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Visual Architecture

An Architecture of Visual Images 

The ocular bias has never been more apparent in the art of architecture than in the past half century, as a type of architecture, aimed at a striking and memorable visual image, has predominated. Instead of an existentially grounded plastic and spatial experience, architecture has adopted the psychological strategy of advertising and instant persuasion; buildings have turned into image products detached from existential depth and sincerity.

David Harvey relates ‘the loss of temporality and the search for instantaneous impact’ in contemporary expression to the loss of experiential depth. Fredric Jameson uses the notion of ‘contrived depthlessness’ to describe the contemporary cultural condition and ‘its fixation with appearances, surfaces and instant impacts that have no sustaining power over time’. As a consequence of the current deluge of images, architecture of our time often appears as mere retinal art, thus completing an epistemological cycle that began in Greek thought and architecture. But the change goes beyond mere visual dominance; instead of being a situational bodily encounter, architecture has become an art of the printed image fixed by the hurried eye of the camera. In our culture of pictures, the gaze itself flattens into a picture and loses its plasticity. Instead of experiencing our being in the world, we behold it from outside as spectators of images projected on the surface of the retina. David Michael Levin uses the term ‘frontal ontology’ to describe the prevailing frontal, fixated and focused vision.

Susan Sontag has made perceptive remarks on the role of the photographed image in our perception of the world. She writes, for instance, of a ‘mentality which looks at the world as a set of potential photographs’, and argues that ‘the reality has come to seem more and more what we are shown by camera’, and that ‘the omnipresence of photographs has an incalculable effect on our ethical sensibility. By furnishing this already crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is.

As buildings lose their plasticity, and their connection with the language and wisdom of the body, they become isolated in the cool and distant realm of vision. With the loss of tactility, measures and details crafted for the human body and particularly for the hand – architectural structures become repulsively flat, sharp-edged, immaterial and unreal. The detachment of construction from the realities of matter and craft further turns architecture into stage sets for the eye, into a scenography devoid of the authenticity of matter and construction. The sense of ‘aura’, the authority of presence, that Walter Benjamin regards as a necessary quality for an authentic piece of art, has been lost. These products of instrumentalised technology conceal their processes of construction, appearing as ghostlike apparitions. the increasing use of reflective glass in architecture reinforces the dreamlike sense of unreality and alienation. The contradictory opaque transparency of these buildings reflects the gaze back unaffected and unmoved; we are unable to see or imagine life behind these walls. The architectural mirror, that returns our gaze and doubles the world, is an enigmatic and frightening device.


From: The Eyes of the Skin

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