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Chateau Versailles corridor, photographer: Paul Wever

Reconciling Image With Reality

WORDS BY Anna Jeffery

We often judge books by their cover, products by their packaging and buildings by a photograph. Despite a conscious awareness of the limitations of such speculation, we are all susceptible to good marketing imagery or branding which appeals to our beliefs and aspirations. In the case of architecture the image is used in an attempt to convey the essence of the building, the ‘architectural ideas’. In doing so the subject is often removed from its environment and from its place in time. This spatial and temporal disconnect becomes problematic in our attempt to understand and critique architecture, but in a world dominated by imagery our connection with the physical environment is becoming increasingly limited to this two dimensional appreciation of the world.

 

IMAGE AND SPACE

Architecture has always been conveyed through imagery, whether conceptually through technical drawings or the final ‘portrait’ which captures the built work in static perfection. Perhaps it is the very fact that architecture comes into existence through drawings – the deconstruction of its components into two dimensional parts, which often allows us to experience buildings only in this way. This is analogous to reading a play but never seeing it performed, or studying an orchestral score but never hearing it played.

We theorise and speculate from afar, using the abundance of imagery in circulation on the internet and more recently via platforms like Flickr, Pinterest and Instagram, to qualify and quantify our ideas about space and place. However, while intrinsically linked to architecture as the primary mode of communication, the fundamental disconnect between image and architecture is spatiality. This disparity between image and physical reality can leave us feeling underwhelmed and disappointed by our physical experiences or on the contrary, in awe of the actuality of space. The process of reconciling image with reality is one that encompasses a sensory discovery of space, and an understanding of the past, present and future.

‘I confront the city with my body; my legs measure the length of the arcade and the width of the square; my gaze unconsciously projects my body onto the façade of the cathedral, where it roams over the mouldings and contours, sensing the size of recesses and projections… I experience myself in the city, and the city exists through my embodied experiences. The city and my body supplement and define each other. I dwell in the city and the city dwells in me. ’ 1

Pallasmaa expresses this cultural tendency towards sight as the dominant sense as a limit to our understanding of the role that our other senses play in the interpretation of space.  An individual’s spatial perception is complex; formed by the relationships between sight, sound, touch, smell, temperature and physical scale. A two dimensional drawing can never fully convey these attributes. The perception of space and scale remain without context in an image or drawing.

This reliance on image and sight results in a tendency toward caricature in the visual representation of architecture; a desperate attempt to convey spatial qualities and emotive conditions through exaggeration of scale, distortion of colour and phantom habitation, inevitably resulting in a view that is less than truthful. When we do have the opportunity to explore the cities and buildings which we have spent time studying in two dimensions, we are required to reflect on our preconceived ideas and begin a conscious, or unconscious, sensory exploration to reframe our expectations of the built reality. Scale and distance is redefined by our tempo, materials by the change of light, comfort by the temperature.

Our exposure to images, often representing the building in complete isolation, focuses our attention solely on the object excluding all spatial references and context. The vast empty corridors of Versailles may seem more or less as their photographs, but the overly crowded Hall of Mirrors might feel diminished by the multiplying tourists shuffling from side to side in an attempt to escape. Villa Savoye might not be totally dissimilar to the photos and drawings depicting the exterior, but one may not expect this building, sitting in objectified isolation atop a grass plain, to be located in an ordinary suburb on the outskirts of Paris.

 

IMAGE AND TIME

Architecture is an active, dynamic and unfinished process of ageing and habitation that cannot be captured in the static image. Peter Zumthor expresses this in Thinking Architecture.

‘Architecture has its own realm. It has a special physical relationship with life. I do not think of it primarily as either a message or a symbol, but as an envelope and background for life which goes on in and around it, a sensitive container for the rhythm of footsteps on the floor, for the concentration of work, for the silence of sleep.’  2

In a University of Melbourne lecture earlier this year entitled Bare Ruin’d Choirs, Edward Hollis contemplated the cultural attitudes towards architecture and its antithesis, the Ruin. The opening image of the lecture, The Architect’s Dream, the mid-nineteenth century painting by Thomas Cole for Architect Ithiel Town, exhibits the pinnacles of architectural history devoid of their true context and the life through which it was inhabited. We are reminded of the teaching of architecture through image, the static representation of buildings in time, curated through the eyes of the artist to reflect a cultural history; the history the artist wants to tell us at any rate. Contrary to this, the Ruin represents dynamism in architecture, the imperfect and fluid state of the built environment. For Hollis, the ultimate goal of architecture is ruination as an expression of cultural value.

Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, if viewed in the isolation of imagery is frozen in time. We do not expect to find mould in the sink, cracked and peeling paint, or the smell of damp and neglect – an expression of the remarkable history of Nazi occupation and near miss with destruction. Yet these features reveal the architecture living. The experience of this building is made dynamic through the senses of the present; the crunching of the gravel driveway underfoot on approach, the quietness of the location and the smell of fresh cut grass.

This process of reconciling image with reality can be one of the most important and exciting aspects of travelling as well as our daily interaction with the built environment. Discovering buildings through their content rather than their ‘cover’ forces us to rethink our expectations and understand our environment.

Architectural images play an integral part not only in the dissemination of architectural ideas, but also in creating an historical record of cultural environments. It is a vehicle by which to entice us to make physical connections with places that resonate with us. However, it appears that an abundance of photo realistic imagery and photography leaves little to the imagination, potentially depriving us of the desire to physically and actively engage with space. This tragic loss of interest in the built environment will have significant ramifications to our cities, cultural exchange and aesthetic values.

Within our community one hopes that the value of architecture has not been undermined by the obsession with image creation. As architects, resurgence in field work over remote precedent study may help us to design buildings that consider a complete sensory experience, inciting a depth of connection that will ultimately lead to greater cultural value and longevity of our built environment.

1  Pallasmaa, Juhani, The Eyes of The Skin: Architecture and the Sense, John Wiley, UK, 2012, p43.

2  Zumthor, Peter, Thinking  Architecture, Birkauser, Basel, 1999, p13