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PHOTO FINISH

May 4, 2014

Are buildings becoming “selfies”?

Claire Zimmerman is about to publish words “that shall not be spoken” in a forthcoming book “Photographic Architecture in the Twentieth Century”.  Not unlike “The Da Vinci Code” her soon to be published book promises to voice heresy: that the design of buildings was turned upside down by photography: if I understand the book’s promotional blurbs, Zimmerman describes how instead of following the preaching’s of “Form Follows Function” Modernism actually practiced “Form Follows Foto”.

In its revolutionary birthing Modernism forever wrecked the unthinking legitimacy of tradition. The Modern is ineffably risky, the ends are not determined by known means, but by surfing the “new”, mid-20th Century Photography was about as new as an aesthetic entity can be: while buildings can use new technology to transform the ancient act of building, buildings have been around for our entire cultural memory. Photography is an infant art that was spawned by completely new and ever-changing technology – right up to right now. Ur-photographs were seen as portraits of humans and scenery – a “quickie” version of the painterly arts.

20th Century Photography seamlessly slid into Modernist expression as its essence was as new as each optic/chemical/photon-manipulating innovation.

Using and personally encountering architecture is as common as breathing or sleeping: we do it 24/7/365. We choose to experience art or music. An artless life may not be worth living, but its an option.

But with the advent of serious architectural photography in the 20th century architecture became an optional experience via photography, and that has made all the difference.

Now anyone can have a “take” on any building anywhere, anytime, via photography: and since Marshall McLuhan we all know the “Medium is the Massage” and as the medium for experiencing architecture has morphed from physical encounter to voyeurism,  buildings have had their design criteria massaged to the 2-D.

Imagine buying a suit because you could pose in it and decide that at one angle, and one light level, it was Perfect. If you design buildings for The Perfect Shot, then design bends to that outcome – regardless of context, use, cost or environment. Buildings strut a 2-D stage a la Lady Gaga: image uber alles.

This is diabolically appropriate as our entire cultural reality is skewing to screens: the glowing 2-D world of avatars, endless texting, YouTube, 7000 TV channels, millions of Netflix options and websites of every content have made going to any performance, holding books in your hands or talking to anyone face-to-face a receding reality, replaced by a virtual one.

Buildings are what house us and our technologies that now help distance us from our buildings: architects are grappling with this soup of media as a tool of our brains, versus our brains being an imitative tool for The Perfect Image.

When the world sidles to the 2-D, we ease away from ideas. When ideas ebb, words whither down to captions. HOUZZ wanted me to write as a captioner for their existing images – I cannot do that, but that is what gets them millions and millions of hits.

HOUZZ’s latest promotional mantra is “The New Way To Design Your Home” “design”? Really? I dug in, and the way HOUZZ thinks you can design is by scrolling thru their site’s zillion images and collaging them, “saving” or “deleting” pre-existing pics of presumably built things that you, dear HOUZZer are “designing” into a home. This is, sadly, a classic case of crowd-sourcing dumb-down of what architects are devolving into: clip-art cut-and-paste quilters of building parts.

“Pinterest” is a “visual discovery tool”. “Instagram” “captures and shares the world’s moments”. “Face Book” started as a way to scope out the pretty girls at Harvard. All espouse the ethos of “a picture is worth a thousand words”. None is intended to be reality – but as a mirror of it – a reality that has to actually happen to be “captured” to re-exist on any of those media.

As I see my son’s Division 3 college’s Athletic Department’s website its images and words are identical to the alternative universe of Division 1 athletics. Having seen about 40 of his football games at his college and hundreds of Division 1 games on TV the freeze-frame 2-D equivalence rings ridiculous. Slower, smaller, less skilled, these games are the essence of amateur athletics: they are nobly proud of their altruism: but the joys of Division 3 athletics are simply unaddressed by captioned images that are indistinguishable from their Division 1 counterparts.

Athletic achievement is not equal because the images of the participants look similar. Architecture as captioned images is not design. Posing for a selfie where you look like a celebrity does not make you a celebrity.

When architecture devolves to a set of binary reactions to pre-existing images: a HOUZZ “Ideabook” made manifest, our humanity is diminished. Rather than celebrate new ideas we find defendability in reprocessing predigested pastiches we revert to the 19th century idea of “Style” as the controlling aesthetic authority.

Pop music takes a “hook” and manipulates it to the point of pander – but it sells. Architects can be pop captioners, cutting and pasting safely “correct” buildings bent to the standard of The Perfect Image 20th Century Modernism “hook” that can be safely worshipped, or we can create.

Simulating innovation in a 2-D format is only meaningful in a world without space, time, and humanity. That may be pitch perfect for a selfie, where you (and only you) are dealing with the collateral impact of your “design”. But while culture is channeled through a billion humans, it slowly starves to death when we only look to ourselves (and foto-land) Imagefor inspiration.

 

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