often have large elements of technical manipulation, limiting the degree of authenticity but increasing the visual effect of individual pieces.

Photographs in architecture have served the documentation purpose for many years dating back to the beginning of photography. As such, these images may be taken exclusively for historical records and comparison. Architectural photographs bear historical essence due to their ability to manifest societal trends and the demonstration of cultural significance (Natalie, 2012). For instance, totalitarian leaders over time have made use of buildings to illustrate their dominance and power over other nations (Natalie, 2012). Temples in the Roman context may have been captured using paintings, but the photos of the Fascist structures of Italy are more imposing and real in comparison (Sowers, 2000). Over time, capturing practical elements such as factories and silos during the industrial revolution, broken farmhouses during the war, and current depictions of museums eccentricates the evolution of the world to date. While these examples focus on different forms at various historical moments, the same can be executed for the same building beginning its construction to the point of decay. Consequently, architectural photography of this form requires more accuracy than the use of aesthetics. Its appeal to the viewer is not in the beauty, or capturing the mood, but the depiction of the form in the way it existed. Any application of enhancement or minimization will distort the intent, and possibly diminish the ability for comparison in the future.

Like all forms of photography, architectural photography bears the capacity to distort the actual form of structures and either enhance or reduce elements (Harris, 2002). For instance, a photographer may exaggerate the visibility of a crack on the side of a structure or eliminate its appearing on the image. Once again, the intent of the photographer determines the way they approach the photo and its eventual processing. It is highly improbable that the commercial photographer, with the intent of advertising the structure, will highlight the fault in the structures (Kelley, 2013). However, if they intend to display the images as art, the exaggeration of faults may be the aesthetic component. The environmental components may also influence the choice of photography. Impressionistic or romantic photography forms usually depict the elements of architecture that would usually be imperceptible to the normal eye (Harris, 2002). Several publications will often fail to include the built form as the key elements of the photography, shoving them into the periphery in a bid to create better imagery and form based on the combination of light and shadows (Harris, 2002). These forms will often be using photography to explore the interaction of the viewer with form and space, and demand conscious perception of the subjective and objective elements of architecture.

Conclusion

Architectural photography, therefore, is more than the expression of built form presented in glossy shots. It is commonly accepted that the photography continues presenting, and somewhat supressing, architecture to a 2D format, enabling visual delight in its presentation to viewers. However, understanding the elements that underlie the architectural image, the technique in its production, and the purpose for which it is created is integral to fully perceiving its essence. Early forms of photography in architecture may have simply served to present the form, documenting the structures and enabling their distribution beyond geographical boundaries. However, with the evolution of photography and the continued availability of technology, the images have gained artistic components. As such, every image takes a position in the balance between functional and aesthetic components. Architectural filming of the exterior and the interior imposes different demands on the need to balance light and shadows. However, an understanding of the natural and artificial light components directs the approaches of the photographer. The exterior shots may rely on the availability and position of the sun, or moon, as well as the interplay with artificial lighting. The same matters for interior shots, only this time with more consideration for lights and deep shadows and the interior décor. The manipulation of light and shadow forms works to create atmosphere and moods as intended. The work of various architectural photographers illustrates the difference in the purpose for which architectural photography may be pursued. Commercial shots are likely to be less accurate, and more aesthetic, while documentary shots have more elements of reality. Regardless, the architectural photograph will always bear an element of surrealism and imperfection, which goes a long way in the design and creation of desired moods in the eventual viewer.

Appendices

Appendix 1: Kauffman House- by Shulman

Kauffman House by Shulman

Appendix 2: Thomas Heatherwick’s UK Pavilion – by Dennis Gilbert

Thomas Heatherwick’s UK Pavilion by Dennis Gilbert

Appendix 3: Los Angeles- by Martin Elder

Los Angeles by Martin Elder

Appendix 4: Collapse and Decay- Cyprien Gaillard

Collapse and Decay by Cyprien Gaillard

Did you like this sample?
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    Harris, M., 2002. Professional Architectural Photography. 1st ed. New York: Taylor & Francis.
  2. Kelley, M., 2013. The Incredible History And Craftsmanship Behind Architecture’s Most Famous Photographs. [Online]
  3. Light Planners Association Inc, 2000. Designing with Light and Shadow. 1st ed. HOng Kong: Images Publishing Group.
  4. Lobell, J., 2008. Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn. 1st ed. Boston: Shambhala.
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