The Fifth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2003
Berkeley Prize 2003

Philip Tidwell

Place, Memory, and the Problem of the Architectural Image

The creation of meaning in architecture, the ability of a work to embody something larger than itself, stands at the heart of socially responsible design. As architects strive to create lasting monuments at a time in which the very idea of permanence is being challenged everywhere they have often translated this idea of meaning into the concept of 'place'. Culturally, urbanistically, socially and architecturally this discussion of 'place' (its value, construction and preservation) has manifested an inescapable rhetoric. From office towers to concert halls, from sports stadiums to shopping centers, many and varied projects have been executed in recent years under the auspices of 'place-making' in our modern world. Often the language used to promote these efforts speaks of an image of one sort or another, ostensibly central to this creation of 'place', yet it seems that these images are frequently produced by the application of a more or less generic models of either formal extravagance or nostalgic historicism. Such efforts at creating image seem to achieve at best an ambiguous relationship with their urban milieu. Far from making 'places', they have succeeded only in becoming irrelevant or even destructive to the world in which we live.

Recent plans and physical changes in many cities illustrate the way that this phenomenon is reshaping the urban condition in which we live. In St. Louis a deleted memory has been rediscovered for the creation of a new image. Caricatures of the brick warehouses that once populated the urban core of the city are planned to return in the form of a new baseball stadium. In Berlin, a city long familiar with reconstructing itself, efforts at creation of an image have resorted to an imported model. The new Times Square of Potsdamer Platz has been erected along the former path of the once divisive Wall. But the effect of this architecturally induced amnesia seems to feel more like the setting for an action film than an urban center. In New York, the future of the World Trade Center site has stimulated a worldwide discussion about the future of architecture in that complex city. However, even amongst what may arguably be called the new architectural avant-garde, it seems that most of this discussion has centered upon the question of image. Projects throughout the world such as these that have already been built or are currently in development illustrate a pervasive trend in the practice of contemporary design: visual productions rather than personal experiences have become the medium through which architecture is produced, promoted, and evaluated. The effects of this shift in contemporary design have not gone unnoticed by those concerned with the built environment. The sculptor Richard Serra waged as a criticism of contemporary architecture that its, "studio-designed and site-adjusted buildings look like blown-up cardboard models."[i] And he is hardly alone in his criticism. The experiences of many new buildings, plazas, parks, and campuses have become so banal that a popular comparison has been drawn between these spaces and printed postcards. The relationship between these two ideas makes painfully apparent the fact that our built environment is quickly becoming a stage set rather than a thoughtfully constructed environment for living. How to explain this apparent disparity between the image of architecture and the 'place' to which much of its promotion refers?

Malcolm Miles has written and lectured on the dramatic disparity between postcards and the urban realities that their images deny. Miles criticizes these isolated views of our cities as disguising social, cultural, and economic conditions, but more importantly he has recognized that, "This (singular view) parallels the privileging of the visual over the other senses and is enabled by it."[ii] Because it focuses only on a momentary visual depiction, the postcard view projects a representation of the city isolated from its associated sensory information. Through visual isolation, smell, sound, taste, touch, and the passage of time are all removed from our reading. The postcard image conceals the realities of the experience by becoming only a representation rather than an environment. The development of architecture through equally visual motives produces a similar effect. The architecture of image, like the postcard itself, removes the opportunity for personal experience.

While social, artistic, and even literary figures have challenged the dominance of visual techniques in understanding lived experiences, many architects seem to have disconnected themselves from this critique. Yet numerous attempts at explaining our phenomenological understanding of the environment have been directly related to architecture. Guy Debord and the Situationist International of Paris were explicit in this respect. From 1953 to 1968 the activities of the Situationists sought to refute what they disdainfully termed the 'civilisation of the image' by codifying their experiential readings of the urban terrain of Paris in distorted maps and photographic sequences.[iii] This attempt to produce an experiential map of the city, what the Situationists termed psychogeography, was more scientifically investigated by the American urbanist Kevin Lynch in his extensive research on perception in American cities. With interviews, photographic recognition tests, and field excursions in the cities of Los Angeles, Boston, and Jersey City Lynch sought to discern the methods by which urban dwellers developed personal maps of their environments.[iv] Lynch and his colleagues explained through their research that these understandings depended not principally on visual stimuli but rather on a wealth of other sensory experiences, some of which occurred distinctly outside the typically discussed five methods of sensation. As such, the apparently tangled knots of a freeway interchange became more perceptible for a city resident in kinesthetic terms than in visual ones.[v] Residents found it difficult to identify particular sections of highway on a map despite the fact that they used these routes daily. The apparent inability of these persons to read an image of their environment was precisely because their understanding had been formed through experiential relationships rather than visual ones. Their mental maps were a holistic compilation of sensory experiences, not a visual simplification.

What the pioneering work of Lynch and the Situationists made clear was that no environment ever exists at the abstracted level of maps, drawings, or images. They recognized, at least implicitly, that simplification of the lived world to a purely visual understanding denied all the other sensory experiences that affect human perception. And, while their efforts focused on the experience of the city, the same principles are true for any lived environment. Seen again in light of the critique of psychogeography, Serra's accusations develop a more specific meaning. The 'cardboard model' quality of many buildings today is a reflection of their inability to affect anything other than our visual sense. Rather than making environments, architects have been making objects. They have tied their own hands by confining their efforts to graphic composition. Disconnected from any understanding of sensory experience, this conception of building has become a mise en scene offering only an opportunity for a brief visual consumption. It has entered into an inescapable paradox. No matter how strong its image may be, it communicates only through the lenses of our eyes. Because it has been conceived on paper (or more likely a computer screen) and then placed in a real environment, it remains an image that is incapable of becoming a place.

To escape the paradox of the image in architecture and practice at a level that is at once personally, socially, and culturally relevant, we must conceive new ways of pursuing design practices. Through his sculpture Serra has become acutely aware of the danger in relying on visual understanding, and this awareness is evident in his working method. Intent on escaping the realm of representation, he abstains entirely from graphic explanations of his projects. He explains, "I never make sketches or drawings for sculptures. I don't work from an a priori concept or image."[vi] He relies instead on three-dimensional construction to inform his decisions. This is because he is concerned with the creation of environments rather than objects and it makes his work particularly relevant to architecture and the creation of 'place'. It should in no way suggest that Serra's sculpture itself should serve as a model for architectural construction. Certainly the responsibilities of the architect are inherently greater than those of the artist. But his recognition of the limits of visual methods in the creation of meaningful environments deserves our attention. This is because the ability of an experience to contain meaning and affect us in more than an ephemeral way lies in the way that it affects our personal, social, and cultural memory. The principal failure of visually dominant conceptions of design to embody social, cultural, and human values lies in the lack of stimulation they provide for anything other than a singular optic memory.

It seems that the confusion of image with 'place' and the ocular centrism of contemporary architectural design reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the important role that memory plays in affecting human experience. Shaping human needs into meaningful experience, the task with which architecture is fundamentally concerned, depends on the complex interactions that occur over time between the built environment and its users. Lynch observed through his research that the environmental understandings of his interviewees were shaped by a "two-way process between observer and observed," in which the meaning of their environment was affected as much by its physical form as by the memories associated with it.[vii] Thus the most significant human experiences are those that provide opportunities for such associative memories and these memories are often created distinctly outside the domain of visual reception. Marcel Proust, in his three-volume narrative on the subject of memory frequently alludes to the strength of such non-visual associations.

"But when nothing subsists of a distant past, after the death of beings, after the destruction of things, smell, and taste still linger on, alone and more faithful like souls, reminiscing, waiting, hoping, on the ruin of all the rest, bearing unflinchingly, on their almost impalpable droplet, the immense edifice of memory."[viii]

It is for this reason that the importance of sensory experience in creating meaningful architecture must not be underestimated. What the efforts of figures from Debord to Proust reveal is that understanding our world with vision alone eliminates the wealth of experiences that shape meaning in our lives. As architects committed to creating environments that contribute positively to their users lives we must concern ourselves equally with all human modes of perception. The creation of architectural experiences that produce lasting impressions is not a question of image. Rather, it is a process of developing opportunities for evocative personal, social, and cultural experiences. If efforts at creating 'place' are to embody anything more than a singular vision of a client or designer, if they are to become more than postcard representations of an idea, then they must capitalize on the unique abilities of architecture to create evocative experiences through more than visual means.

[i] Richard Serra and Peter Eisenman, "Interview" in "Skyline," (April 1983), p. 16. [ii] Miles, Malcolm. "Wish You Were Here," in "Urban Visions," (Liverpool University Press, 2002), p. 135. [iii] Hussey, Andrew. "The Map is Not the Territory; The Unfinished Journey of the Situationist International," in "Urban Visions," ed. Steven Spier (Liverpool University Press 2002), p. 215. [iv] The results of this research first appeared in Lynch's publication "Image of the City," (Cambridge M.I.T. Press, 1960). [v] Ibid., p. 42. [vi] Serra, Richard. "Notes from Sight Point Road," in "Perspecta No. 19," (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1982), p. 146. [vii] Lynch, p. 118. [viii] Marcel Proust in "Swann's Way," trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff (London: Penguin, 1922).

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