For ‘Täuschung und Leere’ (Illusion and Emptiness), architectural photographer Margherita Spiluttini selected photos from her archives that depict buildings and spaces that no longer exist – or, at least, no longer exist in the form in which they were originally documented. The artist set the photographs against trompe l’oeil wallpapers of Vienna’s Generali Foundation, itself destined to disappear when its collection moves to the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg next year – a gesture which managed to nudge the show into an uncertain, unbuilt space. The wallpaper employed a central, receding perspective, whereby the floors and ceilings of the Generali Foundation aligned with those of the gallery, lending the exhibition an expansive, weightless feeling. The gallery’s second space, meanwhile, included Spiluttini’s images of early baroque Austrian architecture, such as Andrea Pozzo’s astonishing and still implausible 18th-century Scheinkuppel (fake dome) in the church of Sant’Ignazio, Rome – a trompe-l’oeil fresco painted to make the flat ceiling look convincingly spherical. It would seem that our penchant for embracing architectural illusion, coupled with our eagerness to be taken in, hasn’t lessened over the centuries.
Spiluttini’s photographs, taken between 1979 and 2008, were originally commissioned by the buildings’ architects themselves, mostly for the purposes of publication. But the initial impetus for the photographs had vanished in this context. In fact, the artist’s approach now seems rather prescient: if you never saw Karl Schwanzer’s home, Adolf Loos’s Anglo-Österreichische Bank, or Margerete Schütte-Lihotzky’s apartment in their original form, then these images are your only chance to do so. Spiluttini’s imagery focuses on the unseen. Rather than idealizing the buildings, her photographs
capture the material traces of their use, the small details that beckon us to conjure the lives within. And although few of her images feature people, the spaces feel alive with presence. They are occupied and intimate. Here, they tell of death, luck, chance and infidelity. These buildings are gone because someone has died, because they became victims of property speculation, because of fire, or because they had to be modernized.
Taken together, the photographs make a sociological comment on how we justify the life cycle of a building today, from construction and use, to demolition or preservation. What happens with the passing of time, and what is it that makes certain pieces worth preserving for our cultural heritage, while others go the way of the wrecking ball? Spiluttini’s even-handed treatment of the spaces doesn’t offer any answers but, in the cases of both Schwanzer’s 21er Haus (renovated beyond recognition, the show seems to imply) and the Generali Foundation, completed less than two decades ago, time and history play arbitrary, ambiguous roles. Rem Koolhaas’s observation, first made in the paper ‘Preservation is Overtaking Us’ (2004), that preservation cycles are becoming shorter and shorter comes to mind. Preservation is no longer limited to the ancient and extraordinary, but increasingly focused on the contemporary and ordinary. Consequently, both the act of building and the act of preservation, as Koolhaas puts it, add to the mountain of built mediocrity that threaten our surroundings.
If, as the Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri asserted, the task of architectural photography is to justify the building, then Spiluttini’s photographs must perform a double legitimization. First, to authenticate the construction and, second, to justify its eventual destruction. It seems almost unfair to ask so much from an image, especially since Spiluttini’s approach is to invite one to look slowly and carefully, time and again, rather than appraise.