arts and design

The best photography and architecture of 2020: high camp to Dungeness

Sean O’Hagan


Sunil Gupta: From Here to Eternity

The Photographers Gallery, London, until 21 February

The first British retrospective of Sunil Gupta’s work brings together material from across his long and varied career, from the scenes of everyday gay life in New York that he chronicled for his breakthrough series, Christopher Street, in 1976, to 2008’s elaborately constructed and highly symbolic vignettes, The New Pre-Raphaelites. “What does it mean to be a gay Indian man?” he has said of his photography. “This is the question that follows me around everywhere I go.” Read more.


Various venues, Brighton

In the most challenging of times, Photoworks managed to host various exhibitions, online events and, most imaginatively, a Festival in a Box – a limited edition publication/artwork that could be installed on a wall “at home, in your office, in a gallery, in your classroom or with your community”. Featuring work by Pixy Liao, Alix Marie, Ronan Mckenzie and a host of other artists, it was perhaps the most imaginative response to the constrictions of the pandemic.

Northumbrian Miner at His Evening Meal, 1937.
Deftly curated … Northumbrian Miner at His Evening Meal, 1937, part of an exhibition at Hepworth Wakefield. Photograph: © Bill Brandt/Bill Brandt Archive Ltd. Photo: Yale Center for British Art


Bill Brandt/Henry Moore

Hepworth Wakefield, now closed

A deftly curated show that explored the overlapping creative journeys of a photographer and sculptor who first crossed paths when they both were commissioned to create images of civilians sheltering in the London Underground during the blitz. Moore’s artful photographs of his sculptures were a surprise, while his up-close drawings of Stonehenge contrasted dramatically with Brandt’s more haunting images of the standing stones rising up from snow-covered fields. Another England reflected through the eyes of two brilliantly perceptive postwar artists. Read the full review.


Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography

Barbican, London, now closed

A vast, ambitious and timely group show that featured more than 300 works from 50 artists, including Richard Avedon, Peter Hujar, Annette Messager, Catherine Opie and Karlheinz Weinberger, Masculinities explored the ways in which maleness is represented, coded and challenged through the medium of photography. Highlights included Karen Knorr’s acutely perceptive series, Gentlemen, which explores male privilege and entitlement through the prism of private male clubs in Mayfair, and Jeremy Deller’s film about wrestler Adrian Street, a study of a peculiarly English form of theatrical high camp. Read the full review.


Zanele Muholi

Tate Modern, London, until 31 May

A casualty of England’s second Covid lockdown, this important survey show has now been extended. It surveys the work of one of the most dynamic and politically engaged photographers and activists working today, through her extraordinary documentation of the lives of South Africa’s black lesbian, gay, trans, queer and intersex communities. Central to the show is the epic series Faces and Phases, which merges striking portraits with moving testimonies from people threatened daily by violence and discrimination. Read the full review.

Oliver Wainwright


Space Popular

Bringing a splash of colour to what has otherwise been a dull, grey year, the Swedish-Spanish architectural duo of Space Popular injected a bolt of supercharged visual joy into 2020. An exhibition at the RIBA on the history of style was sadly cut short, but was then brilliantly reinvented as an immersive virtual environment, where you could browse the show online as a computer game avatar. Meanwhile, the pair demonstrated their skills beyond the virtual with the completion of a dazzling new house in Spain that saw wafer-thin terracotta tile vaults suspended inside a bright-green steel frame. We’re in for a treat when they start to build big. Read more.


Stealing from the Saracens by Diana Darke

There is a dark side to social media that sees rightwing nationalist groups use images of traditional western architecture to bolster their vision of a “pure” European cultural identity. This book takes an eloquent sledgehammer to such dog-whistle propaganda, revealing that everything from Notre-Dame cathedral to the Houses of Parliament has its roots in the Middle East. It is a fascinating story of cultural exchange, shedding light on centuries of architectural borrowing from east to west. The ferocity of its reception in certain quarters sadly revealed just how much such a book is needed. Read more.

Yasmeen Lari outside the women’s centre on stilts she designed in Sindh province.
Yasmeen Lari outside a women’s centre on stilts she designed in Sindh province, Pakistan. Photograph: courtesy Heritage Foundation of Pakistan


The pandemic has shown what small, energetic organisations are capable of with a bit of ingenuity – perhaps no more so than in the form of the Architecture Foundation’s ambitious programme of online events. For 100 days from April to August, the charity put on a mind-boggling series of lectures, interviews, building tours and panel discussions, handing over the virtual stage to a diverse cast of practitioners from all over the world, from Pakistan’s “barefoot architect” Yasmeen Lari, to the Black Females in Architecture group. And it’s all available free on Youtube.


Derek Jarman exhibition, at the Garden Museum, London

This beautiful little exhibition brought the otherworldly Dungeness seaside to the city, shingle beach and all. Reconstructing a fragment of the late artist and film-maker’s cottage and gravel garden, the show conjured the magical atmosphere of the place, displaying his paintings and films alongside his gardening tools and diaries. It was a fitting celebration of the news that the house would be saved for the nation, following a £3.5m crowdfunding campaign. Read more.


Grafton Architects

A bumper year for Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, the Irish architects behind the sought-after Dublin firm Grafton. Fresh from curating last year’s Venice architecture biennale, they scooped both the 2020 RIBA gold medal and the Pritzker prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel. On top of that, they completed their first building in the UK, in the form of the majestic £50m Town House, a huge new student centre for Kingston University in London.

Combining a library and a performance venue might not sound like an ideal marriage, but it is exactly this kind of “abrasion” that these inventive architects take pleasure in, creating novel solutions from unlikely combinations of use. From the desks of the quiet study areas in this open-plan cathedral of learning, you can look down into a dramatic triple-height performance space – and straight across into dance studios, where students flex their limbs opposite pharmacologists deep in their textbooks.

The architects describe the building as “a big crossroads”, designed to stimulate the kind of interactions people go to university for – and which have been painfully lacking for much of this year. A wide meandering staircase rises through the lofty entrance atrium, spilling out on to a cascading series of generous balconies. “Why do you come to university, when you can study online?” said Farrell, on a tour of the building in January, before anyone could have guessed the largely virtual form that much of this year’s teaching would take. “It’s about meeting people and falling in love.”


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