log: photography is not representation

According to The Architectural Review, at least, as their May 2013 issue is dedicated to the subject of architecture and representation but photography is not mentioned once.  Perhaps it is because so many photographs are used to illustrate the articles that it seemed a tautology to mention them.

log: photography’s existential doubts



If you have followed discussions of photography on the web over the past few years, it’s not unlikely that you might have come to the conclusion that the medium is experiencing a crisis. Here is just one example of someone characterizing photography:

Everything is being tried, but nothing seems to dispel the malaise that hangs over the contemporary photography or the uneasiness, lack of confidence, alienation, and dislocation that afflict the contemporary photographer.

That appears to sum things up fairly well, doesn’t it? That’s Janet Malcolm, writing in 1976. I found the sentence in the very last paragraph of an essay entitled Diana and Nikon (originally published in New Yorker Magazine, you can also find it in Diana and Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography, my source).

Let’s forget about photography for a second. Let’s focus on the fact that a statement from an article about photography written in 1976 sounds as if it was lifted from one of the many articles published about the medium today. What’s going on here? It would be tempting to dismiss Malcolm’s statements, just like all the other ones, claiming that essentially, people have always complained about this. Apart from the fact that that’s not necessarily true, it also refuses to address the problem.

The malaise in large parts of the world of photography is very real. The question is: why has it lasted so long? What is going on here? It might tell us something that Malcolm wrote her essay a couple of years after digital photography was invented, decades removed from the point in time where digital cameras, in whatever form, would find their ways into the lives of photographers (professionals and non-professionals alike). The malaise has nothing to do with the digital world.

Instead, it has a lot to do with our general ideas what photography should do and its inability to live up to those ideas. Let me give you an example to try to make this a bit clearer. It’s a common and widely accepted claim that “we’re all photographers now” (here is just one example). But when a newspaper fires all their photographerseverybody is suddenly upset. Something doesn’t compute here. We’re either all photographers, or we’re not. If we are all photographers, then obviously a newspaper doesn’t need to employ photographers given that everybody else (the cleaning staff, the other reporters, the receptionists, etc.) can do the job just as well.

I think it’s fairly obvious that firing the photographers was a bad idea, because the cleaning staff, the other reporters, the receptionists, etc. will not be able to do the job the photographers were doing (the newspaper will soon find out; I don’t expect it to last). Which means that we are not all photographers. Or maybe more accurately, we might all have cameras, and we all might be using them all the time, but that doesn’t mean that what we’re doing with them is the same thing, regardless of whether it’s Thomas Ruff, Alec Soth, Sally Mann, some photojournalist in Afghanistan, a local news reporter down the street, your grandmother, your parents, yourself, or whoever else.

This brings me back to Malcolm’s essay, which was written in response to John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye and to Jonathan Green’s The Snap-Shot, to, essentially, the introduction of so-called vernacular photography into the sacred hallways of high-brow photography (or whatever you want to call it). It would seem that the world of high-brow photography has never fulled recovered from this and is stuck in a perpetual state of malaise, resulting in, to re-quote Malcolm’s words, “the uneasiness, lack of confidence, alienation, and dislocation that afflict the contemporary photographer”.

It would seem that there are two ways to solve the problem so many photographers appear to be having right now: We can either go back to the world where there were photographers and amateurs, the latter strictly separate. It’s probably fairly obvious why that isn’t a very good idea. The alternative to that would be to start looking at photography does and how despite the dictum that “we’re all photographers now” in reality means that we’re engaged in very different things.

Whenever I have the opportunity I like talking to non-photoland people about photography. Not surprisingly, pretty much everybody I talked to takes photographs, usually with their cell phone. Just as an aside, one of the best photo presentations I’ve had in a while was courtesy of the twelve-year old daughter of a (photographer) friend of mine, who was happy to show me all the photos from a recent trip on her cell phone. People usually love talking about their photographs, and they love telling you what is in those pictures (even if most of that is not apparent to a stranger at all – we’re certainly all photographers in the sense of believing there are things in the pictures someone else simply can’t see, given her or his lack of background knowledge).

At the same time, I yet have to meet someone outside of photoland who believes her or his photographs are in any way comparable to the photos taken by professionals. As it turns out, from my admittedly hardly representative “research,” most non-professional photographers have a better understanding of the differences in meaning, use, and even quality between their pictures and those of professionals than many professionals themselves!

Maybe it’s time to stop all the hand wringing now, and to go back to making pictures, and to exploring what the medium photography has to offer. We’re all photographers now. Fine. Whatever. Plus, we’re really not. Now might be a good time to stop pretending that we are all the same kinds of photographer, realizing that making distinctions does not mean that one is better or more valuable or more desirable than the other. Add context to the debate, and things get even more interesting.

And maybe the problem with art photography is that it has lost all ideas of context, of what it can or should do. The days of John Szarkowski, of someone being willing and able to engage with the medium, of someone being willing and able to take the medium and to try to figure out what it does, and to then communicate this to a wider audience… Those days appear to be over. Make no mistake, I don’t yearn for just one person to be that person. But there is no reason why it just needs to be one. Who says it can only be one?

It’s a shame that as far as photography is concerned our expectations have become so vastly diminished. We’re all photographers now – that’s really just scraping the very bottom of the barrel as far as the medium is concerned. Given that photography is more popular than ever, it’s almost shocking to me that such an opportunity is essentially being squandered. It’s time to end the existential dread that has been hanging over large parts of the photographic community for too long now.

log: learning from architectural photography?


The images and conclusions are a bit disappointing but the path is useful all the same.

research log: radical pedagogy

log: excerpts from eisenmann on architectural images in AR


26 April 2013 | By Iman Ansari

Iman Ansari: In your career you have sought a space for architecture outside the traditional and conventional realm. You have continually argued that modern architecture was never fully modern as it failed to produce a cognitive reflection about the nature of architecture in a fundamental way. From your early houses, we see a search for a system of architectural meaning and an attempt to establish a linguistic model for architecture: the idea that buildings are not simply physical objects, but artefacts with meaning, or signs dispersed across some larger social text. But these houses were also part of a larger project that was about the nature of drawing and representation in architecture. You described them as ‘cardboard architecture’ which neglects the architectural material, scale, function, site, and all semantic associations in favour of architecture as ‘syntax’: conception of form as an index, a signal or a notation. So to me, it seems like between the object and the idea of the object, your approach favours the latter. The physical house is merely a medium through which the conception of the virtual or conceptual house becomes possible. In that sense, the real building exists only in your drawings.

Peter Eisenman: The ‘real architecture’ only exists in the drawings. The ‘real building’ exists outside the drawings. The difference here is that ‘architecture’ and ‘building’ are not the same.

House II axonometric

An axonometric drawing of Eisenman’s House II, (1975)

IA: So with that in mind, did you ever wish none of your houses was actually built?

PE: No. Let me go back because you raised a lot of questions. If there is a debate in architecture today, the lasting debate is between architecture as a conceptual, cultural and intellectual enterprise, and architecture as a phenomenological enterprise − that is, the experience of the subject in architecture, the experience of materiality, of light, of colour, of space and so on. I have always been on the side opposed to phenomenology. I’m not interested in Peter Zumthor’s work or people who spend their time worrying about the details or the grain of wood on one side or the colour of the material on the surface, and so on. I couldn’t care less.

Having said that, it is still necessary to build. But the whole notion of ‘cardboard architecture’ meant that the materiality of the work was important as an ‘antimaterial’ statement. Probably the most important work I did in the conceptualist realm was the cardboard architecture houses. Pictures of House II, for instance, were taken without sunlight so you have no shadows, and no reveals or things like that. And in fact one of the pictures we took of House II was in a French magazine that said it was a ‘model of House II’.

So I achieved what I wanted to achieve, which was to lessen the difference between the built form and the model. I was always trying to say ‘built model’ as the conceptual reality of architecture. So when you see these houses and you visit them you realise that they were very didactic and very important exercises − each one had a different thematic − but they were concerned not with meaning in the social sense of the word or the cultural sense, but in the ‘architectural meaning’. What meaning they had and what role they played in the critical culture of architecture as it evolved over time. So while the work was interested in syntax and grammar, it was interested to see what the analogical relationships were between language and architecture. And of course that’s when I got into working with Jacques Derrida.

House II Photograph

A photograph of House II was mistaken for a model by a French magazine, a confusion that greatly pleased the architect

IA: What influence did Derrida have on your work?

PE: Jacques was important in the later stage of my work because he said that it was possible in language to separate the sign and the signified − that is, the thing and its sign. What has made architecture interesting for Post-Structuralist philosophy is that architecture is about the relationship of the sign to the signified, that the column, for instance, is the sign of the column and the column itself; or the wall is the sign of the wall and the wall itself. In Alberti’s Palazzo Rucellai, there is both a grid system and a wall-bearing system, which says there is a redundancy or duplication of structural systems. This is also the case in my House II where there is a redundant structural system too. I would say my projects are ‘Modernist’ not only in a Modernist style but also philosophically and critically, in the sense of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, and others. So when I built House II with a wall system that could support the house and a column system that could support the house, there is a sense of redundancy with the two systems. When you have this redundancy, the walls are either structural or signs. Is it possible, as in language, to separate out the sign and the wall to have what could be called ‘free floating signifiers’?

This is where the world starts to become more complex in my work, and more problematic in terms of meaning. And then you get away from the house, because the house is too small to sustain an investigation at a different scale, which gets you to the architectural subject, which gets you to levels of sophistication of representation and lots of things happen.

Now going back to the houses and to conclude that question. First, I never thought that I would want to build anything but houses because I thought that the house gave sufficient room to experiment with non-functionalities since there is no one type of functional organisation for a house but there are architectural organisations. But that later proved to be problematic. The second thing was that I didn’t believe that it was necessary to ever visit my houses. In other words, there were houses that for the first six months or year they were open I didn’t even go to see them because I thought that wasn’t the important thing; the important thing was laid out in the drawing.

The Canadian Centre for Architecture, where part of my archive is, for example, has 2,000 drawings that I made for House II. I would draw and draw and draw because I never knew what I was looking for. I knew the general parameters of what I was looking for, but I had no formula for setting up how to achieve it. Each house had an idea structure behind it. They all had a different investigation and started to get into bigger and bigger ideas and include more and more things that the earlier houses dogmatically left out. So essentially, that was a very important period of my work that stretched from 1967 to 1978 with Cannaregio. In Cannaregio something else happened.

House II Sketch

One of the 2,000 sketches that Eisenman produced for House II, which make up part of the Canadian Centre for Architecture archive.The project plays a double game of signification and structure by including both columnar and wall systems of support, either of which could be superfluous or necessary

IA: Can we pause here for a second before talking about Cannaregio. So do you think because these houses existed cognitively they lost their true meaning the moment they were physically realised − the moment the ‘real architecture’ turned into the ‘real building’?

PE: Manfredo Tafuri once said something very important to me. He said, ‘Peter, if you don’t build no one will take your ideas seriously. You have to build because ideas that are not built are simply ideas that are not built.’ Architecture involves seeing whether those ideas can withstand the attack of building, of people, of time, of function, etc. Tafuri said history will not be interested in your work if you haven’t built anything. I think that’s absolutely correct. If I had built nothing, you and I wouldn’t be talking now.


Peter Eisenman’s unrealised Cannaregio project excavated Venice’s non-existent past by making voids in the city following the contours of Le Corbusier’s unbuilt hospital (click to see larger image)

IA: So what would the building mean in that context. Do you perhaps believe that the built house or the ‘real building’ stands as what you called the ‘built-model’ of the ‘real architecture’ that exists only conceptually?

PE: Sometimes it does and sometimes it’s beyond, and sometimes it’s less. When you go to Cincinnati to see the Aronoff Center, the spatial experience is extraordinary. The didactic drawing itself is another thing. But they are two different things. I had to build Cincinnati, I had to build Wexner, I had to build Santiago, which is my latest project. You have to go and see it because you cannot draw it. You cannot cognitively understand what is going on. One has to see it and experience it in a way that is very different conceptually in terms of what I was after in the first place.

There are three phases in the work. One is the purely conceptual artefacts, which, as you suggested, may not necessarily have had to have been built. Two, are the ground projects, which are at a different scale and many of them had to be built. And finally you have Santiago, which is a hybrid project because it is neither a ground nor a figure.

Santiago de Compostela Museum

Commencing in 1999 and still unopened to the public, Eisenman’s rupturing City of Culture outside Santiago de Compostela has been plagued with delays, a project that he found he was ‘unable to draw’


IA: I want to ask you about the use of Le Corbusier’s hospital in Cannaregio. Here you are suddenly confronted with the idea of a site − a real site, and in fact a very rich one: Venice. Yet, interestingly we see that even then, your approach was to invent a site, in fact an ‘artificial’ one. And what interests me the most is how you used Le Corbusier’s unbuilt hospital in Venice as point of departure, and used the grid of the hospital as a generative system in your project.

And finally when you draw the project you include the hospital with your project with no notational difference. How do you read Le Corbusier’s hospital in your drawings? Were you suggesting that the hospital is part of your proposal and meant to be built along with your project? Or were you implying that your project should also remain unbuilt as Le Corbusier’s hospital did? Or was it neither or both? A meaningless clue?

PE: First of all, it’s not a meaningless clue. But I was suggesting neither. You are reading them in an interesting way, but I didn’t think about that. Here is what I was thinking about: I needed something in the site, in the context of the Derridean notion of absence and presence. To me the discourse of absence is very important in the ground projects and in the idea of the trace. Freud talks about how Rome was built on a series of traces of levels; that going into the unconscious is digging into the traces of history that have been sedimented; your own history, cultural history that you have to get at. And so Corbu offered one layer of that cultural history. In other words, you’ll see in Berlin I did the same thing with the grid of 1760, the grid of 1830, and superposition of traces, which is how Rome evolved, how Berlin evolved, how cities evolve. I have always been interested in the evolutionary process of the physical traces left by the previous building. It didn’t matter if it was built or not built, and it didn’t matter whether I was going to build my project or not. What mattered was the idea of using the trace as a key, as a beginning to project something, to make a project. To me Cannaregio was the turning point in my work. It is that hinge that Derrida talks about, the hinge between the before and after. So it becomes an important project. It was necessary to find a way to make a project − because there was no programme.

And if you notice, all the projects were different. Venice was losing population; it didn’t need housing, it had an adequate housing stock; so I said, let’s make holes, and that’s what I did. But also, is the ground the holes or is the ground the stuff around the holes? And is the figure the ground? And the kinds of questions that these pose. And of course the question of scale came in, because I used my House IIa here at three different scales: a real scale or the house scale, and model of the house scale, and then the house becoming the model of a larger project. So the question of scale came in which had never been in my work, the question of ground came in, the question of trace came in, and many of the issues that would subsequently articulate my work are manifest in Cannaregio. But looking back, can I say I was conscious of all these things I’m telling you? I don’t think so. No matter how conscious the work seems, a lot of it was swimming under cloudy water trying to find the edge of the pool where I could get out. It wasn’t so clear that I knew exactly what I was doing. I never have known what I was doing. In fact I teach the idea of project in my classes at Yale, and I still don’t know what my project is. I know I have a project; I know Le Corbusier had a project; I know Mies had a project. If you said look Peter, you talk a lot about the idea of a project, what is your project? I’m still trying to figure out what my project is.

Corbusier - Venice Hospital Project

Corbusier - Hospital Grid

The Cannaregio project was also inspired by Le Corbusier’s 1965 Venice Hospital project (top), designed to extend the road and canal networks of La Serenissima into the lagoon. (Above) the ghostly grid of Corb’s hospital is superimposed on Venice to plot out the project

IA: I think my understanding of Cannaregio and the use of Le Corbusier’s unbuilt hospital as the point of departure is that the hospital becomes for you what Venice was for Le Corbusier: a site, but here it is one that is not actually there. And what that brings me to is the role of drawing. If the drawing is the site, then the drawing is there, but if Venice was the site, Le Corbusier’s hospital wouldn’t appear there. The Cannaregio project only makes sense as a drawing. So it seems to me that drawing in your work emerges as the fundamental medium analogous to writing in language. So with the advancement of our tools, do you think that drawing’s role (that direct cognitive relationship with the drawings and the physical act of drawing) is diminishing in contemporary architectural practice?

PE: I will tell you this: I cannot read a book on Kindle. I have to own a book, and I have to write in the book. When I read I take notes, I go back over it. You can see my books are full of notes in different pens and colours and times because when I read a book today that I may have read 10 years ago, I read it differently: because I’m different. I have to take notes over time in books, so I own books. That’s number one.

To me, drawing and reading are the same thing. I can’t read on the computer. So when someone draws something on it, I print it so I can draw over it either with tracing paper on it or without it. You cannot make a plan in the computer by connecting dots. You have to think about a diagram or what it is you are doing. You have to think in drawing. So to me, all of my work, even the last competition that we won in Turkey, is drawn by hand first, then we give it to computer guys and they model it and then we get it back, etc.

Drawing is a way of thinking. I can’t think or write ideas on a computer. I don’t type on a computer. I write and if you look at my desk, it’s full of paper. So to me drawing is a form of writing, and a form of reading what I write. I don’t see any difference. To me drawing is not making pretty things or making representations. It’s not representing anything; it is the incarnation of the thing. I’m not trying to represent something; I’m trying to make it real. And the only way it can be real is through my drawings. Architects and architecture students today have lost the essential capacity to think through drawing. They can only think through a computer. I watch people in this office sitting and looking at these things on their screen as they roll them around in space, and I think to myself: what the hell are they doing? It is nuts, it’s totally wacko. You know, what does a section look like? What does a plan look like? They don’t seem interested in that.

log: protection

William Morris on the protection of ancient buildings, 1877

“A society coming before the public with such a name as that above written must needs explain how, and why, it proposes to protect those ancient buildings which, to most people doubtless, seem to have so many and such excellent protectors. This, then, is the explanation we offer.

No doubt within the last fifty years a new interest, almost like another sense, has arisen in these ancient monuments of art; and they have become the subject of one of the most interesting of studies, and of an enthusiasm, religious, historical, artistic, which is one of the undoubted gains of our time; yet we think that if the present treatment of them be continued, our descendants will find them useless for study and chilling to enthusiasm. We think that those last fifty years of knowledge and attention have done more for their destruction than all the foregoing centuries of revolution, violence and contempt.
For Architecture, long decaying, died out, as a popular art at least, just as the knowledge of mediaeval art was born. So that the civilised world of the nineteenth century has no style of its own amidst its wide knowledge of the styles of other centuries. From this lack and this gain arose in men’s minds the strange idea of the Restoration of ancient buildings; and a strange and most fatal idea, which by its very name implies that it is possible to strip from a building this, that, and the other part of its history – of its life that is – and then to stay the hand at some arbitrary point, and leave it still historical, living, and even as it once was.
In early times this kind of forgery was impossible, because knowledge failed the builders, or perhaps because instinct held them back. If repairs were needed, if ambition or piety pricked on to change, that change was of necessity wrought in the unmistakable fashion of the time; a church of the eleventh century might be added to or altered in the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, or even the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries; but every change, whatever history it destroyed, left history in the gap, and was alive with the spirit of the deeds done midst its fashioning. The result of all this was often a building in which the many changes, though harsh and visible enough, were, by their very contrast, interesting and instructive and could by no possibility mislead. But those who make the changes wrought in our day under the name of Restoration, while professing to bring back a building to the best time of its history, have no guide but each his own individual whim to point out to them what is admirable and what contemptible; while the very nature of their task compels them to destroy something and to supply the gap by imagining what the earlier builders should or might have done. Moreover, in the course of this double process of destruction and addition, the whole surface of the building is necessarily tampered with; so that the appearance of antiquity is taken away from such old parts of the fabric as are left, and there is no laying to rest in the spectator the suspicion of what may have been lost; and in short, a feeble and lifeless forgery is the final result of all the wasted labour. It is sad to say, that in this manner most of the bigger Minsters, and a vast number of more humble buildings, both in England and on the Continent, have been dealt with by men of talent often, and worthy of better employment, but deaf to the claims of poetry and history in the highest sense of the words.
For what is left we plead before our architects themselves, before the official guardians of buildings, and before the public generally, and we pray them to remember how much is gone of the religion, thought and manners of time past, never by almost universal consent, to be Restored; and to consider whether it be possible to Restore those buildings, the living spirit of which, it cannot be too often repeated, was an inseparable part of that religion and thought, and those past manners. For our part we assure them fearlessly, that of all the Restorations yet undertaken, the worst have meant the reckless stripping a building of some of its most interesting material features; whilst the best have their exact analogy in the Restoration of an old picture, where the partly-perished work of the ancient craftsmaster has been made neat and smooth by the tricky hand of some unoriginal and thoughtless hack of today. If, for the rest, it be asked us to specify what kind of amount of art, style, or other interest in a building makes it worth protecting, we answer, anything which can be looked on as artistic, picturesque, historical, antique, or substantial: any work, in short, over which educated, artistic people would think it worth while to argue at all.
It is for all these buildings, therefore, of all times and styles, that we plead, and call upon those who have to deal with them, to put Protection in the place of Restoration, to stave off decay by daily care, to prop a perilous wall or mend a leaky roof by such means as are obviously meant for support or covering, and show no pretence of other art, and otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands; if it has become inconvenient for its present use, to raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one; in fine to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying.
Thus, and thus only, shall we escape the reproach of our learning being turned into a snare to us; thus, and thus only can we protect our ancient buildings, and hand them down instructive and venerable to those that come after us.”

Deputy mayor brands Unesco ‘fundamentally wrong’

Ed Lister says heritage watchdog’s ‘purist view is not acceptable’

The deputy mayor of London has given short shrift to conservationists calling for greater protection for the city’s World Heritage Sites.

The capital needs to accelerate construction and reduce consultation periods – not add layers of red tape, said Ed Lister, the mayor’s planning chief, speaking exclusively to BD.

He denounced last week’s request by Unesco for the UK to pause construction of towers around the Houses of Parliament as “fundamentally wrong”.

He said London would not listen. “Of course not. This purist view is not acceptable,” he said. “There are enough obstacles people try and put in the way of development. Everything has to speed up.

“It’s all very well people saying we don’t want these buildings but we have to create over half a million new jobs over the next few years and a million more people will have to be housed.”

This could be achieved entirely on brownfield land, with clusters of towers at many of the 32 opportunity areas identified in the London Plan, he said.

Lister was due to be questioned by the London Assembly’s planning committee on this and the mayor’s 2020 Vision strategy as BD went to press, along with Ben Rogers from the Centre for London and Lord Adonis, shadow infrastructure minister.

Lister defended the city’s planning frameworks and viewing corridors from criticism by former architecture minister John Penrose and prominent architects.

But he said the London Plan would continue to be revised in order to usher in the greatest construction boom since the 1920s and 30s when London’s suburbs were built.

He insisted architectural quality would not be compromised by a speeding-up of the planning process, nor would heritage suffer.

The Mayor had taken great care over Elizabeth House, he said, and David Chipperfield’s scheme would be a “great improvement”.

But conservationists said he had missed the point. They were not trying to stop development but to create certainty.

Susan Denyer, secretary of Icomos UK and a delegate at the Unesco meeting in Cambodia, said: “We want to see the setting of the World Heritage Sites defined so there’s an understanding of what’s acceptable and what’s not. That works perfectly well elsewhere but is what we’re lacking in London.”

She called for a greater dialogue and cited Edinburgh and Vienna as role models.