The proliferation of pictures has accelerated over the last century or two, and our relationship with them changed first with widely circulated newspapers and magazines, then movies and television, and now the world wide web and social media. In the world of Instagram, images may eclipse the spoken or written word as the primary means by which we convey information and communicate. Most of us experience new architecture (and old) through surrogacy, that is by way of pictures (photography) and indeed it may be the quality of the pictures themselves that hold sway over our opinion about the architecture we see.
Conversely, the practice of architecture may be the only one I can think of in which we make things through surrogacy. We do not make the real thing but instead have only at our disposal drawings, models, and more recently, pictures that stand in for the real thing. The ease with which we are now able to generate detailed photo realistic renderings is supposed to help us and those we design for to picture what we’re getting. The photograph doesn’t lie, the saying goes.
As architects, we are in the business of predicting how something that does not yet exist will look and feel, how we will experience a three-dimensional environment through which we must move to fully appreciate. But no matter how representational pictures are, they are, like words, an abstraction of experience and no more reliable. The taking of a picture means just that: we take or extract from the environment what we choose to portray. How and what one extracts is a matter of choice. In photography, this is the art of it.
With photography, the subject matter (sometimes) matters, but so does the point of view. Even the moment chosen to snap the picture (not always planned) matters. A certain kind of photographer will adopt a state of being, one of constant observation that allows for the spontaneous taking of a picture that may result in an enduring image. A photograph can be beautiful even as it has as its subject matter something awful. It’s the quality of the light, the shapes and patterns, our projection onto or empathy with what’s happening in the picture that makes it compelling. Even if it is a picture of something terrible we are afforded a safe place from which to experience the quality of the image if not the subject itself. The image takes on a life of its own.
This may explain the comeback of Brutalist architecture whose revival has recently bloomed mainly on the internet, in museum shows and inevitably picture books. Brutalist architecture was to have surmounted the supposed ephemerality, superficiality and faddishness of 19th and early 20th century (revivalist) architecture. Buildings were abstracted from context (the context now discredited), relieved of Western cultural baggage, postured as more permanent than and even preceding anything around it (like Stonehenge).
Freed of the restraints of underlying orders of cities or pedestrian concerns for human beings and enabled by new possibilities afforded by poured-in-place steel-reinforced concrete construction, this was a time of daring in the sometimes gravity-defying shaping of buildings. These buildings make for great pictures a half century removed from the experience of them, but most of them are for reasons that are obvious to us now awful to experience. The pictures are better than the buildings.
As a means with which to imagine something that does not yet exist, architects know (or should know) that pictures are unreliable. In the making of a rendering we choose the point of view, the quality of the light, what’s in and out of the picture. We’re wanting to show whatever it is we’re showing in the best light knowing that it is fully within our capability to not only fool others but ourselves. It is perhaps not overly serious to say that it is an act of professional responsibility to portray our designs in a way that fairly represents the experience.
The ability to make and read a picture of something no matter how fully rendered entails a kind of vicarious proprioception, an act of the mind, an exercise of the imagination that puts yourself in the picture. We use our accumulated knowledge about the measure, scale and relationships of the parts to each other and the larger environment portrayed in the picture to understand what it will feel like to be in the picture. This is more a learned ability than an innate one. Even in our supposedly image savvy culture, we architects are still surprised when to us the real thing looks just like we pictured it, and to most everyone else, nothing like they pictured it.
The fully rendered picture is not always the best tool. Sometimes a sketch or line drawing or quick paper model that extracts most of what will ultimately become a design is the best way to think through an approach, establish the underlying framework, solve a tricky formal problem, figure out how to shape a room, turn a corner or transition from one material to another. Sometimes, often in fact, a two- dimensional drawing is a better tool than a three- dimensional one. It is in the accumulation of a series of extractions, or choices about what to focus on first then next, that we are best equipped to form and then appreciate a fully realized built environment. In the making and appreciating of architecture, an image is always the means and never the end.