Just Like I Pictured It / by Johnson Favaro

 
SIMPLE START  The drawings and models produced to conceive of this community center in southern California are simple and abstract. Some took as little as a minute or two, others more. Choosing what to focus on when is the key to establishing a dynamic that takes you places you cannot have foreseen.

SIMPLE START The drawings and models produced to conceive of this community center in southern California are simple and abstract. Some took as little as a minute or two, others more. Choosing what to focus on when is the key to establishing a dynamic that takes you places you cannot have foreseen.

LITTLE BUILDING IN A BIG WORLD What this building ends up looking like will have begun by understanding what the world might look like from it.

LITTLE BUILDING IN A BIG WORLD What this building ends up looking like will have begun by understanding what the world might look like from it.

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. 

THE IMAGE IS NOT THE REAL THING. A survey of American photography in the 20th century (Adams, Lange, Evans) demonstrates that a beautiful photograph only sometimes coincides with a beautiful reality.

THE IMAGE IS NOT THE REAL THING. A survey of American photography in the 20th century (Adams, Lange, Evans) demonstrates that a beautiful photograph only sometimes coincides with a beautiful reality.

SO UGLY ITS BEAUTIFUL I have three photographs in my home, one of the completely paved Los Angeles River through downtown (above), the other two of hillsides sites under construction in preparation for hillside suburban development in Orange County (below). The photographs are beautiful even if what they portray are not necessarily.

SO UGLY ITS BEAUTIFUL I have three photographs in my home, one of the completely paved Los Angeles River through downtown (above), the other two of hillsides sites under construction in preparation for hillside suburban development in Orange County (below). The photographs are beautiful even if what they portray are not necessarily.

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.

IRONIC IMAGERY Brutalist architecture makes for great imagery and when we live in a world of disembodied images that’s good enough.

IRONIC IMAGERY Brutalist architecture makes for great imagery and when we live in a world of disembodied images that’s good enough.

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.

BETON BRUT Picasso and Le Corbusier were part of a cohort of 20th century artists and architects who admired the purity and authenticity of so-called primitive art and wanted to emulate it. In their buildings raw concrete was the material of choice. We take it for granted now but before 1950 this was unheard of.

BETON BRUT Picasso and Le Corbusier were part of a cohort of 20th century artists and architects who admired the purity and authenticity of so-called primitive art and wanted to emulate it. In their buildings raw concrete was the material of choice. We take it for granted now but before 1950 this was unheard of.

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. 

EUROPEAN BRUTALISM Europeans, especially eastern Europeans and the Soviets had a blast, so much did they want freedom, so anxious were they to off load architectural traditions which had come to be associated with so much that went wrong.

EUROPEAN BRUTALISM Europeans, especially eastern Europeans and the Soviets had a blast, so much did they want freedom, so anxious were they to off load architectural traditions which had come to be associated with so much that went wrong.

AMERICAN BRUTALISM Not quite as adventuresome as the Europeans the Americans nevertheless engaged in some wild and crazy (and brutal) stuff.

AMERICAN BRUTALISM Not quite as adventuresome as the Europeans the Americans nevertheless engaged in some wild and crazy (and brutal) stuff.

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).

TERRIFYING BEAUTY 18th century architect Giovanni Piranesi made awesome imagery of terrifying scenes like imaginary prisons and Roman ruins. As spectacular as they are the images portray squalid scenes. And yet they ignited a romantic love affair with ruins that prevails to this day.

TERRIFYING BEAUTY 18th century architect Giovanni Piranesi made awesome imagery of terrifying scenes like imaginary prisons and Roman ruins. As spectacular as they are the images portray squalid scenes. And yet they ignited a romantic love affair with ruins that prevails to this day.

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.

DISEMBODIED BEAUTY These photographs by Jesse Reiser of semi abandoned places, dead malls and distribution centers in the desert are beautiful images of desolate sometimes degraded places.

DISEMBODIED BEAUTY These photographs by Jesse Reiser of semi abandoned places, dead malls and distribution centers in the desert are beautiful images of desolate sometimes degraded places.

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.

BEAUTY IN ENORMITY German photographers Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth capture the awesome environments and relentless patterns of mass humanity. These are images that were not possible even fifty years ago.

BEAUTY IN ENORMITY German photographers Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth capture the awesome environments and relentless patterns of mass humanity. These are images that were not possible even fifty years ago.

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.

IDEAL TO REAL I The drawing on the left portrays the idea of the room that was eventually built shown on the right. The room that was built has very little in detail to do with the drawing but the drawing portrays accurately the idea and the experience of the room. (Beverly Hills Children’s Library)

IDEAL TO REAL I The drawing on the left portrays the idea of the room that was eventually built shown on the right. The room that was built has very little in detail to do with the drawing but the drawing portrays accurately the idea and the experience of the room. (Beverly Hills Children’s Library)

IDEAL TO REAL II This room looks and feels like a campus quadrangle by virtue of the colors, textures and lighting.  Most effective are its walls covered in pictorial wallpaper created from a panoramic photograph of UCLA’s Dickson Court taken with a cell phone camera.

IDEAL TO REAL II This room looks and feels like a campus quadrangle by virtue of the colors, textures and lighting.  Most effective are its walls covered in pictorial wallpaper created from a panoramic photograph of UCLA’s Dickson Court taken with a cell phone camera.

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.

IDEA TO REAL III The idea of the building is simple: a marble block suspended in air and supported on two poured-in-place concrete pedestals. It’s a dramatic move and somewhat brutal without the secondary and tertiary articulations that mediate its scale, ground it in place and enliven it. (Riverside Main Library)

IDEA TO REAL III The idea of the building is simple: a marble block suspended in air and supported on two poured-in-place concrete pedestals. It’s a dramatic move and somewhat brutal without the secondary and tertiary articulations that mediate its scale, ground it in place and enliven it. (Riverside Main Library)