Darren Bradley is an American architectural photographer, active supporter of historical preservation efforts with a passion for mid-century modern architecture and design. His work was featured in large-format art books, academic and professional architecture journals, and lifestyle magazines around the world. Seeing that Darren shares lots of same architectural interests as Handhome, we contacted him to get to know more about his views on history and architecture, as well as his experience while on the earlier trip to Vietnam.
Handhome: Hello Bradley, could you introduce yourself to Handhome readers?
Sure. My name is Darren Bradley. I am an architectural photographer based in Southern California, with a particular interest in Modernist architecture.
What brought you to architectural photography?
As a kid, I had always wanted to be an architect. I was talked out of it because I was terrible at math. Ironically, so are many successful architects I know today! Anyway, I started photographing buildings I liked in my 30s as a way of re-connecting to architecture. I’ve always been acutely aware of the emotional effect of being in certain buildings, and it’s what has always drawn me to architecture. My photography has always been an attempt to capture those visceral reactions in some way.
Based on your experience, we would like to hear your thoughts on history and architecture.
I have a history degree, and so tend to see everything through that lens. Architecture is a reflection of the society that creates it. It is a visual, living record of what was happening at a given time, in a given area. Its a document on how people lived, and what they valued most. That’s why I feel that in many respects, demolishing buildings is also erasing a society’s past. A culture loses a record of itself, and its soul, when it loses its buildings. I think that in Vietnam, Modernist architecture represents a painful and tumultuous time in this nation’s history. And that may help to explain why there is very little love expressed for Modernist architecture there.
What’s the difference between taking photographs for books, magazines and your works with the clients?
When I’m photographing a building on commission for an architect, I often plan every aspect of the shoot including lighting conditions at various times of day, furniture placement, people in the shots, etc. These photos end up being used by the architects for their portfolios, but also by magazines for editorial use. However, when I am photographing a project like the architecture guidebooks for Phaidon, I am shooting literally hundreds of projects over a very large area. I don’t have the luxury of time, and cannot control any of the conditions. I am not able to spend hours documenting every aspect of a building. Instead, I often have only a few minutes at each location, and have to get just one or two photos that can be used for the book. In that case, it’s about quickly figuring out the best angle, getting the shot, and moving on to the next site while security guards chase me away. There’s often no chance to do it over.
How many times have you’ve been to Vietnam? What’s the purpose of each trip?
My visit to Vietnam this past summer was my first, and that was for a vacation with my family. I have long wanted to visit, but something always seemed to get in the way before. I do look forward to my second visit!
We see that your blog mentioned lots of French Colonial buildings in Vietnam in all 3 regions (Southern, Central and Northen). So what do you have in mind about our traditional architecture?
Very good observation. I’m an American, as you know, but I also spent a lot of time in France. I have a history degree from the Sorbonne at the University of Paris, and have studied the French colonial period in Indochina. So I was interested to see what remained from that period – in architecture but also other aspects of Vietnamese culture, such as food, language, the arts, etc. That’s why I commented on the French Colonial buildings throughout the country. While little seems to remain of French language in this country, the French architectural heritage still seems very strong. It also seems like many Vietnamese today still admire that style of architecture the most, and try to recreate it in their new buildings.
But I also greatly admired the traditional Vietnamese architecture while visiting the country. In Hanoi, I visited the Temple of Literature and also the royal tombs at Hoa Lu. In Hué, I visited the Imperial City, of course, and also several of the royal tombs there, as well. In Hoi An, I loved the old merchants houses in the old city. While in most Asian cities I’ve visited, it’s common to find temples in traditional architecture, I thought the old traditional houses of Hoi An were even more fascinating because it gave more of a window into how everyday people lived – and not just the elite.
I also visited My Son, which I found to be fascinating and beautiful. It was remarkable to find so many vestiges of this ancient culture in such good condition.
What do you think about the architectural preservation in Vietnam?
A few buildings, such as the Independence Palace in Saigon, are remarkably well preserved. But overall, there appears to be very little desire to preserve much from Vietnam’s Modernist heritage. This is sad, considering how important that period of history is to the country. But Vietnam’s hot, humid climate is notoriously difficult on buildings, anyway. And with so much new money coming into the country driving new development and building projects, it doesn’t appear that many historic buildings stand much of a chance. I would say earlier 19th century and early 20th century French colonial buildings will probably fare a bit better, because the public understands and appreciates that style more. And of course, traditional Vietnamese architecture is likely to do better, too.
Besides architecture and history, what’s your other impression of Vietnam?
It’s such a warm and friendly place, and very welcoming. I was surprised at how different the three main regions of Vietnam were, and how that was reflected in the personalities, food, customs, accents and dialects of the people in each region. For such a small country, it’s incredibly diverse.
We see that your articles are history-oriented, is that the reason why you really like Mid-Century Modern buildings?
I love history and have studied it all my life. Just about everything about who we are today can be explained through history. I often include historical anecdotes and background when writing about architecture because I find that it’s more interesting to understand the historical context of how and why these buildings are designed the way they are. Instead of just looking at architecture as abstract art objects, it’s important to remember that architecture must first serve a function. I would do this for any period or style of architecture, but happen to write most about Mid-Century Modern architecture because I love that period most, and what it represents. That was a brief and unique period in history, which represented a profound sense of progress and optimism in society as a whole. By the mid-70s, the Vietnam War, the oil crisis, economic instability, and civil unrest had brought an end to that optimism, and also to that architectural era.
Do you have any favorite architect?
I love many different architects. But some of my favorites are John Lautner, Paul Rudolph, William Krisel, A. Quincy Jones, and Ed Killingsworth. All of them have in common that they excelled at residential architecture, which I love. And they tended to design buildings using very sculptural and creative forms. There is a sense of drama about being in any of their buildings… a multi-sensory experience with light, volume, and continuous progression as you move the space.
What do you think about the future of architecture?
Architecture once again appears to have rediscovered a sense of optimism, which I appreciate. For a long time, it seemed that architecture had become less about space and more about materials, and historical kitsch. But the pendulum has again started to swing more towards Modernist principles in architectural design, which I find encouraging and exciting.