Through Amateur Eyes

Curated by Jeff Stvan

Through Amateur Eyes, curated by Jeff Stvan of UIC, is an exhibition of nearly 200 photographs, which comprised an informal catalog of the Modern architecture of western and northern Europe as witnessed by an anonymous American traveler in 1931. Altogether the collection represents an unofficial record of the Modernist response to the social, economic, and political chaos of the 1920s and early 30s, and it captures the essence of the prewar avant-garde.

In the spring of 1988 a small green metal box was uncovered at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Acquired years before, the box had languished in storage until its accidental discovery by a staff member. Contained within this box were over 950 architectural snapshots – as well as nearly 150 postcards – the majority of which were taken in towns and cities across western and northern Europe in 1931 by an unidentified American traveler. Perhaps an architect or student, this amateur photographer possessed a keen eye for form and succeeded in capturing on film many of the architectural monuments of the early Modern movement in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. Works by Mies van der Rohe, Aalto, Starn, Le Corbusier, and Mendelsohn were but a fraction of the important structures documented in this collection, and were represented together with lesser known landmarks by such talented practitioners as Kreis, Dudok, Taut, and May, illustrating the rich pluralism that prevailed in the early years of the Modern Movement.

Taken as a whole, the collection engenders a deeper discussion of the role of the photograph in the dissemination of architectural ideas.

The mysterious photographer was obviously an individual of means – not only was he touring abroad at a point when the world was spiraling deeper into economic depression, but while in Germany he traveled almost exclusively by airplane. The photographer sought out developments such as Ernst May's Neus Frankfurt and Stuttgart's 1927 Weissenhofsiedlung, both of which were to have a profound impact on the direction of Modern architecture and the development of a functionalist aesthetic. As no documentation accompanied these photographs at the time that they were transferred to the collection at the UIC Architecture and Art Library, it was necessary to identify the structures depicted and catalog each photograph individually. Never before displayed publicly, 200 of these small (21/4" x 1 3/4") black-and-white snapshots were selected for the exhibition. By capturing the essence of the prewar avant-garde, these photographs provide an ideal viewpoint from which to examine and reassess the broad spectrum of early Modern architecture. Taken as a whole, the collection engenders a deeper discussion of the role of the photograph in the dissemination of architectural ideas.