Architects need to get over their digital delusion 23.10.18

Digital imagesHow does architect Juhani Pallasmaa’s Cranbrook Academy of Art fare when squashed onto our pages?

Architects have spent 20 years moaning that internet images both flatten and flatter three-dimensional structures. Get over it, says Ana Karina Zatarain

 

A few months ago, a prominent architecture critic took to his personal Facebook account to publish a long, jargon-heavy status on the dangers of propagating architecture through photography in digital media, stating that doing so leads to a two-dimensional understanding of three-dimensional structures. 

The claim is hardly new – in 1996, the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa argued as much in The Eyes of the Skin, a short book that became instantly popular among first-semester architectural theory professors everywhere. And yet, despite the many ways in which the world has since changed, lamenting the rise of image-centred publications remains a favourite activity of architects and critics around the world. 

I can understand why this subject is so enticing. For one, it offers a chance to quote Heidegger, Foucault and Deleuze, with the added bonus of serving as an excuse to vilify low-brow, digital publications, and I have never known an architect who will pass up on either opportunity. In 2012, for instance, Owen Hatherley wrote an essay for The Photographer’s Gallery, opening with a bold statement: “Modern architecture was the first architecture to really market itself, so it makes sense that it has become an architecture largely consumed through photographs. The internet has intensified this to a degree that the main architectural websites … provide little but glossy images of buildings that you will never visit, lovingly formed into photoshopped, freeze-dried glimmers of non-orthogonal perfection, in locations where the sun, of course, is always shining.” Predictably, Hatherley went on to explain why this phenomenon is “utterly disastrous”, and was met with swift responses both praising and criticising his stance. 

In my experience, no group can match architects when it comes to endlessly discussing the same ideas without ever reaching anything even remotely resembling a solution. This particular debate has been around for decades, and a general consensus seems to have been reached long ago: “The inhumanity of contemporary architecture and cities,” writes Pallasmaa in The Eyes of the Skin, “can be understood as the consequence of the negligence of the body and senses, and an imbalance in our sensory system.” More than 30 years later, this assessment seems at once more apt and more redundant in our increasingly digital era. 

The architecture field is not alone in the belief that the internet is somehow responsible for tarnishing the profession, and it has proven to be in no hurry to move the discussion forwards, or propose any viable alternatives. This is just one of many subjects in contemporary architectural criticism that incite endless debate but continuously fail to materialise into actual progress. 

It is necessary that as a profession we confront our tendency towards constantly congratulating one another for stating the obvious, and turn our attention to platforms and discussions that reject nostalgia for times past. Decrying the steadily increasing consumption of architecture through the flat screens we have all become dependent on seems, at this point, a wholly unprofitable exercise. 

The internet has not only transformed (and, yes, flattened) the way we consume buildings—it has also democratised the conversations about them, dethroning the scholars who once reigned supreme. It has invited more people to think about architecture and its impact on their day-to-day lives, and broadened the scope of what academia can offer the general population – those who don’t spend their days dissecting the work of dead philosophers. 

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