New York — It expressed no soul, said John Ruskin. The photograph was a transparent form. The image it held was a mere stand-in, cool as a mirror - and as bland. Consult a well-thought-out photograph of a building, then or now, however, and you refute the 19th-century art critic's words: Such photographs, more than visits to their sites, can carry the ''soul'' - the character and spirit of the structure - to the world.
Architecture magazines and books are museums in portfolio; the photographs of buildings enter the lexicon of design. Shot at the most photogenic angle, divorced from their context (which they may even offend), the buildings rendered by photographers now serve, like old copybooks of design, as models and sources for new buildings.
Scarcely a mere handmaiden to architecture, photography is a glorifier and, therefore, a manufacturer of design. It alters any three-dimensional shelter into two planes; it shifts any walk-through structure into a static image.
Perhaps this accounts for the impact and resonance of of the two arts on each other, a link apparent in an exhibition entitled ''Photography and Architecture: 1839-1939'' at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York through October (and from there to the Centre George Pompidou in Paris and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa).
Drawn from the collection of the Centre Canadien d'Architecture-Canadian Centre, the exhibition was organized by Richard Pare, whose labors formerly produced a project to assemble photographers' views of the American courthouse.
The more than 170 images here, from the earliest daguerrotypes to modernist efforts, make for a surprisingly evocative assemblage. Great cities - Rome, Leningrad, Paris, Palma - are rendered even more impervious to the passage of time through the photographer's art.
Weaving in and out of the Cooper-Hewitt's chambers, one soon forgets that the past, like the present, treated its architecture with a fickle hand.
The ephemeral nature of architecture is no new phenomenon. The art has risen and fallen in all ages with the whim of bureaucrats and developers. In fact, its vanishing nature inspired many of the photographs here.
The magnificent photographs of Charles Marville in 19th-century Paris, for instance, stemmed from the orders that were undermining local architecture and the city itself. Municipal and private agencies commissioned photographers to document old buildings about to be destroyed by rapid urbanization. ''City planning edicts developed at the same times as photography itself,'' Pare writes in the handsome catalog of the exhibition.
Whatever the inspiration for the documentation, the work culled from Phyllis Lambert's collection and introduced by her is remarkable. Familiar names from Talbot to Stieglitz alternate with lesser-known photographers. The clear, yet visionary, outlook of the photographers transmits their times, re-creating a bygone ambiance.