Enter the basement of 66 Portland Place, a limestone-clad Art Deco building in the heart of London, and you’ll find the biggest collection of architectural photography in the world. A stark shot of the city’s monumental Battersea Power Station at night, taken by John Maltby in 1934, and albumen prints of the Louvre under construction in Paris in 1855 are among the many iconic images housed here. The space is home to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), the United Kingdom’s professional body for architects, which was established in 1834. Its collection contains more than 1.5 million objects, including prints, negatives, and transparencies from all over the world.
The driving force behind the collection was the late Robert Elwall, who, upon joining the RIBA as a librarian in 1976, recognized photography’s ability to capture the complex and striking forms of buildings, and spent the rest of his life championing its value in the field. “It’s incredibly difficult to imagine what would’ve happened had he not been here,” says Valeria Carullo, a curator of the collection who worked closely with Elwall. “What really made Robert special was his absolute dedication to sharing the photographs with the widest possible audience.” For Elwall, photographs could express the aesthetic value and transformative power of the built environment, as well as serving as an accessible means of promoting knowledge.