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How to breathe real life into buildings

As a successful architect Brian Lewis has an extra insight into the art of photographing buildings, and his latest major project has seen him focus on a stunning selection of contemporary Caribbean houses. Brian_Lewis_10As an architect of over forty years standing Brian Lewis eats, sleeps and breathes design. He takes enormous pleasure from encountering an expertly conceived building, whether or not it’s one that he’s happened to have worked on. His eye for detail is impeccable, and he’ll note how natural light changes the perception of a structure throughout the day, and appreciate the way that a building has been designed to relate to the landscape around it.

While these attributes are a crucial part of Brian’s architectural skills they also ensure that he has a particular eye and way of looking at a structure that gives him a distinct advantage when it comes to photography. It’s the reason why he’s become as highly regarded for his skills behind the camera as he is for his design expertise.


And it’s why his latest epic project, a book on contemporary Caribbean architecture, is already being hailed as an essential guide to the best design practice in the region.

“My interest in photography came even before my studies as an architect,” says Brian. “I always loved cameras and making images: as my architectural career developed it became a natural expression that helped me present our firm’s work professionally. For buildings to look their best it’s essential that they’re photographed in the right way and with understanding. This can then lead on to further lucrative architectural commissions.”

Brian’s love of photography, and his appreciation of architecture throughout the Caribbean, led to his latest project, a massive and richly illustrated book entitled Contemporary Caribbean Architecture. A limited edition costing $100 (a price that was only achieved through it being subsidised through sponsorship) sold out within three weeks of its publication date – snapped up by a learned audience that comprised architects, students, photographers, architectural enthusiasts, existing and prospective clients, building owners and developers.

Brian_Lewis_1“The book was intended to establish a reference point for contemporary architecture within the Caribbean,” says Brian. “Because the general public is very familiar with traditional colonial architecture in this region, as an architect I felt that there was a need for an alternative reference point that would show that contemporary architecture can also be beautiful.”

Along with the ‘drop-dead gorgeous’ individually styled cliff top villas that are so associated with this region, Brian also wanted to feature a full range of building types and end uses, and so he made sure that such constructions as hotels, offices, a library, apartments and a shopping mall were all included in the mix as well. Ultimately the project grew into a remarkable documentary of the key contemporary architecture of an entire region at a certain point in time, something that’s of crucial and continuing interest to all of those that care about great design.

“It all began with me contacting the various Institutes of Architects in each Caribbean island,” says Brian, “and asking them to circulate a flier I produced that invited their member architects to submit images of buildings they felt would be suitable. From these I selected some 50 projects from various islands in the Caribbean although, for reasons of logistics, it was not possible to include Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the Dutch islands and some other Caribbean islands. Once I’d made my choices I prepared agreements for the architects and their clients to sign and I then planned how and when to go about the photography.

Brian_Lewis_2“A book of this nature requires a different approach from a typical architectural photographic assignment. Firstly, other than reviewing the occasional drawing I might have received from the architect in advance, there was little opportunity to scout projects and sites beforehand. Secondly, and more importantly, the time available to take photographs on site was limited, because I was very much doing this in my own time and I had a lot of places to get to.

“There are section in the book covering the Windward Islands, the Leeward Islands and the Greater Antilles. To move around the islands, I got together with some friends and we travelled by boat. It was a bit like a military operation that had to take into account the variables of weather, tides and currents, but overall it was an exciting adventure and we had lots of fun in between the photography. The final year involved me looking for sponsorship, printing the book and preparing the exhibition that accompanied the launch.”

Brian_Lewis_6‘Norman Parkinson borrowed my Hasselblad – and more than once’ From his earliest days as a photographer Brian chose to work with a Hasselblad, and his bond with the camera grew following early encounters with photographic legend Norman Parkinson. “He was a very unusual person with a particular sense of humour, style and quality,” he recalls.

While never formally trained, Brian acquired his photographic skills through experience, by acquiring a comprehensive library on architectural photography and by attending numerous architectural photography workshops over the years. His current camera of choice is a Hasselblad H4D-50, which is coupled with 24mm, 28mm, 100mm, 210mm and 50-110mm zoom lenses, plus the HST 1.5 tilt & shift adaptor, a crucial accessory for architectural photographers looking to avoid converging verticals.

“I would say the 28mm is the lens I use most of the time,” he says. “I also have both tungsten and flash systems, which on the Caribbean project were sometimes necessary to use to lower the contrast for interior scenes when conditions were really bright, but most of the time the dynamic range of the Hasselblad was wide enough to cope.”

Brian_Lewis_7Brian’s approach to an architectural shoot reflects his respect for the concept for the building, and it generally begins with a conversation with the architect to get a feel for the design intent behind it. Then he walks around the building and through the spaces to establish his own thoughts, making note of the compositions and lighting that capture the building’s form and intent. All the while, however, there’s the time pressure to consider, and the need to work around the vagaries of the weather.

“With less than a handful of exceptions, the time allocated for each of the buildings within the Caribbean project was less than a day,” says Brian, “and I would often start after nine in the morning and finish just after sunset. It was critical for me to work quickly and smartly so, for example, I would move indoors to focus on interiors around midday when the sun was at its height or there was a higher chance of tropical showers.

“In the Caribbean it’s necessary to start photographing the east facades before sun shifts overhead and to the west. I would then finish up with exteriors and some dusk images: when you’re photographing contemporary architecture shots taken at this time of day can capture a happy blend of the exterior and interior because of the extensive use of glass.” As he moved around the exteriors of buildings and through their interiors Brian regularly came across unusual views of details, and he would make a point of interrupting his shooting plan to capture them. Often these would convey the essence of the design intent as well, if not better, than the wider overall views, and they were crucial to the overall coverage.

Brian_Lewis_3“My aim throughout the Caribbean project was to capture images that depicted the design intent of the architects,” says Brian, “using composition, lighting and lots of instinct. My hope is that the book will provide a unique opportunity for architectural enthusiasts to view and study a wide range of contemporary architecture that they might never have the opportunity to visit in person, and that it will ultimately provide a new reference point for architects, enthusiasts and those considering building in the Caribbean.”

Brian has now moved on to his next project, another book that will this time focus on the historic buildings of Port of Spain, the capital city of Trinidad and Tobago before some of these important pieces of architectural heritage are lost forever. As always he’ll be travelling there with his trusty Hasselblad kit and, no doubt, he’ll emerge with another classic set of pictures that will reflect his impeccable understanding of architectural style.

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