Beauty in the Unfinished

Photos Capture Construction Stages

Posted January 16, 2008 at 6:05pm

To James Stokoe, the teal polyester fabric that intertwined with scaffolding and enveloped the new Chinese Embassy here in Washington, D.C., during construction “sort of looked like an oriental print or drawing, which seemed appropriate.”

Stokoe captured the effect in a piece now on display as part of a new exhibit at the American Institute of Architects

Headquarters Gallery. The piece is one of several photos in the exhibit that focus on the industrial blankets that sheath a building’s skeleton during the construction process. Such “accidental” aesthetic details that appear en route to the final product are what Stokoe, an architect by day, looks to capture with his camera.

“Architecture of Construction,” which opened at the two-story exhibition space in Northwest D.C. on Jan. 11, features photographs of buildings around the metro area and beyond in different stages of construction and demolition.

[IMGCAP(1)]Stokoe, a principal at the Chevy Chase, Md.-based firm Archetal, has been an architect since the late 1970s. During an interview Tuesday, he said this experience allows him to introduce the viewer to aesthetic gems that occur throughout the construction process.

“I don’t think of myself as just a photographer,” he said. “The whole impetus and the reason I can approach this is because I do it as an architect.”

Stokoe’s subjects range from well-known projects, such as the Washington Nationals’ new baseball stadium, the National Museum of the American Indian and the Newseum, to residential developments.

The exhibit is organized by the specific piece of the construction process depicted in the photographs, from tubes, couplers and covers to concrete forms and frames. Each section provides a snapshot into the inner structures that support the final facade at which most architecture aficionados marvel once construction is complete.

Stokoe’s angles and vantage points — zeroing in on intricate patterns and designs unintentionally created during the construction process — often render the final building unrecognizable.

“Jim has a completely different perspective,” said Linnea Hamer, the exhibition’s consulting curator. “One aspect that struck me and the [exhibition] committee is the abstract quality of some of the images, where you’re not quite sure what it is. It’s not so representational; it’s not so obvious.”

Through freezing moments in the construction process, Stokoe hopes to capture the energy and excitement of building something new.

“Change is exciting, dramatic and just that fact that things are changing draws us to it,” he said. “The fact that someone commuting to work, literally in a couple of months, could see remarkable changes developing … it’s hard not to look, I think.”

Sherry Birk, director of the American Architectural Foundation’s Octagon Museum, which works in partnership with AIA to bring exhibitions to the gallery, said the patterns, shadows and textures captured in Stokoe’s pieces engage the viewer, encouraging the public to look at familiar buildings in a different light.

“The whole purpose of the gallery is to really demonstrate to the public and the people in the building how architecture really impacts you in your life and plays a part in your life on a daily basis,” Birk said.

Art and architecture have been lifelong passions for Stokoe. As a child, he traveled extensively while his father, a professor, was on sabbatical. Being “dragged to cathedrals and castles” helped him develop an appreciation for architectural detail, which was cemented in the late 1970s when a yearlong fellowship allowed him to study and photograph facades and ornamental decoration in Roman structures.

“Rome is a fascinating city in that there are so many layers going on,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to express or communicate anything, actually. I just wanted to bring back from what I’d seen some sort of memento or souvenir.”

Though the concept behind the exhibit was drawn from Stokoe’s love of architecture, it was the city itself that ultimately acted as his muse.

“I looked around and there was a lot of construction going on,” he said. “I really like the idea of decoration that’s temporary, ephemeral — sort of temporary architecture. It wouldn’t have been possible in another city at another time.”

The exhibit “Architecture of Construction: Photographs by James Stokoe” will remain open through March 27. The American Institute of Architects Headquarters Gallery is located at 1735 New York Ave. NW, directly behind the Octagon Museum. It is open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Images from the exhibition also can be viewed at