Spring 1986, Volume 3
The influence of Photography on Architecture
Photography is the culmination of artists' aspiration since the Renaissance to depict a three dimensional world on a two dimensional surface without the intervention of the human hand. Photographs are not so much mirrors of reality, but mirrors of what people believe to be real at a particular time. Reality in the twentieth centruy has evolved from a vision engaging a fixed perspective vantage point to the involvement with motion as a way of perceiving space. With most of the population of the world having grown up with either photographic or cinernagraphic images as common events, it would be erroneous to think that our architecture might have been created without any influence from these systems.
The visualization of movement became a concept discovered through photography, illustrated as stopped, compressed or stretched. The photograph becomes the memory of the kinesthetic experience of mobility. There is a sense of projecting oneself into space. But what kind of space is depicted in a photograph? As a representation of space, the camera makes visible the eyes' scanning motion known as saccadic eye movement. Bypassing the eye's inability to simultaneously focus on objects at different distances, photographs present a fixation which includes a wide angle view of the environment coexisting with a narrow view. The illusion gives the viewer a sense of participation in the scene that may be called viewer projection."
It is important to recognize the impact of our vision as people rapidly moving within our world. In his essay "Space/Time Problems," L. Moholy-Nagy states, "Social conditions, the arts, sciences, the development of an industrial technology with prefabrication, new materials, and new processes are the determining factors to realize the new architectural development."' These aspects influence architects in the creation of a new space concept. (Moholy-Nagy discusses a historical time line of space concepts in architecture that follows a pattern from the Egyptians through Cubism and looks past Cubism to the influence of the airplane and accelerated speed.)
The rise of photography may be seen as an attempt to control the emptiness of open space, the "Horror Vacui.'' Photographs may be seen as a means to calm men's innate fear of space, to overcome one's apprehensions by projecting oneself into the geography or "mastering" the space by making it pocketsize. Rosalind Krauss suggests that early stereographs provided a situation to study the details of spaces. The mind, moving from one point to another in the viewed stereo image, was a substitute for actual physical movement within the real three dimensional space. The adjustment of focus from one spot to another while viewing is parallel to the actual movement through the space.'
These responses by photographers to space are strong indications of the subtle influence photography may have had on architecture. Cornelis Van de Ven in Space in Architecture regards the compulsion to build monumental massive architecture as a reaction to the fear of open space.3 In addition, viewer projection takes place in both photographs and the experiences of architecture. Photography may have unlocked a door for humans to understand their fears and deal concretely with them in the form of livable structures.
How has photography, in its ability to stop and extend motion, involved us in our environments of real three dimensional spaces? There are new architectural forms that point to a new physical involvement with space. Going beyond what has primarily been a fixed perspective of the world and influenced by photographic perceptions, contemporary architects such as Philip Johnson and Frank Gehry seem to have developed a premise that the viewer's movement is required in order to make sense of the space. A structure viewed from a fixed vantage point, from a distance, and conceived as a whole may be discarded in favor of a fragmented, viewer participatory, photographically deformed space.
Einstein's concept of a "slightly non-Euclidean" space that is curved, but can only be determined on an astronomical scale, may serve as a bridge to this contemporary use of space in architecture. Space (thus architecture) was described by Einstein as the simultaneous depiction of three concepts ...
1. Place: one small location on the earth's surface identified by a name
2. Three dimensional coordinates: Newtonian visualization of space via height, length and width
3. Fourth dimensional space/time continuum
"Time in the aesthetics of architecture is the 'parameter,' which refers to the duration of the aesthetic experience of the architectural object, and as a consequence of the duration, to the bodily movement of the beholder, who takes successively different standpoints around and through the object observed."4
Representing three dimensional space on a two dimensional plane in a photograph is as difficult as representing time (fourth dimension) in a three dimensional form such as architecture. Both seem to require movement for insight and clarification. Architecture and photography invite participation; their meanings are illuminated when the observer moves. The cinemagraphic/photographic framing and narrative sequencing become part of the experience. The mernory/photograph/architecture becomes the space that includes the viewer and the space being viewed. The memory of the physical experience amplifies the photographic/architectural experience. One overcomes the fear of space by projecting oneself into the three dimensional space or its two dimensional representation.
In any new situation we gain more knowledge by becoming active participants. This can be demonstrated by examining Philip Johnson's AT&T building (see fig. 1) and the Wosk house by California architect Frank Gehry (see fig. 2). One must move in space in order to understand relationships among objects and one's own relationship to the environment. The fixed vantage point which has dominated from the Renaissance until modern times, will not work for either the creation nor the understanding of the new architecture.
Philip Johnson's AT&T building may not be a logical choice historically if the numerous International Style buildings he has designed over the years are considered. Why should this building be a break from history? My reason, beyond the knowledge of photography, perception and architecture is based on a statement made in a letter in 1962 and published in Philip Johnson to the effect that times were changing quickly and Johnson was ready to embrace those changes5
Drawings of the AT&T do not give one a feeling of being invited into that structure. A first view may be the unusual post Modernist "Chippendale" pediment. At a distance it is untouchable. Like the 65 foot high lobby ceilings and its large superhuman size sculpture, almost dwarfed by the 110 foot high central arch, it is a corporate symbol. It appears that the average person would have nothing to do with what goes on here. And yet, there is something very accessible to the pedestrian. The structure's street level plaza makes contact with the viewer via some 20 foot high side arches that accommodate human scale. As the viewer stands unmoving beneath the arches, the space makes no sense other than recalling some distant Italian church.
As one starts walking, this movement reveals columns like trees in a forest passing, some more swiftly than others; this indicates the distance from the viewer who is visually being projected into the higher reaches of the arches. Moving around the curves of the moldings, one is aware of the surface of the stone and zig zag pattern beneath one's feet. The space becomes active and alive because the viewer is in motion. The building demands participation. The scale is reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, or perhaps a giant chessboard with randomly placed players. There is *an interplay between openness, accessibility and obstacles. Local user action creates a space much larger than the outside suggests.
The oblique placement of round open medallions provides the observer with a different scene, offering cinernagraphic comparison to sequencing and framing in movies. Yet unlike a theater, the body and head must actually move to encompass the scenes, the time passing, and to acknowledge one's own involvement.
If the AT&T reflects a subtle involvement and step in the direction of viewer participation, the private residential structures of Frank Gehry represent the next step. Gehry has stated that he is not a Post Modernist but concerned with the three dimensional development of space. So unusual are his concerns that he finds two dimensional drawings lacking in representing his ideas. His spaces are for the most part non-rectilinear and he states that his primary concerns are "cheapness, destruction, distortion, layering and Surrealism."
"Viewer movement" has been addressed by the recently completed Wosk residence. Although the scale does not appear large it seems to make use of "allometry," a term coined by Peter Stevens to describe structures that are based on the relative smallness of humans within their environment, thus built with small local distances." Although a short distance from an object, one's larger visual angle makes the space appear larger than it is. One must use body and head movement to scan the area rather than just eye movement. The viewing becomes a kinesthetic event.
Gehry's residential structures invite this kind of activity, with unusual viewer pathways allowing. for a larger sense of space. Constantly changing views that seem cinernagraphically related surround the viewer. Large planes of glass frame natural landscapes, city views and roof structures. As the Wosk residence is made up of units or pavillions that are attached, yet seemingly unrelated, one peers through a section of roof where it parts from the wall. The visual plane in the immediate background is a dome, whose shape seems to continue beyond its boundaries. There is an unusual relation of inside and outside space.
There are few boundaries at right angles. Even if one is standing still, the shapes seem deformed as though the observer ran past normal rectilinear shapes at a high speed. It seems that Gehry draws upon Einstein's concept of "slightly non-Euclidean" space. Gehry may be expanding and enlarging the effects of curved space normally only seen on the astronomical scale.
Angles are bent, walls curve, and the eye is led from one room to another. The compelling motion from one area to the next is another indication of its possible photographic/cinernagraphic origins. Gehry's use of massive geometric forms juxtaposed with glass walls and windows provide a situation for a type of photographic focus experience, an eye mindedness. The mind feels as though it is a physical body actually moving through the space. One views the massive shapes, simple and lacking in detail, as foreground, then is immediately projected to a very distant view through a glass plane in the wall. Gehry's work seems to invoke Einstein's space/time continuum through a physical representation of the action of time and movement upon a place. Gehry's visualizations show forms that appear to be compressed, stretched, and turned as though caught by a camera in the act of motion.
Although many other examples may be cited to demonstrate this crucial developement in our architectural environment, the buildings described above and in the accompanying illustrations may serve to increase our awareness and understanding of the basic coherence of our modern spatial world.
The author gratefully acknowledges the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the following texts:
L. Moholy-Nagy, "Space/Time Problems," Vision in Motion, 1947.
Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, 1985.
Cornelis Van de Ven, Space In Architecture, Van Gorcum Assen, The Netherlands, 1980, p. 46. 4 Albert Einstein, Concepts of Space, 1953 Princeton, pp XI-XV.
J. M. Jacobus, Jr., Philip Johnson: Processes: the Glass House 1949 & the AT&T Corporate.
Peter Stevens, Patterns In Nature, Boston, 1974 Headquarters 1978, p.72,