Review: Architecture of Authority by Richard Ross


Book Reviews, Photobooks

The simple principle form follows function can be quite useful when trying to understand architecture: If a building has a certain purpose, then that purpose is expressed via the architecture. Thus, a building that looks like a prison in all likelihood is a prison (even though it might also be something else). As it turns out, in our modern world things appear to be somewhat more complicated. Of course, a confusion like this could mean that applying too simple a principle oversimplifies reality. But we could make things more interesting by assuming that form does indeed follow function and by then asking questions about what we see. Alternatively, we can take a building whose purpose we were told, but which does not really look like what we would have thought it might look like, and start thinking about that. Or, if we don’t feel like theorizing at all, we can look at a building or place and simply ask what kind of impression we get from looking at it. Regardless of how you approach the photography shown in Richard Ross’s Architecture of Authority, you are sure to feel quite uncomfortable about what you see, especially since the journey will take you to infamous places such as the Guantanamo Bay prison and Abu Ghraib.

Architecture of Authority does not define “authority” very narrowly. Mostly interior photos devoid of human presence, it shows a toddler classroom, one of the FBI’s conference rooms, the United Nations general assembly hall, the interiors of courts, banks, airports, and prisons, and much more. These are all places of authority, where someone has a lot more power than someone else. And it does indeed make for uncomfortable viewing to realize how similar some places are that, in principle, should look quite different (or maybe not?), such as, for example, the confessional room at the Santa Barbara Mission, the communication area at the Angola State Penitentiary, and telephone cells at a Four Seasons Hotel.

Even without the foreword by John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, Architecture of Authority would be quite a political book. The foreword does make it quite clear what we are dealing with and puts both the photographer (and his personal bio) and some of the photography into context. And lest we think that Richard Ross is a neutral observer, there’s an afterword, where the photographer provides some motivation for the work: “I grew up in the golden age of America - no metal detectors to get into school, no warnings on bleach bottles not to drink, no warnings on coffee cups that the contents are hot. It was a simpler time. Now I am going through a mass of images and asking the questions: What is the relationship between words such as power, authority, tyranny, architecture, morality, and hierarchy? How did we evolve from my childhood paradise of Brooklyn to the horrors of this new world?”

By connecting so many different places, Architecture of Authority asks us to think about what society we want to live in and how we want to define - and live with - power and authority. Given the developments of the past few years, this is quite an important issue.