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Ask Maxwell MacKenzie to name the most beautiful building in architecturally stodgy Washington, and he’ll tell you that Eero Saarinen’s Dulles Airport terminal is not just the best of what’s around—it’s among the 10 most beautiful buildings on the planet. “It is a glorious, graceful, gravity-defying piece of sculpture that just happens to also be an airport,” says the 55-year-old photographer.
The building combines two of MacKenzie’s great loves—architecture and aviation—and both themes emerge in his photographs now on display at the Fraser Gallery and the American Institute of Architects Headquarters Gallery. For more than 30 years, the Woodley Park resident has been photographing steel beams, concrete pillars, and worn brick of buildings around the world at eye level. More recently, he’s done it from the bird’s eye view of his powered parachute plane.
“I don’t recommend it to someone who hasn’t lived for a while,” said MacKenzie, whose foot-powered aircraft has a small engine but an open body—hang gliding with a little more oomph. He took up flying in 1997, two years after the death of his father, a pilot. “[My wife] was very mad at me at first … [my sons] think I’m very foolish,” he says. “But to fly, you have to use your whole brain, which is very rewarding. I feel so alive when I get back.”
From the air, MacKenzie captures the abstract patterns of deer paths and tractor trails, or the checkered markings of farmland and swamp in Virginia and Minnesota, where he has another house and plane. These images are featured in the group show “Land” at Fraser Gallery and in his latest book, Markings. (He’ll sign copies at Politics & Prose on Dec. 15.) MacKenzie also keeps his eyes peeled for images reminiscent of abstract painters of the 20th century; he likens some of his nature photographs to paintings by Cy Twombly and Frank Stella.
MacKenzie sees his aerial landscapes as being similar to his architectural photography; both, he says, capture what man does to Earth. Architecture, from Minnesota barns to the most famous museums and monuments of the world, comprise much of his work, and it’s the focus of his show at the AIA, “Stone to Steel.” The exhibit’s large-scale color photographs were taken on two recent trips to Spain, where his favorite architect, Santiago Calatrava, built the country’s famous bridges and Valencia’s monumental City of Arts and Sciences.
MacKenzie studied architecture and photography at Bennington College in Vermont. His interest in buildings was so strong that he considered becoming an architect, but he ultimately decided against it. “I don’t have the patience,” he says. But he’s preserved his reverence for Calatrava’s harp-shaped Bach de Roda bridge and Campino Volantin footbridge; his photos of them are contrasted with images of Spain’s ancient Roman aqueducts, which still function after thousands of years. That combination speaks to his interest in structure as well as aesthetics—something he was reminded of on Aug. 1, when a highway bridge in Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi River.
“I was in Minnesota when that bridge fell,” says MacKenzie. “People wanted to build it back right away…but what we need in this country are bridges that are both functional and beautiful.”
“Land” shows at Fraser Gallery, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, Md., to Jan. 5; call (301) 718-9651. “Stone to Steel” shows at the American Institute of Architects Headquarters Gallery, 1735 New York Ave., NW, to Jan. 4; call (202) 638-3221.