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Architecture and Visual Culture
Out of all the lectures it was ‘Architecture and Visual Culture’ that I found the most thought provoking. This was pleasantly surprising considering I usually don’t engage fully in much of the visual culture spectrum outside that of graphic design. The general point that ran through the presentation seemed to me, that architecture is far more complex than a building. If we pick them apart analytically with a creative mind we can see that they have a “more complex visual narrative”. I think part of the reason we perhaps overlook architecture as a form of visual culture is the fact that it’s so prolific in our everyday life that we have become almost become numb to it. Every building around us seems so familiar simply because we are used to them. Cameron Campbell summed it up well with the fact that we “work within and live within buildings” our constant exposure to it has unfortunately made us dull to their narrative. This is part of the reason many of us appreciate foreign architecture more as it comes as a shock to our senses. If we do however begin to analyse buildings, even from the point of view of advertising as it feels more familiar, we find that they are an “important means of visual communication”, giant adverts of meaning, message style and design. They often make an economical, governmental or social statement.
It is probably important at this stage to outline what I feel the difference is between what I consider architecture and what I consider just a building. In reference to the statement made by Nikolaus Pevsner that ‘A bicycle shed is a building, Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture’ this is because, like a piece of art, it has meaning and does more than just fulfil its purpose as a building. The bike shed in the classical sense is no more than a shed for bikes. Obviously it could be argued that said bike shed is a comment on modern society but I assume whoever designed it only cared about finding a cheap and easy solution for storing bikes safely and not about what the possible connotations of their design might be. The architecture surrounding us is the product of centuries of evolution. You can denote from the look of a building alone many different things once you start to analyse it. This because of the fact that over the year’s society has changed and as it has changed so have the buildings. “The buildings we occupy have done much to shape us as…we have shaped them” Royal Academy of Arts. (2014). President's Foreword. In: Royal Academy of Arts Sensing Spaces. London: Royal Academy of Arts . 33. Take for instance the Chrysler building, at a glance we can see it has been designed in very Art Deco come Streamline Modern style, this alone telling us that it was during the 1920s that the Chrysler building was conceptualised. Armed with the knowledge of when it was built and the art style that influenced we can now make pretty accurate assumptions about the society and culture of that era, all as a result of what was communicated to us through architecture. The idea that I piece of Architecture was the product of external influences was also considered by Roland Barthes as described in Exploring Visual Culture. “Not just art, but the entire cultural domain was a legitimate object of analysis, and unlike Panofsky, he felt that the meaning of an object, whether an artwork or some other image or artefact, was dependent on its relation with other things around it at the time and on what the beholder brought to it” Matthew Rampley. (2005). Architecture and Visual Culture. In: Matthew Rampley Exploring Visual Culture definitions, concepts, context . Edinbrugh: Edinburgh University Press. 111. Architecture is an outstanding communicator when you begin to peel back the layers and ask questions. Buildings after all are not conceptualised by machines they are designed by an architect, a person who was part of society and thus influenced by society. Because of this, when they sat down to create they were undoubtedly influenced by what the world around them was like. It is these underlying meanings that are but one of many as to why architecture is much more than just buildings and an integral part of visual culture.
Chrysler building: http://britishexpats.com/blogs/uploads/gruffbrown_Chrysler_Building2.jpeg
As with all art however the meanings behind architecture are ambiguous and entirely open one’s own judgement. Who you are as person will, without question, have an impact on your perception of architecture. If you were someone with a very technical left brain view of the world you might look upon a building as the product of balanced physics and human ingenuity, a monument immortalizing the technological prowess of an age. Conversely however someone who thinks in the opposite way might believe that the building in question represents some metaphor, that it is a comment by the architect on his attitude towards the economic state of the country. The chapter in the sums this up well using the Eiffel Tower as an example by stating “An art-historian approach to the Tower might say something about its origins, its author (the engineer, Charles Eiffel) and its form, perhaps relating it to a variety of earlier works by the same engineer/ artist… suggest a radical openness to interpretation, contingent on the position of the beholder. Its simple primary shape”. Matthew Rampley. (2005). Architecture and Visual Culture. In: Matthew Rampley Exploring Visual Culture definitions, concepts, context . Edinbrugh: Edinburgh University Press. 111. What we think architecture means is a product of our own views and personality’s. There is no right or wrong answer because Visual culture isn’t based on fact it is based on opinion and your own impression of the artefact in question. Architecture is as much a valid part of visual communication as fashion or any other practice you would commonly associate with this field.
If you are still somewhat sceptical about whether or not architecture deserves a place as a form of visual communication, I ask you to consider the notion of trophy buildings. A trophy building is described as thus “A landmark property that is well known by the public and highly sought by institutional investors such as pension funds and insurance companies. Generally one-of-a-kind architectural designs, with the highest quality of materials and finish, expensive trim”. Barron's Real Estate Dictionary. (2008). Trophy Building. Available: http://www.answers.com/topic/trophy-building. Last accessed 23rd March 2014. Normally trophy buildings are used to communicate the wealth and power of the elite as they are undoubtedly exceptionally expensive. That is the point however they ‘communicate’ a meaning to you. Take the theme of wealth for example, we know without having to google the value of the company or check their stocks that RedBull is making far more money that the corner shop down the road simply by looking at the buildings they operate out of. The buildings have managed to communicate to us visually how successful the companies are, it registers with us almost subconsciously. Because of this many ‘organisations’ have created building to communicate a false idea, a façade. An example of this would be the Supreme People’s Assembly which is North Koreas governmental building. This building in particular has a very daunting aesthetic about it brought on by its massive geometric construction. It clearly has been designed with Greek architecture in mind with its modern take on the Parthenon style pillar. All of this is in order to try and imitate power and wealth almost through fear to the Korean people. This is indeed a façade as in actual fact North Korea has become a poor country with very little global power. Harold D. Lasswell when describing architecture in his book ‘The Signature of Power: Buildings communication and policy’ as “The handling of the material environment to achieve a degree of enclosure… that may or may not be linked with symbols of political power” William R. Tucker. (1980). The Signature of Power: Buildings communication and policy. The Journal of Pollatics. 42 (3), 886-887. Political power is but one of many things that Architecture can communicate to us, they are like giant adverts for the people that reside inside them. This is not a notion only held by those of us in the ‘civilised’ world either, I am willing to bet that in tribal community’s the chief will be the one with the biggest fanciest hut. Why? It’s because he is the chief and everyone should know it.
Supreme people’s Assembly: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/Mansudae_Assembly_Hall.JPG
Architecture is without doubt far more complex that just a building. They are pieces of visual narrative, a narrative that is entirely open to your own interpretation. It is also a narrative that will change as society changes and the views of the masses evolve with the trends and the buildings along with them. As far as being considered part of visual communication, architecture has to be one of the strongest conveyers of information. They won’t be advertising to you products, instead they will be communicating something more profound. They advertise the trends of entire eras and political statements of nations, they advertise but on a far grander scale.