research log: notes to refer back to

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diary: exactly

Helsinki Design Lab

Collected notes and fragments from Sitra’s Strategic Design Unit. You may be looking for HDL or Low2No, both projects of Sitra.

twitter.com/hdl2010:

  • TK: And designers are being dragged along instead of leading.

    MC: What skills do they need to lead?

    TK: Writing, writing, writing. Reading, reading, reading. Everything designers aren’t taught. It’s absurd. There’s a need to know more now than ever before, but with the evolution of computer designers have become production artists. At best, designers who don’t read and write become translators. They sit in the UN and someone speaks French in one ear and Spanish comes out of their mouths.

research log: table of contents (v1)

Forward                                                                                                  V

I.    Introduction                                                                                      1

II.   Image vs Text:  what can be said with each                                   25

III   Juhani Pallasmaa                                                                          35

IV   Neil Leach                                                                                       45

V    Beatriz Colomina                                                                            55

VI   Petra Cefarin                                                                                  65

VII  Explanation of map project                                                           70

VII  Interviews                                                                                     120

VIII Conclusion                                                                                    130

IX  Appendix one: Map                                                                        131

X  Appendix two: links to blog and website                                       132

XI Appendix three: exhibitions                                                           133

diary: Is there something wrong with love?

amateur (n.) Look up amateur at Dictionary.com1784, “one who has a taste for (something),” from Fr. amateur “lover of,” from L. amatorem (nom. amator) “lover,” agent noun from amatus, pp. ofamare “to love” (see Amy). Meaning “dabbler” (as opposed to professional) is from 1786. As an adjective, early 19c.

work (n.) Look up work at Dictionary.comO.E. weorc, worc “something done, deed, action, proceeding, business, military fortification,” from P.Gmc. *werkan (cf. O.S., O.Fris., Du. werk, O.N.verk, M.Du. warc, O.H.G. werah, Ger. Werk, Goth. gawaurki), from PIE base *werg- “to work” (see urge (v.)).

profession Look up profession at Dictionary.comearly 13c., “vows taken upon entering a religious order,” from O.Fr. profession, from L. professionem (nom. professio) “public declaration,” fromprofessus (see profess). Meaning “occupation one professes to be skilled in” is from 1540s; meaning “body of persons engaged in some occupation” is from 1610; as a euphemism for “prostitution” (e.g. oldest profession) it is recorded from 1888.

labor (v.) Look up labor at Dictionary.comlate 14c., “perform manual or physical work; work hard; keep busy; take pains, strive, endeavor” (also “copulate”), from M.Fr. labourer, from L.laborare, from labor (see labor (n.)). The verb in modern French, Spanish, Portuguese means “to plow;” the wider sense being taken by the equivalent of English travail. Sense of “to endure pain, suffer” is early 15c., especially in phrase labor of child. Related: Labored; laboring.

travail (n.) Look up travail at Dictionary.com“labor, toil,” mid-13c., from O.Fr. travail “suffering or painful effort, trouble” (12c.), from travailler “to toil, labor,” originally “to trouble, torture,” from V.L. *tripaliare “to torture,” from *tripalium (in L.L. trepalium) “instrument of torture,” probably from L. tripalis “having three stakes” (fromtria, tres “three” + palus “stake”), which sounds ominous, but the exact notion is obscure. The verb is recorded from c.1300.

labor (n.) Look up labor at Dictionary.comc.1300, “a task, a project;” later “exertion of the body; trouble, difficulty, hardship” (late 14c.), from O.Fr. labour (Fr. labeur), from L. laborem(nom. labor) “toil, pain, exertion, fatigue, work,” perhaps originally “tottering under a burden,” related to labere “to totter.” Meaning “body of laborers considered as a class” (usually contrasted to capitalists) is from 1839. Sense of “physical exertions of childbirth” is 1590s, earlier labour of birthe (early 15c.); cf. Fr. en travail “in (childbirth) suffering” (see travail). Labor Day first marked 1882 in New York City.

The Vita Activa: Labor, Work and Action

log: Jugez un homme par ses questions plutôt que par ses réponses?

A good reason for wanting to use photography as my method of investigation is that I can imagine but not know the results it will produce. And that is because the type of knowledge it creates can be translated into words but must be originally spoken in images, which do not yet exist.

Another good reason is that they will give people something non-verbal to talk about.

research log: Do images make buildings?

Once formulated, this initial question created several more in my mind, as is always the case.  And many of the questions revolved around the core question of method.  I’d like to discuss the search for the right method, but perhaps I should explain why I asked myself the question in the first place.

I have worked since 2004 as an architectural photographer.  After a couple of years of trying to find my place, I started to get some perspective on the practice and realised what a central role  images played in architects’ lives. I believe that role is undervalued and under-investigated.  Architecture is usually not just work for its practitioners: it is a passion, a love and at times borders on a religion practiced by fanatics. The worship of icons is central: celebrity architects and famous buildings leave their mark and run the show.  You get to be famous not by building, per se, but by being published and having exhibitions at significant cultural venues.  This is the first way in which I saw images making buildings.  Then the idea of a feedback loop occurred to me.

Architects learn architecture through images and they make architecture through drawings, plans, renderings.  And they spend a lot of time looking at photographs.  The language of architecture is visual.  Much cultural theory has been incorporated into architectural discourse, but sit through an undergraduate lecture and you’ll soon see that instead of notes the young hopefuls having drawings in front of them which they attently work on in an attempt to block out the superfluous sounds entering their ears.  We are all visual.  But architects more so, perhaps even more than photographers because they see lines, vantage points, persectives in the world around them.  Most of my photography students are blissfully unaware of the grid they project on the world to view it correctly.  This Renaissance graphic view of the world has ended up photographic.  This is true of aesthetic values and the perceived notion of the real.

This is all very well and good but what as it got to do with the other big question: Why artistic research?

When I arrived at Aalto nine months ago I had little more than a few books and a study plan in mind.  In that plan, I wrote the following about my method:

I propose an interdisciplinary research project that would include qualitative research of contemporary architectural and marketing practices, archival research of pre-media-centred architectural firms, architectural literature from journals, periodicals, trade magazines, and architectural books; in addition, I would include photographic documentation (which I would produce) in order to support my argument.

My research implies both archival research and visual analysis methodologies derived from art history and other more contemporary sociological research techniques. Participant observation within an architectural practice and expert interviews with architects and PR managers will play a key role in the development of my project. I seek to compare the work of (at least) two practices: one whose buildings are photogenic and another whose works are very difficult to represent in two dimensions and make a comparison linked to the crucial tendencies of each.

For the former, I intend to look at the work of a 20th century architect (like Team Ten) , whose work includes labyrinthine spaces that need to be walked through to appreciate.  On the whole, these buildings have fallen out of favour.  Is their lack of “curb flash” to blame?  Perhaps non-expert interviews might serve as a useful tool to compile data on this question.  Just as expert informants will be used to record responses within the industry, non-experts should be consulted with regards to the photogenic quality of several constructions.

I would then examine the work of a media-friendly architect, such as Zaha Hadid , to scrutinise the relationship between image-making and architecture, where the former is not seen merely as representation of the latter, but rather part of the media space that informs our thought and so constructs our paradigm for interpreting physical space and the built environment.  Hadid became the talk of the town before she’d built anything.  Her representational methods and vigorous designs are often sited as this reason for her celebrity.

In summation, research would consist of looking at discourse and images, conducting interviews and engaging in participant observation—I plan to do this by interning in one or several firms, gaining first hand knowledge about a firm’s archives and the way in which they represent their work visually—and conducting photographic experiments all of which would translate into a series of articles and talks that would eventually contribute to my final thesis.

Photographic experiments?  Right at the end, almost like the fine print of a contract, I slipped in something about doing my own work.  I did so because I wanted to reserve the right to produce some photography as part of my thesis, but presumed it wouldn’t be taken seriously and that the weight of my work would have to rest on science, whatever that meant.  Then I presented something at a conference for artistic research at Aalto, and the response was overwhelming.  Here’s that something:

There is an urgent need for a voice articulating what we do. Our work should offer insight that will push the relationship between 2d design and 2d representation forward.  We need art-based research to get out of stagnation to move ideas, creativity design and representation forward just as technology has progress.  Design and representation are two sides of the same coin.  Hence the need for art based research to promote creative feedback loops and avoid circles of mediocrity

Artists are the ones moving the representation of architecture forward.  Architects have too many other things to think about in order to contemplate new photographic styles.  Their job is a nightmare; they aren’t going to take any risks.  But artists can and do.  Our sort of research allows new forms of representation to become available.  With a map, I hope to supply the industry with some new methods to consider but most of all with the idea that there are new methods to consider.  Before codes became limited photographers took iconic pictures that influenced an entire industry.  They set the standard.  Unfortunately, the standard has been set in stone.  And that’s regrettable, avoidable and silly.

Technology has moved forward; most photographers see this as threatening; but they shouldn’t.  Imagery can and should move forward too.  Photographers can be paper architects, just as architects often like to work as photographers.

There is so much more that could be done to explore the possibilities of light for representing architectural space and creating new, exciting, varied atmosphere.  And the use of light is just one such example.  What about camera angles, context, weather (why is everything shot under Mediterranean skies?), depth of field and so on?

This presentation was very well received, and I was encouraged by colleagues, professors from Aalto, and a couple of international visitors to pursue this method and develop the map.  So a warm reception is one reason for moving forward with this method.  A real need felt within academic circles for artistic research is another.  It’s do or die, as I understand it.  But more than either of those reasons, I wish to pursue this type of research because it seems to me to be the right method for the type of question I want to ask.  More of that tomorrow.

research log: deployment and depiction

The image gallery is another important part of this project and will exist in three different spaces: web, print, exhibition.  Each will feature (largely) the same content as the other, but the deployment will differ because the interaction of browser/viewer/spectator with the images and their (hopefully written) responses are integral to this project.  I have no desire just to put a few more pictures of buildings out into the world.  I want to show how photography gives us far more than data about a time and place but rather is a partial constructed view that highly effects our perception of anything.  I suppose this is a bit like staged architectural photography, in that it will be carefully contrived for effect.  And the narrative although simple (essentially a mood created by and around a setting) will alter with each image.

The web gallery promises much through ludic interactivity.  I envision iphone-like technology used to scroll through images for the sake of comparison.  I would also like it if a visitor could compare images by dialing transparencies up or down to view one image through the other and arrive at the atmosphere of their preference.  Specifically, I am imagining the kind of interface you find in Photoshop when you apply certain filters and can view the before and after effect.

The exhibition will hopefully allow people in the same room to talk about the subject at hand.  I would also like it very much if they would fill in a questionnaire.  I suppose the thing to do would be to explain all of that at the time and perhaps on a promotional website beforehand.

The print gallery is the only part I am unsure about.  Is that over-kill?  By the time you’ve looked at the atmospheres web and the image/text gallery, is there any reason for putting more images in the book?  In addition to the other two parts, it will contain a written thesis, which will grow through articles of over the next 3 years.  Perhaps that’s enough.  Feedback on that question would certainly be nice!

research log: a thousand words

I think I should discuss other aspects of my thesis apart from the atmospheres map, and one of the other key elements is an investigation into that old claim that a picture is worth a thousand words.  I mean to take the saying on face value, and see just how much you can say with a thousand words.  At least, that was the idea at the outset.  And it seemed a simple one, but as with any other simple idea, the more you think about it and discuss it with others, the deeper you read into it and more complex it becomes.  At first I thought of a simple binary opposition: image vs. text.  The idea would be to publish image and texts on each side of a double page spread (or screen) that reflected or depicted the same subject.  But how, specifically ? I thought it would be interesting to test the capacity of each to illustrate the other, depending on which came first: the idea expressed in image or words.  Then it occurred to me that another way to test the strengths and weaknesses of each would be to make one complete the other: put the ineffable in the image and that which requires linguistic concretion in the text.  It could also be interesting to test what people retain out of each, as the idea behind my research question (do images make buildings?) hinges on how architects see buildings (through directly or through media) and how what they retain out of that encounter shapes what they go on to design.

research log: what to shoot?

This question is key for two reasons: the importance of working together with architects for the production of the map and the importance of what is shown to test the hypothesis behind it–which is something I’ve yet to articulate.

If photography is more than just a digital recording device to transfer visual information about the world on to computers, then what is it at this stage?  Certainly it’s a frame, a perspective on both a singular time and place.  It also takes part, at varying levels depending upon the practitioner, in certain art traditions.  It can be staged (in terms of planning, execution or post-production) or serendipitous. It can be used consciously or unconsciously.  The list of what it is could go on forever, but I think it is safe to say that each photograph taken represents one of any number of possible that might have been produced at that moment of that place. It is partial and coloured, even where it tries to be objective.  As is anything we produce.

What I am particularly interested in is its capability to intentionally add tone or mood to a given place which might not be felt by any two given people at a given place but which can be perceived and discussed by two people viewing a photograph.  It is in this sense, firstly, that I think of photography as creating places (landscapes, buildings, etc).  It does not just capture as space and allow it to be shared via a certain technology, but shares a particular viewpoint of that place.  The second way it does so I shall return to later.

Through a number of decisions and procedures which I shall document, photography constructs the sense of place that architects so often talk about.  To test this hypothesis, I will construct several different atmospheres (9 it would seem, to begin with) from a given point on the map.  I will shoot several different places so that users of the map (…gallery, interviews, etc) can draw their own conclusions about how the atmosphere created intersects with the space depicted.  It will hopefully engender value judgements that are as singular as the point of view viewed by the viewer, yet just as communicable.

To begin with, I should like to photograph places my intuition tells me will not change on the most fundamental level (pleasant/unpleasant) no matter how I capture them.  I can think of a few traffic-choked concrete jungles as well as certain views of the sea and forest which alter little in my mind according to that binary opposition.  Perhaps I could test the intersection between photography and place at the outset by photographing them, and then go on to look for collaborators in this project amongst architects in order to delve into more specific investigations.  The part of others in this will be the topic of the next entry.

research log: nine

The number chosen is neither arbitrary nor symbolic.  Nine seems a realistic number of places to follow in a year and any more than nine approaches towards the depiction of each would make the grid too small or imply an impossibly large poster.  For the grid to be equilateral, four, nine or sixteen were the obvious choices and the first seemed too small a sample size, the last too large.  I do hope to grow this project over the course of several years and eventually come up with more of a dictionary than a poster, but for the outset nine seems the most reasonable number.

That said, to choose from all the possible ways of depicting something is no easy matter an requires some thought.  Many ways of doing so come to mind.

Inevitably, photography has had much to do with celebrity.  If you are well known you shoot the important jobs and so become even more well known and leave your mark on the era in which you are working.  Buildings are seen through your eyes, to some extent, in architectural photography.  So one obvious choice would be to select nine key photographers and apply (my interpretation of) their approach to (architectural?) photography.  I do not wish to limit myself to architectural photographers because the purpose of this project is to arrive at an expanded field of architectural representation, so fine art photographers would at least have to be included as well, if not also people from other fields.  A list would look something like this:

  • Lucien Herve
  • Julius Schulman
  • Andreas Gursky
  • Thomas Demand (so as to work with models)
  • Dan Holdsworth (nocturnal)
  • Hiroshi Sugimoto
  • Candida Hoffer
  • Iwaan Bann
  • Jussi Tianen (because I am in Finland)

Another way of doing it might be to select nine categories of styles which produce clear and different atmospheres but open up to much broader interpretation during the process:

  • historical survey of arch photo: 19th century, 1920s, 1950s
  • fine art: 1980s b/w, deadpan, staged
  • contemporary architectural magazines and books
  • documentary: where photography is used to transmit information not a certain aesthetic value
  • regional differences: German, American, Japanese, etc.

Clearly that list would still need some concretion and reduction.   It might be better to think of atmospheric rubrics in a more literal sense of the word:

  • white: white skies on overcast and/or snowy days
  • blue: blue light, shot just before dusk
  • med: the clear blue skies you find so often in architectural magazines with direct, contrasty sunlight
  • rain: just as it sounds but with varying degrees of inclemency
  • fog
  • stripes: my technique of slicing up different moments in the day and putting them together in one image
  • festive: when areas fill up with people enjoying a space
  • functional: people queueing, sitting at desks or otherwise conditioned in their behaviour partly by a given place
  • one of the categories from above: staged? deadpan? documentary?

I would base my categories on a photographic example of each.  I don’t think it will be possible to arrive at a final selection until I have done so.  I need to see this plan and understand it with my eyes.  I wonder if it would be important for my thesis work to articulate in words why I think each is important and distinct from the other as well as define each photographer/atmosphere/category much as I have done in the last list (but more fleshed-out).

The same level of complexity I am faced with now I must choose my nine approaches hits me in the face when I consider which buildings and urban/natural settings to depict.  A combination of historical and contemporary?  Finnish or perhaps a pan-Nordic survey?  Decisions, decisions…and then the hunt for collaborators begins.

research log: my project

I will create a map of 9 places depicted 9 different ways for a total of 81 atmospheres.  The map will be two sided, each with different focus: architectural or photographic.  The graphic arrangement of places and their depiction will serve as an epistemological tool to better understand how images create places we internalise, forming notions about the world.

The process of artistic and academic research will be documented in this blog.  Entries will be categorised as follows:

research log: activities and observations significant to research – my work

log: things which maybe useful as reference material – others’ work

diary: personal events that should be earmarked – life as connected to work