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Architecture Myths #32: Representation

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“Taking [the 1920s], and its historic moment in time as a starting point, this conference seeks to explore the past, present and future of how we visualize people, place, cities and life. … It invites filmmakers exploring city representation, architects, urban planners and designers engaged in the visualization of buildings, cities …. and more.”

I’ve always understood this word visualization to mean the visual communication of something that’s already been conceived but, recently I’ve begun to feel it’s being used to mean the conceiving, the imagining itself.

“To draw a building is to design it,” architect Sebastiano Serlio once said around 1500. I used to think he meant to conceive of a controlling geometry, but now I’m not so sure. He may have meant design was coming up with an idea that looks good on paper. This isn’t a problem of drawing but of using drawing to depict ideas rather than having them. It explains the bravura yet shallow Mannerism of the Late Renaissance. It also feels familiar. Many architects and architects-to-be in this early 21st century would have us believe that “to model a building is to design it.” Our modern replacements for drawing aren’t the problem, but using them to replace thinking is. Regarding modeling tools as design tools has given us an architecture of money-shot visualizations, the bravura yet shallow Mannerism of our times.

The problem here is whether virtual realities and new media are seen as tools to communicate something that’s already been imagined and thus to some degree designed, or whether they’re being used to facilitate the act of designing in the same way a pencil and paper might, or whether they’re being used as a simulacrum of the act of designing itself (or a product that might be expected to result from one). This next sentence isn’t clear on this, so I suspect it’s the simulacrum.

”If we look specifically at spatial design, virtual reality is increasingly seen as ‘everyday’ for architects and urban designers.”

This next sentence says that video, digital photography, 3D printing, etc are all fields whereas I still doggedly see them as techniques of representation that architects can make use of, although if they want to use them to work through an architectural idea then that’s fine too.

“Today, artists, architects, painters, sculptors and designers from various fields can work seamlessly across a plethora of fields: video, digital photography, 3D printing, parametric architecture, algorithmic animation, projection mapping, photogrammetry, virtual reality, and more.

Lines of columns were being designed and receding into the distance long before the discovery of one-point perspective. Of course, once there was that an awareness of one-point perspective it became possible to create false perspectives such as Michaelangelo’s Laurentian Library steps or SOM’s John Hancock Tower.

It’s true that 1920s Europe and the Soviet Union were a time of immense creativity. In the visual arts , there was Braque and Malevich in painting and Rodchenko and Moholy-Nagy in photography. The field of architectural representation had people like Sant’ Elia and Chernikov. Here’s ten of Chernikov’s 101 Architectural Fantasies, all of which could probably have been built though probably not in the Soviet Union at the time.

At that time, persons in the fields of architecture and the visual arts communicated their approaches, research and works to their peers through a network of hundreds of journals. Of the architectural ones, we hear most about Ozenfant and Le Corbusier’s L’Esprit Nouveau, but there was also CA [Contemporary Architecture], the journal of the Soviet Constructivists.

Production costs were low, photographs were few and high-contrast black and white. Many journals were quarterlies as the collection of information was dependent on the postal system and distribution by rail. These journals would be passed around architects’ offices and their ideas and projects debated and processed. To contribute to, or to further the debate, a response could be formulated and posted to the editor for inclusion in a later issue. It was “slow news” but it was a good system. Everything was seen and reviewed by one’s peers. The people who wanted to and needed to know about new developments either subscribed to a journal or borrowed it. It was the internet of its time and it was superior because there was respect for the quality of information and there was the time and the desire to discuss and process it, its relevance, and its possible consequences.

Today, we have an overabundance of information and insufficient time or desire to process it anyway. It’s also often difficult to tell if the intentions of a project or proposal are sincere or whether what we’re looking at is media filler to maintain an illusion of relevance.

Next are three pages from the architecture journal CA that articulated the stance of Constructivists. This particular project for a communal house has individual units on both sides of the stairwell corridor on the floors above and below a shared living area on one half of the floor between. It’s an incredible arrangement in plan and in section in both directions. The tall perspective drawing on the second page shows the stairs don’t continue through all levels and are accessed only via the shared living area.

This is perhaps the most radical of the communal apartment proposals produced by Moisei Ginzburg and his Stroykom team. The entire proposal was communicated by three plans, two sections and four perspective line-drawings. The invention was in the architectural configuration and not its representation. The large line drawing on the second page shows two persons showing that the disconnected staircases were intended to have a social function. This is what line drawings do.

My point is that even if sectional drawings aren’t anyone’s preferred mode of architectural representation any more, this doesn’t mean that buildings don’t have or need to have qualities in section, or that the configuration of a section of a building no longer has purpose or meaning. Some clever animation may serve a purpose for some projects by some architects for certain circumstances, but architecture does not get reinvented or need to be reinvented every time some new medium of representation becomes available.

These next layouts are tight, and I imagine them as some kind of dormitory accommodation for students or essential workers.

Having the corridor on a half levels every other levels and using it to access apartments up and dow, allows the corridor to be larger, more airy and brighter. Light wells distance it from the kitchen windows that overlook (or underlook) it. This is an idea for how to differently configure a section of a building. The mode of representation is not important although a sectional drawing and sectional perspective will better communicate a section idea.

This next project also has kitchens overlooking the open access corridor below. It develops André Devin’s Cité Frais Vallon apartments.

Three sectional perspectives tell just as much. The section through the stairs shows that they’re not shared as stairs by different households, but they are shared as an element dividing one apartment from another.

The scissor apartment is an amazing invention that is, with some difficulty, understood in section and usually with reference to a plan such as this next. The advantage of this contrivance is to allow all living rooms to be on the same side of a building.

But the stairs are in the wrong position. They need to start as close to the corridor as possible in order for them not to divide the plan lengthways, and this means that the entrance hall is cramped and the secondary exit is a door opening into the corridor immediately at the foot (or head) of the stair. These protruding stairs create awkward L-shaped rooms. the bathroom is internal and the entire apartment is isolated from both corridors. Below is my improvement, with an open corridor overlooked by bedrooms and kitchen, and with bathrooms above and below the corridor as before. The plan is longer but has more useable area, there is no requirement for artificial lighting or ventilation and, importantly, the apartments are no longer isolated from the social life of the building.

The mode of representation is not important.

This next proposal is for an apartment building with three-storey high elevator lobbies overlooked by apartments and stair landings. The apartments (and the people inside them) aren’t shut off from the life of the building. The sectional perspective shows this better than the plan.

The shared elevator lobby space are shared by the building residents when they actually use it but it retains a presence even when they are inside their apartments. This idea of apartment inner walls being shared between persons in the apartment and persons in an elevator lobby or access corridor is an important one. Ricardo Bofill’s Walden 7 was a guiding reference.

This last project is the latest iteration of the one above, two years on. Kitchens overlook the central space across voids providing glimpses of lobbies above and below. Once again, the mode of representation is not important but, if architecture is going to be concerned with how people on opposite sides of a wall relate to each other, then a section is still a good way of thinking about how that’s going to work, and a sectional drawing still a good way of communicating it.