Architecture and its image

Or, must one visit a building
in order to write about it?

The following article was originally published in Issue 17 of Princeton University’s architecture journal Pidgin, which took as its odd theme: “Do You Even Lift?” Other contributors to this issue include the excellent Beatriz Colomina, Michael Meredith, Andrés Jacque, Jonah Rowen, Anna-Maria Meister, and Lily Zhang (amongst others). Definitely pick up a copy if you’re interested. Most architecture and design bookstores should carry it.

Right now their website is being revamped, in any case, so the appearance of these articles online has been delayed. I’m posting the original version I submitted here, which is a bit longer and isn’t quite as tightly argued as the version they published. You can check out a PDF of their copy here. Enjoy!

At MoMA’s “In Pursuit of Architecture” conference back in mid-September, a ten-year retrospective on the output of the journal Log, a pair of questions kept coming up: Must critics first visit a structure in order to write about it? Which is more important, the image of a building or the building itself?

Though billed as a conversation between emerging architects and eminent critics, the most interesting exchanges were the ones that disregarded this format entirely. Sylvia Lavin, a frequent contributor to Log, traded questions and comments with Cynthia Davidson, its editor-in-chief. Davidson insisted that critics must physically travel to a building’s location for their opinions to be considered valid. Her emphasis, therefore, was on the primacy of the built object over its secondary representation through images. Lavin argued this was a false dichotomy. Why separate them at all? Might the building and its image not prove complementary? Critics should of course make every effort to witness a given work of architecture firsthand, but shouldn’t let that stand in their way if circumstances don’t permit. One can get the basic gist of a structure, she maintained, simply by looking at photographs and floor plans. Inferences may be drawn from there.

Neither side can be said to have decisively carried the day. During Q&A, the issue was brought up again, this time by architecture critic Jeff Kipnis, who was in attendance. “I don’t understand why Cynthia thinks one has to go see a building in order to write about it,” he wondered incredulously. “No composer feels like he has to go hear a performance to ‘get’ a piece of music. He looks at the score. Some scores he’s interested in; others not.”

Before Davidson or the panelists had a chance to respond, however, another member of the audience interjected. He challenged Kipnis’ remarks by relying on the very same analogy: “Not true. [Johann Sebastian] Bach walked twenty miles to Denmark just to hear a performance of [Dieterich] Buxtehude’s music.”

“That’s because Buxtehude didn’t publish his scores!” Kipnis swiftly shot back, evidently eager to cover his tracks.

“Again, that isn’t strictly true,” the man started to reply. But this time the speakers on stage managed to intervene and put the discussion back on track.

Unfortunately, no one from the panel subsequently took up the suggested parallel between music and architecture. Of course, the building art is no stranger to such metaphors. Ever since the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling first described architecture as a form of “petrified” music in 1804, the comparison has frequently been made.1 (So frequently, in fact, that the critical theorist Theodor Adorno, a musicologist by training, declared a moratorium on the use of the cliché).2 Nevertheless, despite its familiarity, the panelists seemed reluctant to weigh in on the question of its aptness.

How might the two examples — the architecture critic with an architectural construction and the music critic with a musical composition — be related in this instance? In either case, if distance separates the critic from the tectonic structure to be seen (or the harmonic structure to be heard), the element of mediation enters in. That is to say, if he is unable to experience the object of criticism in person, in terms of its sensual immediacy, then a more intermediate substitute must be found. All this raises the old problem of the artwork in the age of its technological reproducibility, most famously theorized by the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin. Of particular interest here is the way a work of architecture or piece of music is disseminated on a mass scale. Lost in this process of reproduction, as Benjamin pointed out, is the object’s “unique existence in a particular place.” What results is thus a kind of spatial and temporal dislocation, by which the object reproduced becomes perceptible at a greater remove. Furthermore, this process allows for the transposition of aesthetic experience into settings and locales where it had hitherto been impossible.3

Photographs and phonographs were often cited by early commentators as paradigmatic examples of the new mass media — as technologically reproduced images and sounds, respectively.4 The former convey visual phenomena, while the latter communicate aural phenomena. Each medium exerts a similar influence over that which is reproduced, however. Both tend to eliminate variables like spontaneity and accidence from snapshots or recordings. Aware that any blemish or mistake in the original will be repeated in every single copy thereafter (unless modified or otherwise “touched up”), measures are taken to minimize or prevent unwanted ambient noise, incidental distortion, excessive dynamic range, and so on. Controlled environments are for obvious reasons preferred for recording live music, cutting out all but the occasional cough from the audience. With architectural photography, there are more factors to contend with, especially when trying to capture the play of shadow and sunlight upon the exterior. But it is no coincidence that indoor spaces, and those equipped with artificial lighting sealed off from the outside, are the easiest in which to take pictures or record audio. The enclosure shields the object of reproduction from the invasive din of the city as well as the caprice of intermittent natural light.

Still, there are at least two key differences that complicate any straightforward analogy between architecture’s relationship to photographic images and music’s relationship to recorded sound. For one thing, photographs are incapable of expressing duration. While individual photos themselves are susceptible to the wearing of time — fading, smudging, tearing, etc. — whatever they represent remains frozen in the same position it occupied when the picture was first taken. Photos apprehend the spatial continuum from a specific vantage, but only for a moment.5 In the flash of an instant, it’s gone. Motion appears as just a blur or trail of light. Cinematography is required to record the flow of time, set down on a film reel or time-lapse photo series. By contrast, music recordings necessarily unfold over time. This may take place over any number of hours, minutes, or seconds, depending on the piece of music and the technology used to record it (vinyl, cassette tape, compact disc). No matter how long it may be, though, the track always lasts a definite interval.

Images of architecture fall short in yet another crucial respect. As the Hungarian scholar and aesthetician Ernö Kállai argued in a controversial article on “Painting and Photography,” published 1927, photographs lack anything that might be construed as facture (фактура, an attention to material considerations in art). Due to the chemicomechanical process used to render emanations of light onto plates, and the flatness of the images that result, Kállai concluded that photos could not so much as hint at the texture or raw corporeality of objects they depict. Photographs cannot hope to replicate the striated patterns left by brushstrokes in even the most polished painting. He wrote:

Photography is not capable of this degree of materiality or objecthood. It creates imitations of reality that can be dazzlingly clear and distinct; but the emotional substrate, defined in real and material terms, is exiguous, indeed almost insubstantial. It extends no farther than the faint breath that mists the photosensitive coating on the plate or film, and the enamel-like gloss or toned texture of the printing paper…[T]here is no facture: no optically perceptible tension between the substance of the image and the image itself.6

Without a doubt, the depthless quality of photographic images carries serious implications for the practice of architecture. Beyond the issue of their two-dimensionality, which already places severe limits on their ability to represent three-dimensional objects, photographs are also without surface density. “The force of this optical tension,” Kállai indicated, continuing from above, “depends on the tactile values of the facture.”7 At this point, Kállai’s exposition reconnects with Benjamin’s brief treatment of architecture in his essay on technological reproduction.8 For Benjamin, buildings operate on both an optical and tactile level — through active observation as well as passive habituation. They are perceived in a state of aloof distraction no less than close concentration.9

If a building’s tactile attributes drop out in photographic representations, however, what does the present ubiquity of architectural images portend for the discipline? Earlier, the putative opposition between image and building in architecture was mentioned in the context of Davidson’s dispute with Lavin. Of course, the roots of this debate stretch back several decades now. Kenneth Frampton counterposed the visual and tactile aspects of perception in his 1982 manifesto “Towards a Critical Regionalism,” corresponding to the scenographic and tectonic components of design.10 Because Frampton associates the tactile and tectonic dimensions of built form with a capacity to cultivate critical self-consciousness, architecture’s increased reliance on visual media is doubtless cause for concern. This is especially so bearing in mind that photographic reproductions are the primary means by which new projects become publicized. Lavin’s contention that images on their own — perhaps supplemented by blueprints and specifications — provide enough information to comprehend a work of architecture would thus seem deeply problematic from Frampton’s point of view.

More recently, authors such as the art theorist Hal Foster and the architectural historian Gevork Hartoonian have joined a chorus of critics apprehensive over the shift in emphasis away from building toward image and spectacle. All of this focus on creating photogenic, immediately recognizable structures places a new premium on “imageability,” as Foster has noticed. “In the guise of our activation, some work even tends to subdue us, for the more it opts for special effects, the less it engages us as active viewers,” he alleges in his book The Art-Architecture Complex (2011). “[T]he phenomenological reflexivity of ‘seeing oneself see’ approaches its opposite: a space that seems to do the perceiving for us. This is a new version of the old problem of fetishization, for it takes our thoughts and sensations, processes them as images and effects, and delivers them back to us for our appreciative amazement.” Foster has therefore endorsed sites that stress “the sensuous particularity of the here-and-now” (tactility), as a potential alternative to those privileging vision and visuality.11 Such sites, he insists, afford an escape from “the stunned subjectivity and arrested sociality supported by spectacle.”12 Toward the end, Foster pits the two terms directly against each other in an interview conducted with the sculptor Richard Serra, “Building Contra Image.” In the course of their conversation, they couch contemporary architecture in these very binaries: tectonic versus scenographic, structure versus skin.13

Hartoonian has for his part developed criticisms along many of the same lines as Foster, albeit within a more explicitly Framptonian framework.14 Like Foster in The Art-Architecture Complex or his earlier Design and Crime (2002), the narrative Hartoonian traces in Architecture and Spectacle: A Critique (2013) is additionally vectored through Guy Debord’s reading of the “commodity fetishism” section in Capital.15 “Architecture today has become the site of spectacle, and its temporality is informed by a culture that is primarily image-laden,” Hartoonian asserts. “It is therefore the task of the critic to uncover the thematic of the culture of building nestled beneath architecture’s spectacle.”16 Once again, the antinomy of building and image recurs. For Hartoonian, the present turn to detextured surfaces, a preoccupation with problems of wrapping and envelopment, and the return of organic forms — facilitated by the rise of digital technologies in planning — are symptomatic of a spectacular tendency in architecture.17 This mirrors the broader logic of late capitalism, he argues, as the internalized exhibitionism of commodities on display. Indeed, Hartoonian refers to the phenomenal exteriors of contemporary architecture as participating in “the aesthetic of commodity fetishism,” a generalized promenade architecturale.18 As before, the problem is the preponderance of the image: “[V]isual excess is what makes architecture today part of the culture of spectacle produced and sustained by late capitalism operating on a global scale.”19

Picking up on the musical analogy proposed at the outset, the needle may be threaded with the aid of a contemporary figure of thought: the “sight-bite,” a coinage of British architecture critic Jonathan Meades. Images of buildings provide merely one angle of viewership, and in this respect resemble those condensed, easily-digestible snippets of music or speech now commonly referred to as “sound-bites.” “There can be no doubt about what type of building will come to be regarded as almost parodically representative of this age,” Meades caustically opined in his 2007 BBC documentary, On the Brandwagon. “A new type of structure, characterized by its hollow vacuity, by its sculptural sensationalism, by its happy quasi-modernism, and by its lack of actual utility. Yet it has two definite purposes: to be instantly and arrestingly memorable, to be extraordinarily camera friendly. This type of structure is a sound-bite’s visual analogue. A sight-bite.”20

The problem with architecture’s current fixation on its representation in media is neatly illustrated by a reflection on “Photography and Modern Architecture,” published roughly a year ago on The Photographers’ Gallery blog. Its author, Owen Hatherley, has for some time been a champion of Meades, so the fact that his own thoughts on the matter seem to echo Meades’ should hardly come as a surprise. Hatherley’s opening paragraph is worth quoting here at length:

Modern architecture was the first architecture to really market itself, so it makes sense that it has become an architecture largely consumed through photographs. The internet has intensified this to a degree that the main architectural websites…provide little but glossy images of buildings that you will never visit, lovingly formed into photoshopped, freeze-dried glimmers of non-orthogonal perfection, in locations where the sun, of course, is always shining. In art, this approach to reproduction is dubious enough [e.g., Benjamin], but in architecture — where both physical experience and location in an actual place are so important — it’s often utterly disastrous, a handmaiden to an architectural culture that no longer has an interest in anything but its own image.21

Notably, Hatherley underlines the idea that the vast majority of these photographs depict buildings that the viewer will never visit. Contemporary architecture’s image-obsessed visual culture almost recalls the passage by Feuerbach that served as an epigraph to Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967), whereby “the present age…prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality.”22

So where does this leave the disagreement between Lavin and Davidson, discussed at the beginning? Because neither position visibly won out that evening, the debate didn’t end there. (As it turns out, it didn’t begin there either). Four weeks after the Log conference, Davidson presented a paper to the Southern California Institute of Architecture titled “Image and Word: A Critical Context.” In the event description, she expanded on a point which she felt distinguished Log from its predecessor, Any magazine. “The bare-bones design…and paucity of images [in Log],” explained Davidson, “are a deliberate attempt to resist the seductive power of images.” Evidently, Lavin’s objections were still fresh on her mind.

Lavin herself had been prepared to address these questions through her engagement with Foster, two years prior at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, in an event called “Kissing Vs. Komplex.” Here she defended the centrality of “affect” in her book, Kissing Architecture (2011), from the charge, leveled by Foster, that this empirical emphasis leaves itself open to the bedazzling effects of spectacle in contemporary architecture. As Lavin saw it, subtle intellection was not necessarily preferable to exuberant affection, as cerebral detachment was no guarantee of critical insight.23

Nevertheless, the issue is far from settled. A few outstanding questions remain: What of those buildings that were never built? Perhaps more than any other discipline, architecture dwells on those plans that were never executed — the projects and proposals that went unrealized. In such cases, the proviso that critics must visit a building in order to write about it cannot have any meaning. Though they should probably not be accorded as much significance as structures that were actually built, they must be judged part of architectural history writ large. And what of those buildings that were built but eventually demolished? Some of the most iconic works of architecture of the last two centuries survive only in photographs, such as Paxton’s Crystal Palace in Hyde Park and Wright’s Larkin Building in Buffalo.

Indeed, there is little being built today that stirs the imagination as do these images.


1 Goethe is usually credited as having come up with the phrase, but Schelling was actually its progenitor: “architecture is…solidified music.” Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph. The Philosophy of Art. Translated by Douglas Stott. (University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, MN: 1989). Pg. 177.
2 “Common elements between music and architecture have been discussed repeatedly, almost to the point of ennui.” Adorno, Theodor. “Functionalism Today.” Translated by Neil Leach. Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. (Routledge. New York, NY: 1997). Pg. 5.
3 “[T]echnological reproduction can place the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain. Above all, it enables the original to meet the recipient halfway, whether in the form of a photograph or in that of a gramophone record. The cathedral leaves its site to be received in the studio of an art lover; the choral work performed in an auditorium or in the open air is enjoyed in a private room.” Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Translated by Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn. Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935-1938. (Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002). Pg. 103.
4 Adorno’s argument was made independently of Benjamin’s influence, as his article “The Curves of the Needle” appeared in 1927: “[P]honograph records seem to have suffered the same historical fate as that which once befell photographs: the transition from artisanal to industrial production transforms not only the technology of distribution but also that which is distributed.” Adorno, Theodor. “The Curves of the Needle.” Translated by Thomas Y. Levin. Essays on Music. (University of California Press. Los Angeles, CA: 2002). Pg. 271.
5 “Photography presents a spatial continuum; historicism seeks to provide the temporal continuum…The equivalent of [historicism’s] temporal photography would be a giant film depicting the temporally interconnected events from every vantage point.” Kracauer, Siegfried. “Photography.” Translated by Thomas Y. Levin. The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. (Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA: 1995). Pgs. 49-50.
6 Kállai, Ernö.“Painting and Photography.” Translated by David Britt. Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002). Pgs. 685-686.
7 Ibid., pg. 687.
8 Both historically and conceptually. According to György Márkus, Benjamin followed the debate surrounding Kállai’s article closely in preparation for his own work on photography. Márkus, György. “Benjamin and the German ‘Reproduction Debate’.” Moderne begreifen. (Deutscher Universitäts-Verlag. Frankfurt, Germany: 2007). Pgs. 354-355.
9 “Buildings are received in a twofold manner: tactilely and optically. Such reception cannot be understood in terms of the concentrated attention of a traveler before a famous building. On the tactile side, there is no counterpart to what contemplation is on the optical side. Tactile reception comes about not so much by way of attention as by way of habit. The latter largely determines even the optical reception of architecture, which spontaneously takes the form of casual noticing, rather than attentive observation. Under certain circumstances, this form of reception shaped by architecture acquires canonical value. For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at historical turning points cannot be performed solely by optical means — that is, by way of contemplation. They are mastered gradually — taking their cue from tactile reception — through habit.” Benjamin, “The Work of Art.” Pg. 120.
………Benjamin on distracted reception: “The masses are criticized for seeking distraction [Zerstreuung] in the work of art, whereas the art lover supposedly approaches it with concentration…Distraction and concentration form an antithesis…Architecture has always offered the prototype of an artwork that is received in a state of distraction.” Ibid., pg. 119.
10 “[T]he tactile opposes itself to the scenographic and the drawing of veils over the surface of reality. Its capacity to arouse the impulse to touch returns the architect to the poetics of construction and to the erection of works in which the tectonic value of each component depends upon the density of its objecthood.” Frampton, Kenneth. “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance.” The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. (Bay Press. Port Townsend, WA: 1983). Pg. 29.
11 Foster, Hal. “Preface.” Vision and Visuality. (Bay Press. Seattle, WA: 1988). Pgs. ix-xiv.
12 Foster, Hal. The Art-Architecture Complex. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2011). Pg. xii.
13 “One of the big problems I see in architecture now is the division between the structure, the more engineered part, and the skin, the more architected part. The architect becomes the person who focuses a little on the layout and a lot on the ornament, whether it’s glass, titanium that bends, or scenographic surface, while the structure is handed over to the engineer. That wasn’t a problem with, say, Jørn Utzon in his Sydney Opera House. But the division becomes problematic with postmodern architecture, and more and more architects are limited to the design of ornament as skin. (There are exceptions, such as Koolhaas’ library in Seattle where the glass surface is tectonic).” Ibid., pg. 234.
14 This is hardly surprising if one considers that Foster edited The Anti-Aesthetic, the volume in which Frampton’s “Towards a Critical Regionalism” debuted, while Hartoonian is Frampton’s protégé.
15 “In The Society of the Spectacle (1967) Guy Debord defined spectacle as ‘capital accumulated to such a degree that it becomes an image.’ With Gehry and other architects the reverse is now true as well: spectacle is an image accumulated to such a degree that it becomes capital.” Foster, Hal. Design and Crime, and Other Diatribes. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2002). Pg. 41.
………“[T]he spectacle…in the present context of commodification of the life-world should be considered neither a mere technological effect nor, as Debord reminds us, ‘something added to the real world…On the contrary it is the very heart of society’s real unreality’.” Hartoonian, Gevork. Architecture and Spectacle: A Critique. (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. London, England: 2013). Pg. 47.
16 Ibid., pg. 3.
17 Ibid., pgs. 233-254.
18 Ibid., pgs. 2, 9, 63, 77, 103, 127, 141, 207, 216, 234, 237, 248, 251.
19 Ibid., pg. 255-256.
20 Jonathan Meades quoted in Murphy, Douglas. The Architecture of Failure. (Zer0 Books. London, England: 2011). Pgs. 114-115.
21 Hatherley, Owen. “Photography and Modern Architecture.” The Photographers’ Gallery. December 10, 2012.
See also Douglas Murphy’s reflection on this piece: “Owen, Dezeen, Photography, Criticism and Its Decline.” entschwindet und vergeht: a wraith spreading grey banality everywhere. December 17, 2012.
22 Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. (Zone Books. New York, NY: 1995). Pg. 11.
23 “Today, affect should be defined as the internalization of perception and not as feelings overdetermined by cultural codes. We no longer need to equate detachment and distance with intellection and abstraction nor feeling with crude sentimentality.” Lavin, Sylvia. Kissing Architecture. (Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ: 2011). Pg. 21.

7 thoughts on “Architecture and its image

  1. Re: Benjamin. Couldn’t it be said that we already view works of art optically because we can’t touch them in museums? That part of the aura of high art is that it’s physical but untouchable? Or, I guess what I’m saying is that touchability is a sign of daily life.

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