The South African photographer David Goldblatt was 87 when he died in 2018, but he was at work until the end on “a still developing photographic narrative” both visual and textual. In an episode of the Art21 documentary series titled Johannesburg, made in the months prior to his passing, we see him driving around his hometown, reflecting candidly on his life and practice. At one point, Goldblatt pulls over, climbs out of his white Land Cruiser, and sets up to photograph a sleek commercial tower with a tinted glass façade. “It seems to me,” he remarks, “that the style of architecture that is emerging to the north of Johannesburg is a kind of aggressive materialism.”
The scene is a reminder that architecture remained central across Goldblatt’s career, which spanned more than 70 years and has recently been surveyed in major exhibitions in Paris and Sydney. The latter show, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, was realized in close collaboration with the artist, and became a tribute of sorts. I live in Sydney, and was especially struck at the MCA by Goldblatt’s images of physical constructions — houses and housing estates, farms, churches, shops, industrial sites, monuments, civic buildings — which fascinated him as reflections of “the choices we and our forebears have taken.” 3 These photographs encapsulate important information about the spatial design of apartheid.
Architecture remained central across Goldblatt’s long career. Yet his archive is remarkably open-ended in its framing of built space in South Africa — and beyond.
Yet to parse Goldblatt’s art exclusively as evidence of this architecture of division is to risk overdetermining a visual archive that is, in fact, remarkably open-ended in its framing of built space in South Africa — and beyond. Goldblatt is well-known for picturing the concrete constructions that made his country modern at mid-century, for instance, or the defensive designs for religious buildings that were material demonstrations of the mindset of apartheid. Less frequently acknowledged is his interest in incomplete or partially demolished buildings, in razed fields, rubble, and waste. Such scenes of the built environment and its entropic residues resist easy interpretation; his images are often ambiguous as to whether a given structure is being destroyed or remade, and this indeterminacy speaks to ways in which buildings are appropriated and repurposed in response to sociopolitical shifts. His carefully worded, caption-like titles are vital to conveying this intricate meaning.
It is telling that Goldblatt preferred the word “structures,” a far looser term than “architecture,” to describe the forms he examined. He produced one of the most comprehensive photographic records of South Africa in his lifetime. But what he contemplated was the moral weight of everyday interactions, and it was through constructed and deconstructed landscapes, the values embedded in them and inhabitants’ loaded connections to these spaces, that his subtle condemnation of segregationist politics took shape. As the curator Okwui Enwezor has observed, architecture as approached by Goldblatt was “as much about unbuilding as it was about building.” 4