The third edition of inter·mission, discussing our societal relationship with image making. Download PDF.
Note from the Editors
An image is a suggestion of something else as much as it is something itself. Image-making has been a cornerstone of civilization for tens of thousands of years—a form of communication, record keeping, and expression. The earliest cave paintings were thought to possess a specific, predictive power, depicting animals and scenes of hunting as a way to bring about “hunting magic.” The images created on the walls of caves were symbolic, illustrative of the reality they desired, not true depictions of real events. Egyptian hieroglyphics are possibly the clearest and most well known use of image as structured communication, but they were certainly not the first and obviously not the last. Lest we forget, our written languages of today are an assemblage of images (especially those pesky emojis).
Images have always been an abstraction of something else, often something real. Even when the Renaissance brought us linear perspectival drawing and seemingly rationalized (mathematically, at least) images for us, the image still remained an abstraction, a mere representation of something real. We were still able to identify an image as an image. As photography and movie making developed, the Image gained a whole new realness, able to capture actual real life in two dimensions. As these mediums continue to develop, they are no longer constrained to two dimensions—digital computer graphics, 360° cameras, virtual reality, augmented reality. The Image is just one word away from just “reality.”
Today The Image can be anything it wants to be, but it is not not always what we want it to be. Sometimes it’s too realistic, distorting and obscuring our ability to discern truth from fiction. Sometimes it’s not real enough, allowing us to ignore, escape, and evade realities of our political and social climate we very well should not avoid. What is true is the ubiquity of the Image. We carry images with us everywhere, the ever pervasive screen always in our pocket. The cloud possesses an image of us, accessible to almost anyone. Images are all around us, but not always because we want them there.
More and more, every moment seems critical–culture, and life itself, always at an impasse. Our societal relationship with images, with The Image, is not outside of that paradigm, however falsely alarmist it may be. Screens and the digital-everything emphasis has flattened the world, we consume in snapshots and snapchats, on screens and in virtual spaces. In this issue, as we do with all issues, we ask you to question. And in this case, it is our relationship with images.
The irony in this issue: we have painted an incomplete image—sharply and unevenly cropped, unapologetically biased and distorted. Hopefully, after reading, you begin to make your own image, these pixels are just a starting point. Oh, and we know we don’t clearly define image, image-making, or The Image. We want you to do that, maybe you already have.
Image and Impetus
Earthrise - December 24, 1968
Cultural perceptions of our planet that we have today in the United States were predominantly defined by one of the most revolutionary decades in global history, the Sixties. The tumultuous year of 1968 brought about many of these critical moments–one being NASA’s mission, Apollo 8. Three astronauts, the first of humankind to view Earth as a whole planet, brought us to the perspective of the moon, snapping the iconic photo.
“We went to the moon, but we actually discovered earth,” Anders reflected.
Only 558 people of the 7.6 billion on our planet have seen Earth from this perspective, firsthand, through the window of their spacecraft. After their missions, astronauts are surveyed on their experience. When asked about the personal impact of the mission, overwhelmingly and with substantial emotion they convey a changed outlook on humanity, feeling more connected to Earth and its’ beings. This intense sensibility toward the Earth has been termed the overview effect, first described in 1987 by Frank White as a literal cognitive shift in which the viewer feels the need to protect our "pale blue dot."
Even from a great distance, this inadvertent glance back at the Earth connects humans to their planet as a whole. In these moments, conflicts at the macro scale—ongoing wars, disputes over territories and border lines and citizenship, class and socioeconomic differences, racial stereotypes and biases toward identity, misuse and mistreatment of available resources, the list goes on as there are a lot of things that are not right in our world—seem to fall away and the highest priority, the greatest imperative is now creating a planetary society, focused on preserving the planet that we do have left. The realities of our planet’s crisis become unavoidable and this impetus begs action.
Amidst the cultural decade of the 1960s, the greater public realized their responsibility for the planet, spurred by world initiatives and concerns such as the 1962 Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. In response, the first Earth Day occured April 22, 1970. Fueled by a public consciousness of resource scarcity and environmental pollution, leaders used contemporaneous movements, imbued with anti-war sentiment and student political enthusiasm, to push an unprecedented focus on environmental protection into the national political consciousness. Earth Day marked a new phase of actionable progress for the American public as millions took to the streets to rally for a global awareness of the crisis that our fragile Earth faced.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the mission of Apollo 8. Two years from now will mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The vehemence behind these events was driven by an understanding rooted in a new visual truth, one that prioritized the interconnection of life and sustainability of the environment for the world. And many would say that, now, more than ever, our world is in dire need of a similar sensibility and heightened perspective.
However profound, when accompanied with an explanation, the snapshot of our Earth does not instill in us the same urgency those 558 astronauts felt. It is a compelling photo and notion—the image indicates this impetus but fails to implant the same experience to every other inhabitant of this planet. So, how do we instill the same sense of urgency? Do we just start launching the masses into space, transporting them to the vantage point of the moon? Technology and global economies are just a few of the systems that would impede this process. Not to mention, that doesn’t seem reasonable or ethically sound. So how, then, are we able to convey this vital understanding of our planet?
Perhaps this renewed perspective is not created from a vantage point at the same macroscale that a telescope captures in space. Maybe it is a shift to the microscale; a new lens allowing humanity to examine their immediate surroundings and self. Or it isn’t about scale at all, and it is a lateral shift, a moment for retrospective. Regardless of how shift in perspective manifests, we require a change that will allow us to reexamine humanity and our Earth–seeing the change over time and projecting what may come.
And what image will mark this new profound understanding, this impetus for change? Like the snapshot of the blue orb that simply floats in space, we need an image to launch this new perspective of our planet and society. It must speak a universal truth–it must be compelling enough to engage bystanders, sensitive enough to imbue emotion, and strong enough to carry a movement. Because now, above all, we require a banner of our impetus, an image to take to the streets.
1 And these rallies continue today, as the environmental crisis only worsens, becoming more dire with each passing day.
Musings of a Modern Grand Tourist
Ce n'est pas un bâtiment, Scarlet Tong
Eighteenth-century aristocratic culture typically involved a Grand Tour, during which young noblemen travelled across Europe to learn about art and architecture. They visited examples of classic works that we know all too well today: the Parthenon in Rome, the Uffizi gallery in Florence, and the ruins of Pompeii, to name a few. As these scholars brought their findings back to their home countries, architectural and archaeological knowledge was disseminated across continents and became increasingly accessible as the tradition of the Grand Tour flourished.
Today, the notion of a Grand Tour through Europe may seem antiquated, especially with our second-hand consumption of architecture, through digital images and reproductions. However, as the philosopher Korzybski stated, “the word is not the thing.” Similarly, the image is not the building, and to understand how built works operate, visiting them is necessary.
On a contemporary 21st-century Grand Tour of the Netherlands, I visited Timmerhuis — Rotterdam’s city hall. The new government building was designed for a 2008 competition conducted by the city. OMA proposed affordable apartments, floating above a citadel of offices, grounded by a public plaza. A beautifully-crafted image evoking the “cloud-like” nature of the misty, frameless glass won them the competition, and despite great controversy, their design was realized. However, by the end of construction, Timmerhuis retained few qualities of the heroic symbol OMA had initially proposed for the city.
The reality of the ‘floating fortress’ never matched the sensibility that the image had imbued in its viewers. The building reads more as a “pixelated glacier” than a protective cloud of governance and has been criticized as reflective of the city’s “bold ambitions, vain hopes and spectacular failures.” No one saw the image that the jury, the city, and the public had been initially sold on.
Visually appealing yet misleading imagery has long been a norm of architecture. Grand Tourists like Richard Payne Knight and James Adam have written about journeying to remote sites to see buildings only to be confronted with an entirely anti-climatic experience. “So much for Paestum,” Adam once wrote, describing the Doric temples in Paestum as “the famous antiquities so much talked of late as wonders, but which curiosity apart, do not merit half the time and trouble they have cost me.”
Timmerhuis is one of many projects that exemplifies the commercialization within imagery. Images play a key role in architectural representation but are often fetishized, as the glossy render has become the money-maker for many firms today. The public sense of disconnect between images of built work and the work itself comes from more than just an unbalanced consumption of specific kinds of imagery. Everyone involved has their own expectations of what architecture can and cannot do, making apparent discrepancies in the perception of architectural aspirations, visual and otherwise.
Aspirations associated with first proposals are at the heart of the matter. As Aaron Betsky explores “How Dreams Die in the Process” in his book Architecture Matters, he contends that “the better the architecture as a proposal, the more difficult it is to live up to its vision once you have to make it real.” Architects often win competitions without having taken decisions about the construction strategy for the project. Iteration continues after a design is selected, leading to stylistic alterations of form and materiality, in order for construction to be feasibly undertaken.
The profession relies heavily on collaboration to accomplish this. The journey from conception to construction requires explicit and effective communication between key players. However, these stakeholders seek minimal accountability, both contractually and culturally. In this sphere, expectations are often seen to misalign, particularly when public perception is involved. To what extent is the architect responsible for delivering a building true to its representation? Does prioritizing such delivery place visual and aesthetic concerns above performative ones?
Imagery and the reactions it inspires are clearly central to the experience of architecture. Three centuries ago, Grand Tourists were instrumental in propagating the most important architectural lessons of their time. Today, travel is the means to experience and communicate the most crucial architectural lessons of the 21st century. Seeing built work that looks or works differently than expected teaches that design needs to be about feasibility of construction as much as aesthetic sensibilities; about flexibility as much as commitment to a concept; and about an acknowledgement of inherent flaws, as much as an optimism for what architecture can achieve.
Dignity of the Urban Icon
The Eiffel Tower was the first modern urban icon, arriving on a picture postcard. It spurred international fascination and attention as it traveled around the world in photographs, printed on pieces of cardstock, ushering in a new era; people from around the world came to know the urbanity of a place by a single structure, an architectural icon. The Eiffel Tower, an engineering marvel in all its structural complexity, was a dream of photographers and illustrators, alike, and was primed to establish the lasting role of modern urban icons to the cityscape. It would soon be joined in this iconic role by both historic and contemporary structures such as the Parthenon, Statue of Liberty, and Hollywood sign. However, unique to the case of this Parisian icon, the distribution and popularization of picture postcards, brought about by the development and democratization of photography, coincided with its construction, paving the way for the Eiffel Tower to become the first urban icon.
Small enough to comfortably fit in your hand, these carefully crafted picture postcards of now historic structures, in a sense, concretized the single architectural artifact as a key visual character to the cities that we are familiar with today. They surpass their simple existence as landmarks within a city. These visuals of urban settings communicate widespread urban understandings of cities. Seemingly, the entire urban infrastructure of a city was represented by a single urban icon, which was then disseminated internationally through the repetition of printed picture postcards–today we see these standing in snow globes, dangling on keychains, illustrated on notebooks. These images reinforced the significance of a structure as a fundamental element of the urban visual character of a city.
However, postcards are increasingly becoming a part of a vintage culture, used with less and less frequency as a medium for communication, but instead as a wall decoration to hang from a clothespin on a string. And while our experience and reading of cities may now be better understood as an increasingly abbreviated consumption, the role of urban icons in the representation of a city, initially disseminated and exemplified by postcards, is not lost. The modern urban icons that we have become so familiar with are still right at our fingertips–on our screens and traveling at the speed of our wireless connection–though perhaps, somewhat hidden, looming in the background of today’s language of representation.
Within contemporary architectural education and practice, there is exists a certain ideology in representation of cityscapes, which collages these quintessential urban icons with other sets of highly curated images to suggest a new visual and cultural understanding of the urban setting. In this ultra aesthetic version of our world, iconic cities and idyllic urbanscapes are layered together by consumers and fabricators, alike, as their fingers glide over a trackpad to compose the idealized sensibility of place that they seek.
Needless to say, travel nor postage is an issue for these collaged worlds, beginning at one urban icon and seamlessly scrolling to the next, trasping from icon to icon through a sea of layered acontextual blocks of texture. Characters of modernist and surrealist painters observe the clean stark lines of a building edge meeting a cloudless sky, the compositional aesthetic to the geometries of layered materials. And there, in the background, is the urban icon that this drawing clings to for its grounding. It is dreamlike. Surreal.
Amidst all the interchangeable pieces of these collages, the framework remains the same. While textures, walls, and even buildings swirl around the page to satisfy the need for a compelling graphic quality, the meaning of the collage is based on the fundamental cultural significance and context behind these urban icons and these stolen surrealist characters.  This style of representation can be better understood as an amalgamation of the sensibilities behind each piece of the collage, pulled from digital material libraries of existing textures, characters, and urban icons.
Collage allows for the hybridization of existing works to charette feelings of place while maintaining an ethereal flexibility. There is still room to push and pull these layers for a final project proposal and its accompanying images. These collages, named by some as the “post-digital drawing,” combat the realness that other representation styles claim.  For example, hyperreal render-style representation usually conveys a so-called finalized design with the graphic language of photography with verisimilitude. These glossy renders are the “[picture] postcards from the new future,” as they allow us to peer into what appears to be a fully manifested proposal.
In a hyperreal render, a clay model comes to life as the background image is layered with photoreal textures and people. We are looking at what could be a photo, if it weren’t for its unwavering precision. Despite day, night, rain, snow, or sun, the world offered by the rendered image boasts an optimal contrast that never hinders legibility of place, a balance of hue and saturation, a carefully selected filter to satisfy the “patina of time,” and a perfect illumination that ensures safety for a midnight stroll. Yet again, in the distance, we see the constructed, rendered image clinging to an urban icon to provide itself with a borrowed validity.
In both the case of the collage and of the hyperreal rendered image, these urban icons have been usurped, taken at their face value to acontextual worlds, the idea of place just a backdrop, a texture. However, representation through collage seems to give greater dignity to the urban icon as an image. It not only borrows a contextual understanding of literal location but also alludes to its cultural significance. Fabricated to create the sense of a designed place, collage simulates space, allowing the urban icon to speak volumes to the sensibility that the architecture is intended to follow. In contrast, a constructed, rendered image simply uses the geographic qualities of the urban icon, limiting it to its coordinates. Providing a contextual and cultural basis, these historically iconic elements of a city, integral to the nature and character of place, are still mere materials for the representation of today.
1 Even those who have not traveled to Paris are familiar with this icon.
2 David Hockney, Andre Breton, and Edward Hopper are just a few of these artists, painters to be precise, whose characters repeatedly appear amongst these layers.
3 These collages are invoking the feeling of a place and harnessing the cultural significance of the urban icon to imbue the drawing with greater substance.
4 Architecture Enters the Age of Post-Digital Drawing: Setting a design concept to pencil and paper was once considered a core architectural act, but the past two decades’ culture of digital rendering almost killed it. Almost. (March 21, 2017) Sam Jacob, Metropolis.
5 Thank you to Professor Damiani for the term.
Dear Skalgubbar Girl
Dear Skalgubbar Girl,
In my last four years of architecture school, I have come to know you well. I wish I could say what we share is special. I wish I could say what you've done for me has been positive and life changing. But the truth of the matter is: you kinda suck.
Pleasantries aside, I have a few questions. Who are you?? Do you own other clothes, or is your closet full of those flowy pink skirts? What’s in that little red bag? A Sweet Green Harvest Salad™ with avocado? You walk everywhere in those low top Converse, how have they lasted so long?? Do you know that someone is trying to sell you? Or, I guess, an image of you, online for just 2 Yen?
Do you know how famous you are? You've pervaded seemingly every genre of architectural visualization–the stylized hyperreal of BIG, the collages of KGDVS. You’re in images by TEd'A, OMA, Gehry, Herzog. I can’t even begin to explain how popular you are among students. You're seemingly everywhere, in every season, at every time of day (despite being dressed for an 90 degree day in the bright Miami sun).
You’re a symbol of the homogeneous smoke screen of architecture visualization. But you’re also a tool, an anchor point, sometimes the only thing reminding us that the image we’re looking at is a mirage—a carefully crafted dream designed to deceive and sell us on the spirit of the image rather than the architectural merit of a project. In a strange way, your repetition grounds a practice so often up in those lens-flaired clouds, pinching us awake from our photoshop dreamscapes.
So maybe we do share something special. Maybe I do like you. Coffee sometime?
The image does not crack or crumble, its cantilevers do not sag, its entourage is always happy to be flying kites, walking dogs, rollerblading, being Scandinavian. When replicated, reproduced, copied, the image doesn’t change or age, but it does degrade. When copying analog file formats, quality degradation is typically due to noise and bandwidth problems. Cables, amplifiers, mixers, equipment incapable of handling the size of the source material, throwing away some of the content along the way. With digital formats the issue is almost the opposite. As files are compressed and zipped, miscellaneous artifacts are introduced to the file, increasing the entropy of the data with each generation—essentially: bloat. The file gets bigger, while the quality worsens. This loss of quality is known as “generation loss,” the loss of quality when copying data with every regeneration of an image. This phenomena is becoming more and more prevalent as contemporary image making becomes increasing digital, increasingly available, increasingly replicated.
The earliest iterations of social media were predicated on the sharing of original content. These platforms, the ones we know today, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Vine (lol) would eventually reinvent and distort their original intentions, adding features that promoted “re-posting,” or copying. Twitter added the “Retweet” feature in 2009, three years after their inception. Facebook added a similar “re-post” feature in 2010, six years after their founding. Taking the cue, Vine (RIP) added a “revining” feature just months after their launch in 2013. The very first weblogs were platforms to share original opinions with a wide audience, Tumblr (a platform built to make reblogging as frictionless as possible) perverted the idea of originality, rewarding anonymous users for simply sharing curated content made by others, often without credit or attribution, and even obscuring the original source. Culture’s landscape is increasingly oversaturated, increasingly mobile, and continues to reward and promote this copying of culture—we continue to consume and reproduce in that same fashion. In many ways, our culture—our clothes, our music, art, food, are becoming blurry attempts at copying, at replicating. Culture is degrading.
The built environment is not immune to this degradation. Modernism’s obsession with automation and replication created the endless copy-paste that was Levittown, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico. Postmodernism’s approval of ironic façadism as a means to critique modernism’s functionality, gave a free pass to new urbanism’s plastic obsession with the new classical. The globalized neoliberal economy has created a model of development that knows no context, no landscape, no urban fabric, no people. A form of development that seems to rattle across the globe at an unattainable speed and pervacity, as Keller Easterling refers to it, the “drumbeat of generic skyscrapers.” With each instance of development, humanity is obscured, erased, lost.
Contemporary architectural image-making pushes us further into this homogenized obscurity. This is not a question of sampling, or borrowing and building on top of. This is not Winy’s Copy Paste, this is not Ferugson’s Everything is a Remix. This is not a call for the mirage of pure originality or a “new authenticity.” This is a call to question how we make, how we establish connections, how we consume—a call to be mindful. We are losing clarity and adding noise. As we render, market, and sell the same perfect, frictionless spaces with ever so slightly different kite flyers, we should question it. As we *like* Fendi’s Fila appropriation on Instagram, we should question it. We need to question, if only to stop this cultural degradation via copy-paste, alt-drag, repost replication, if only to stop from becoming Generation: Loss.
1 Something I would argue was their ultimate demise, in addition to YouTube Vine compilations, taking people away from the platform itself, and giving traffic to another platform.