Dispatches from an architecture assignment in Tangiers

The British Embassy is something of an anomaly in Algiers, capital of the former French enclave. The building was designed by 2009 World Architect of the Year, John McAslan + Partners, and strikes a bold, modernist pose amidst a city of colonial-era buildings crumbling under the North African sun. Built around the existing turn-of-the-century Moorish ambassador’s residence, the new three-storey building has numerous innovative design flourishes, including a sandstone façade and six-metre-high screen of twisted, wooden slats, which work both to keep the building cool and to give the ambassador’s residence privacy from the embassy staff. The expansive 1250m2 garden and its ageing palm trees were also central to the design, and keen to show off its new building, John McAslan commissioned renowned architectural photographer Dennis Gilbert to improve on its existing photographs.

Gilbert’s images show the embassy with uncluttered views and clean, flowing lines, including one shot of the wooden slats against the sea. Others show how the original ambassador’s residence is complemented by the new building. “We’ve worked with Dennis before and we admire his comparative approach,” explains Simon Goode, project architect for the building. “Not every photographer is willing to go to Algiers considering the difficulties of shooting there, but we knew we could trust him. It’s a complicated site and what he was able to do was simplify and bring clarity to the work. The landscaping was key to the design of the building – it’s a sensitive site, slap-bang in the middle of the city, and we wanted Dennis to show that.”

“They wanted something less travel oriented, less fancy and more plain,” explains the London-based photographer. “Specifically, views from within the compound and the garden to show how they preserved what was there, then the trees around and how the building sits in the landscape with views of the city and Beyond. It was an adventure, but it had its stresses.”

Born in South Africa in 1951, Gilbert was originally trained as an electrical engineer, but soon after turned to photography, completing an MFA at the California Institute of the Arts in 1980. He was one of the three founders of View Pictures in 1997, one of the world’s leading photo agencies specialising in architecture and interiors, and remains a director. There have been numerous exhibitions of his work, and a hatful of accolades, most recently collecting a Silver Award in the AOP Awards of 2008. Three years earlier he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

But in Algiers he faced a number of unique challenges. First, it was difficult to get a visa. Despite help from the British Embassy, it took two months before the authorities released his passport. Second, if you think it’s tough to take street pictures in Britain, Gilbert says the police there will either confiscate your cameras or cart you off to jail and ask questions later. “On top of that,” he adds, “Algiers is virtually gridlocked all day, with no traffic lights, so it was difficult to cross town to get the pictures I needed. I identified a hotel on the other side of town with nice views and we went there very early. The driver saved my bacon – he managed to persuade the police what I was doing.”

A further difficulty was that the original pictures Goode had asked him to improve upon had been taken in high summer. Gilbert found it impossible to match the light because he was shooting in December. “I couldn’t achieve the same look,” he explains, “but I got some different winter sun shots.”

“I would generally have my camera going,” he says, explaining his approach. “I would just start working and see where it led me. I’m always interested in showing a narrative – sections of the building, the material, and that kind of thing. Although you’re often focusing on the best parts of the design, I’m interested in making pictures I like, for me.”

For the main shots, Gilbert used a large-format Arca Swiss with a 33-megapixel Leaf Aptus 75 back and several lenses ranging from 28mm to 350mm. He also took a 400mm lens for his Canon EOS 5D for long-distance shots of the embassy against the city.

The brief also asked Gilbert to take pictures of the Casbah, the traditional quarter of Algiers made up of a labyrinth of streets and alleyways. For these shots, Gilbert adopted a freer approach, shooting with the 5D. “On the last morning I went out to get hand-held shots. A policeman was going to take me away, but one of the drivers intervened. It was a bit silly of me to go out alone, but it was so early I couldn’t get anyone to escort me. The Algerians don’t like foreigners to get into trouble; they don’t want to be embarrassed. You can’t leave the city without an escort if you’re a foreigner either. Apparently al‑Qaida’s in the desert.

“But it was fun just to walk around and shoot. We went into several palaces owned by rich merchants and ex-government figures, which are now museums and mosques. I was allowed to take pictures in the mosques as long as I didn’t include people. I shot the colonial side of the Casbah, out to sea and the tiles pirated from Dutch ships. It was beautiful,” Gilbert remembers.

He also had problems leaving Algeria. “There were two checks in the airport, the second without the Embassy staff, and a further one on the plane. If they have any inkling you were taking pictures of other things…” he ponders, trailing off. But he had safeguarded against this eventuality. “I left some pictures with the Embassy and had backed up the data onto two hard drives in separate bags.”

Dennis Gilbert’s photographs of the British Embassy will go on show at the Architect’s Gallery in London from 22 April to 21 May.

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