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Visual Architecture

Retinal Architecture and the Loss of Plasticity 

It is evident that the architecture of traditional cultures is also essentially connected with the tacit wisdom of the body, instead of being visually and conceptually dominated. Construction in traditional cultures is guided by the body in the same way that a bird shapes its nest by movements of its body. Indigenous clay and mud architectures in various parts of the world seem to be born of the muscular and haptic senses more than the eye we can even identify the transition of indigenous construction from the haptic realm into the control of vision as a loss of plasticity and intimacy, and of the sense of total fusion characteristic in the settings of indigenous cultures.

The dominance of the sense of vision pointed out in philosophical thought is equally evident in the development of Western architecture. Greek architecture, with its elaborate systems of optical corrections, was already ultimately refined for the pleasure of the eye. However, the privileging of sight does not necessarily imply a rejection of the other senses, as the haptic sensibility, materiality and authoritative weight of Greek architecture prove; the eye invites and stimulates muscular and tactile sensations. the sense of sight may incorporate, and even reinforce, other sense modalities; the unconscious tactile ingredient in vision is particularly important and strongly present in historical architecture, but badly neglected in the architecture of our time.

Western architectural theory since Leon Battista Alberti has been primarily engaged with questions of visual perception, harmony and proportion. Alberti’s statement that ‘painting is nothing but the intersection of the visual pyramid following a given distance, a fixed center and a certain lighting’ outlines the perspectival paradigm which also became the instrument of architectural thinking. Again, it has to be emphasized that the conscious focusing on the mechanics of vision did not automatically result in the decisive and deliberate rejection of other senses before our own era of the omnipresent visual image. The eye conquers its hegemonic role in architectural practice, both consciously and unconsciously, only gradually with the emergence of the idea of a bodiless observer. The observer becomes detached from an incarnate relation with the environment through the suppression of the other senses, in particular by means of technological extensions of the eye, and the proliferation of images. as Marx W Wartofsky argues, ‘the human vision is itself an artifact, produced by other artifacts, namely pictures’.

The dominant sense of vision figures strongly in the writings of the Modernists. Statements by Le Corbusier – such as: ‘I exist in life only if I can see’; ‘I am and I remain an impenitent visual – everything is in the visual’; ‘One needs to see clearly in order to understand’; ‘I urge you to open your eyes. Do you open your eyes? are you trained to open your eyes? Do you know how to open your eyes, do you open them often, always, well?’; ‘Man looks at the creation of architecture with his eyes, which are 5 feet 6 inches from the ground’; and, ‘architecture is a plastic thing. I mean by “plastic” what is seen and measured by the eyes’ – make the privileging of the eye in early Modernist theory very clear. Further declarations by Walter Gropius – ‘He has to adapt knowledge of the scientific facts of optics and thus obtain a theoretical ground that will guide the hand giving shape, and create an objective basis’; and by László Moholy-Nagy:‘the hygiene of the optical, the health of the visible is slowly filtering through’ – confirm the central role of vision in Modernist thought.

Le Corbusier’s famous credo, ‘architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light’, unquestionably defines an architecture of the eye. Le Corbusier, however, was a great artistic talent with a moulding hand, and a tremendous sense of materiality, plasticity and gravity, all of which prevented his architecture from turning into sensory reductivism. Regardless of Le Corbusier’s Cartesian ocular centric exclamations, the hand had a similar fetishistic role in his work as the eye. a vigorous element of tactility is present in Le Corbusier’s sketches and paintings, and this haptic sensibility is incorporated into his regard for architecture. However, the reductive bias becomes devastating in his urbanistic projects.

In Mies van der rohe’s architecture a frontal perspectival perception predominates, but his unique sense of order, structure, weight, detail and craft decisively enriches the visual paradigm. Moreover, an architectural work is great precisely because of the oppositional and contradictory intentions and allusions it succeeds in fusing together. A tension between conscious intentions and unconscious drives is necessary for a work in order to open up the emotional participation of the observer. ‘In every case one must achieve a simultaneous solution of opposites,’ as Alvar Aalto wrote. The verbal statements of artists and architects should not usually be taken at their face value, as they often merely represent a conscious surface rationalisation, or defence, that may well be in sharp contradiction with the deeper unconscious intentions giving the work its very life force.

With equal clarity, the visual paradigm is the prevailing condition in city planning, from the idealized town plans of the renaissance to the Functionalist principles of zoning and planning that reflect the ‘hygiene of the optical’. In particular, the contemporary city is increasingly the city of the eye, detached from the body by rapid motorized movement, or through the overall aerial grasp from an aeroplane. The processes of planning have favored the idealizing and disembodied Cartesian eye of control and detachment; city plans are highly idealized and schematized visions seen through le regard surplombant (the look from above), as defined by Jean Starobinski, or through ‘the mind’s eye’ of plato.

Until recently, architectural theory and criticism have been almost exclusively engaged with the mechanisms of vision and visual expression. The perception and experience of architectural form has most frequently been analyzed through the Gestalt laws of visual perception. Educational philosophy has likewise understood architecture primarily in terms of vision, emphasising the construction of three-dimensional visual images in space.




From: The Eyes of the Skin

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