Domus Photo-essays are a platform for exploring the profuse visualization of the built environment today. More than just a gallery of contemporary architectural photography, this series seeks to address key themes of global urbanity, as well as the radically shifting practices and styles in contemporary imaging.
To launch this series, Domus talked to Chicago photographer Brad Temkin, whose series of urban rooftop gardens on large buildings not only documents an important movement in contemporary urban design, but also depicts new zones where architecture meets landscape at unexpected altitudes.
Alan Rapp: How did you first find out about the rooftop movement? What led you to create a body of work around it?
Brad Temkin: Two years ago, I heard this piece on NPR about Chicago's green initiative on rooftops and I thought, This is perfect. I'm always interested in people's stuff, and I had already been doing a project on private gardens [ Private Places].
I had a show on the gardens work with the city [of Chicago], so I asked them if I could get access to some of these roofs. I sent emails to curators and other connected people but a lot of people didn't know of any. [former head of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago] David Travis told me, "15 years ago people would say, Things can grow in tar?" Eventually the city got me access to the right people at these buildings. Then I also called and wrote my own letters to introduce myself to the owners and property managers. With permission I first went to the Chicago Cultural Center. I got up there and was so overwhelmed. Up there you don't want to make just "architectural pictures"—this isn't House & Garden or Architectural Digest.
From there I got access to City Hall. And from there access really started to open up. I also talked to [New York photography gallerist] Tom Gitterman and asked him for references, and he introduced me to [former House & Garden editor] Charlotte Frieze, who in turn referred me to people like Diana Balmori. I started going to landscape architects as well. What I found out is that in Chicago, a ton of people are participating. Every new fire and police station has a green roof. Mayor Daley was a big backer of the initiative. I started photographing and realized that there is so much to do here.
But it's taken a long time. Finding these people was pretty difficult. They have to buy into you, and it's tough to get access. A lot of it is the liability issue. Even people who make you sign a hold-harmless clause, once you get up there they say, Don't jump.
How does this body of work relate to your other projects, like the domestic gardens in Private Places, or even the ambiguous objects in Relics?
First of all, I have always believed what we leave behind defines who we are. My view of the world is as a good place, and depicting the human impact on the environment has always run through my work. But I've always looked at us, people, as kind of dumb—but I love it, it's one of the most redeeming factors about us. Most of us, we don't try to hurt ourselves or other people on purpose. But we are just not aware of what we do, but in spite of ourselves we do smart things.
Private Places is about how we adorn out private environment and bringing nature to where we live. The work is about intimate spaces, and I try to bring the viewer into that spot. Relics is about objects that fall out of use, but then are adapted for some other purpose, like walls for livestock, or windbreaks, or mailboxes. Then they look like sculptures. I almost see them as land art, if we take them out of context and put them in a new context they become quite beautiful and monumental.
All that is in a sense about human folly. But the rooftops work is about how we can try to fix all that. Bringing nature back into the environment.
Only a few people are allowed to enjoy this nature on top of buildings, these gardens and vistas. But they are designed specifically to give back to the environment. It creates insulation and water retention systems for the buildings, preventing sewage run-off problems. And now there's less maintenance to the roofs themselves. You can keep a pan roof system up for 50 years as opposed to 20 years.
It's not by accident. The Vikings did it in Iceland—they cut into mountains and solved heat and cold problems. We're doing it more technologically. These places are like small miniature landscapes. When you are on the roofs you see a vista of cityscapes, skylines that are really beautiful. It is really exciting to see nature added into the mix. Eventually you are going to see this in all cities. You will be seeing more vertical gardening for food—you're already seeing this. It's all positive.
Were you trained in architectural photography? Do you set out to play with that photographic tradition with these intimate views of urbanity?
I never trained as an architectural photographer. I approach this more as a landscape photographer. Formalism has always been a really big part of my work. The way I solve photographic concerns is by answering formal issues. I always thought that if I were an architect, I would have to consider the context of other buildings around me. And as an artist I try to look at context too—how things line up, how things relate to give an unexpected view of what I am seeing.
I do that with these landscapes, but in this case working with landscape and architecture, I try to integrate the two.
And it's for the good of the world. We all want the same things—a clean place to live for us and our families, nice things to look at. That's one of the reasons that landscape architects are working on these projects.
I try to build all these pictures in the same way. If I move left or right what happens to the whole picture? How do I answer the right side with the left side? I look at the world and I see the geometry in the world—that's one thing Cezanne said about his paintings, that he wanted to reveal the geometry of the world itself. That's my goal in the long run too, and then also to put across values I believe in: the environment, and affirmation that the world is a good place.
Are the motivations of these rooftop gardeners primarily environmental? Are there enough gardens in any urban center that we can yet demonstrate the beneficial climate-offsets and other predicted outcomes?
The answer is yes—they are built for environmental reasons. Tests confirm the benefits, they measure water, insulation, heat and cold on a green roof next to a building with a white roof which acts as control roof. Green roofs keep buildings cooler in the summer and vice versa, as well as preventing needless water runoff.
A lot of firms and agencies are involved in this now. I continually talk to landscape architects like Hoerr Schaudt and Goettsch Partners, who build with green roofs in mind, and in Pittsburgh Eric French.
I called another guy who makes green roofs at Green Grid who introduced me to researchers at the University Of Wisconsin Milwaukee. I talk to companies who are participating, like Best Buy and High Mark.
What challenges do these settings present for making photographs? And what opportunities?
The challenges are getting access and making photos that aren't typical, benign architectural photographs. The opportunities are that I get to show people this wondrous new movement. I always want people to say, Look at that! Can you believe that? There's a joy in showing how I see the world. My motivation is always to make interesting pictures. And in this case also to show how we can do smart things with the environment. We should just open our ears to listen.
Brad Temkin's Rooftop is now on view at the Environmental Law & Policy Center
35 East Wacker Drive, Suite 1600