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"Of all the tons of studies done of our cities, it is to find any attempt to discern the city as most people see it." The Last Landscape, 1962, William H. Whyte complains,
Whyte was concerned about a growing gulf between expert judgement and popular taste. The cartographic perspectives and quantitative analyses of the planning profession had little relevance for the myriad ways in which people actually inhabit and regard landscapes, especially while driving in a car or riding in a train.
The invention of the locomotive has over the last 2 centuries caused a chain reaction resulting in the cities of today.
As our society becomes increasingly dependant upon technology and travelling quickly from place to place, it is rare that we take the time to recognize and comprehend space and place while in motion.
How do we consider architecture while looking through the windshield of a car driving along a avenue, seeing the reflections of utility poles, street-lights, and buildings on the curved surface, scrutinizing the window patterns of skyscrapers as they roll across the glass one after the other? How do we observe a cathedral that seems to dip and soar through the motions of a helicopter, or notice from a rushing train, a series of smoke stacks that seem to float by? How do we see architecture mediated through technologies of motion.
Believing in the philosophy of 'Think global, act local' I bring you into my home city Delhi. Delhi, the city of cultural and architectural diversity, having seen two eras of urban development, firstly during the Mughal period(the city of Shahjahanabad) and later during the modern era by Lutyens, has been recently been upgraded through a technological marvel of modern public transportation, the Delhi Metro.
Inaugurated in 2002, the Delhi Metro Rail Network, with 139 stations spread over a 190 kms of rail track(and rapidly increasing) has within a decade become the lifeline of the city. I try to conclude with an image of the future, when the city architecture could be made to respond to the Delhi Metro, as a mode to visually perceive and experience the urban built.
Perception (from the Latin perceptio, percipio) is the organization, identification, and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the environment.( Schacter, Daniel (2011). Psychology. Worth Publishers)
The best way of looking to see them best. What does that imply? The way to see a town, it may be said, is the ordinary one of simply looking at it as one goes about it, noticing such buildings as may perhaps be particularly striking, particularly good(or bad), and getting a general impression of it as a whole. That is certainly one way- and the general way. But it is a limited way. There is another, by which one may see much more. That way is by looking not merely at the scenes but at the scenery. As country scenery is known to be called landscape, the urban scenery is called townscape.
The magnificence of the Egyptian temple could be comprehended by walking thorugh a basically one one-dimensional straight line, the sphinx alley, leading towards its facade.
Later the Greek architects of the Acropolis designed a two dimensional approach to the temple so that the visitors had to move through the Propylaen, between the Erechteion and Parthenon, around the colonnades toward the main entrance.
The gothic cathedral also applied this concept most intriguingly to the interior. The spectator was placed in the midst of the nave, vaults, balcony and choir, and because the center of coordinated space cells of all directions.
The renaissance and the baroque brought man into closer contact with inside and outside of the building. Apart from the "hanging gardens" of Semiramis and the Moorish-Spanish architecture, these were man's first attempts to integrate building and nature not merely fit building into its surrounding.
In our age of airplanes architecture is viewed not only frontally and from the sides but also from the above. The bird's eye view, and its opposites, the worm's and fish-eye views, have become a daily experience. Architecture appears no longer static, but if we think of it in terms of airplanes, automobiles and railways, architecture is linked with movement. The helicopter, for example, may change the entire aspect of town and regional planning so that a formal structural congruence with the new element, time and speed, will manifest itself.
Before stepping into the domain of speed and urban transport in detail we must first understand the relevance of motion in visually experiencing a city through a new way of looking.
Urban scenery has been presented by painters and draughtsmen through flat-two dimensional pictures of fixed and finite scenes. A need was felt to break from the fashion of perceiving architecture through a series of static scenes, a series of picture postcard views, looking at each building and other elements individually or in fixed composition, and hence the term townscape was coined. The townscape is the urban counterpart of landscape.(Sharp 1968)
Townscapes are tools to visually experience urban architecture. Townscapes teach a new way of looking, in motion, noticing the built environment, not just looking at it, but perceiving it, through changing collective views.
In order to apprehend motion in visually experiencing urban architecture, T. Sharp(1968) says, "Apart from seeing individual buildings and the individual set scenes of a town, there is another kind of visual experience, and a very enriching one, to be gained by looking at the town in this quite different way: by seeing it, or at least extensive parts of it in movement, as it were, as one moves about it. By seeing it not with the static but with the kinetic eye."(Sharp 1968, p.42)
"The important thing is that, as the observer moves, the buildings and other objects in view alter not only in the relation of their own parts but in their but in their relations to the rest of their visible environment. Thus the limiting conception of the individual building or street scene as a three dimensional urban still life is enormously extended. The townscape becomes a living moving unfolding kinetic experience, becomes a complicated resolution of changing relations." (Sharp 1968, p.43)
Compared to the still view, in the townscape the quality of detailed design in the elements of the composition, and the capacity to apprehend that quality is less important. It is the interest of the relations of the parts of the unfolding scenes, that matter.(Sharp 1968)
Speed is the attribute of perceived motion that we use in judging the velocity of physical motion, the impression of swiftness or slowness of movement.
Motion, accelerated to high speed, changes the appearance of the objects and makes it impossible to grasp their details. There is clearly recognizable difference between the visual experience of a pedestrian and a driver in viewing objects. The motor car driver or airplane pilot can bring distant and unrelated landmarks into spatial relationships unknown to the pedestrian. The difference is produced by the changed perception caused by the various speeds.
To prove this Jean Carlu, the eminent French poster designer, made an experiment in 1937. He mounted two posters on two conveyor belts which moved at different speeds. The one poster, made by Toulouse-Lautrec around 1900, was moved at six to seven miles per hour(approximately the speed of horse and buggy); the other, a contemporary poster was moved at fifty miles per hour(the speed of an automobile). Both posters could be read easily. Then Carlu accelerated the speed of the Toulouse-Lautrec up to fifty miles per hour, and at this speed the poster could be seen only as a blur. The implications are obvious. The artist, architect, advertising and display man, must cope with the quickly moving vehicles requiring a new orientation toward spatial organisation and communication. A new viewpoint in the visual arts is a natural consequence of this age of speed which has to consider the moving eye.(Nagy 1947, p 245)
Jean Labatu(Princeton University) had the task of preparing effective outdoor advertising for a factory site half a mile long, situated along a highway with heavy motor traffic. Studying the problem, he found that the required water displays, fountains, light, even the shape of the pool which had to mirror the buildings, had to be related to the speed, that is, the rapidly changing position of the spectator at the wheel. On the basis of calculations as to the time and vista, he suggested a "time facade". It consisted of continuous mobile light and water displays placed so that they could be perfectly seen in 30 to 60 seconds, the time it took a car to drive along the stretch at 30 to 60 miles per hour. Such and approach translates the static meaning of advertising into a kinetic process, "shooting at a moving target".
Photography, motion pictures, the speed studies of futurism and cubism handled such aspects intuitively, anticipating the vision in motion of a motorized world long before an actual need existed for a new visual education based upon scientific standards.
Whilst in motion our view evolves from static to panoramic, characterized by a shifting view. Panoramic perception, looking at an entire image or panorama as one is moving through a place at a high speed is defined as zoomscape.
Zoomscape- a largely optical mode of perception characterized by speed and surface
Zoomscape explores the impact of mechanized transportation and camera reproduction on the perception of architecture.
In the modern era, new ways of viewing buildings and cities have emerged, beginning with railroads, continuing with automobiles, and then air travel. Transportation has fundamentally altered our perception of the built environment.
We have become used to seeing architecture through abrupt shifts of viewpoint and via unexpected juxtapositions. Vehicles zoom our across great distances at tremendous velocities. While transportation and camera technologies do not replace direct encounters with buildings and places, their ubiquity has altered architectural aesthetics. Perception flattens. Time spent with buildings diminishes. Seen in motion, houses and whole cities roll, break apart, and recombine. Seen in succession, images superimpose upon one another and buildings are evaluated less by their weight and presence than by their fluctuating outlines. Seen within frames, architecture is experienced as graphical and pictorial.(Schwarzer 2004, p 12)
What public see?
While we inhabit an overwhelmingly built up world, most of architecture receive only passing glances. Few people understand buildings as architects do, as complex spatial and structural creations, described in technical drawings, and explained in dense theoretical and historical landmarks and districts, but most people, most of the time, pass by the architectural landscape with little reflection. Or do they? Attentiveness to architecture depends upon the context of the experience. When connected to art, to collective history, to personal history, to celebrity or to a media story, architecture acquires a larger following. Like most things, architecture means more when it mediates the extraordinary moments of life.
Not only does the built world change all the time, but, through technological mediation, so too do its perceptual contexts, coordinates, and constraints. Today, for buildings or cityscapes to be noticed, they must be viewed in states of mediated perception- energized in velocity or dazzling light and sound effects. (Schwarzer 2004, p 14)
Rapid movement on trains, automobiles, or airplanes presents observers with a visual field dissimilar from that experienced while walking . Machine velocity induces the foreground to blur and the background to look like an outline; the direction of movement expands or contracts the visual field.
The visual has become dominant in mobile perception. Walking requires considerable muscular effort. In a vehicle, the muscular work involved in steering or accelerating is minimal. "Visual stimulation becomes proportionally more important than the bodily stimulation in these relatively passive types of locomotion."(James J Gibson, The Perception of the visual world, 1950, p 135)
Speed is a theoretical term, it could be calculated and analysed but perception of speed through our human senses is highly inaccurate and tricky. Therefore in order to better understand visual experience by relating to practical perceivable situations we shall relate different ranges of speed to different modes of transportation. Among speed there are various other aspects and constraints related to each mode of transportation that influence architectural experience which shall be discussed in brief.
The frame of view is the windshield. As we travel through the landscape, we imagine what is beyond the frame, what might reveal itself and what might remain hidden from view. The zoomscape is informed by anticipation and succession. The windshield acts as the mediator between the driver and the environment, allowing "for a range of perceptions within the same glance, from the object in the world to the automotive framing of its view, from the blur of a building wall to the smudge of dirt on the windshield, from the larger organization of the world we are navigating to the workings of machines and passing fancies in mind.(Whistler 2010)
The way a person views the landscape of the car is drastically different from viewing at a still position. A driver will be more aware of the roadway ahead of him than of the spaces and buildings on either side. As speed increases, that area that a person notices diminishes. Automotive perception depends on the kinesthetic movement of the head and the upper body as a driver responds to different views.(Whistler 2010)
Architecture can be read at various speeds, whether it be at the pace of a person walking, running, biking or driving. Not only is perception about how space is viewed, it is also how one moves through space at different speeds.(Whistler 2010)
1. Diller and Scofidio's Slow House
Illustration: Analytique, Diller + Scofidio, Slow HOuse, passage from artifice to nature
2. Mies Van Der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion
Illustration: Barcelona pavilion, sequence of circulation and views
In 1825, the world's first railroad line opened in England between the towns of Stockton and Darlington. The trip about nine miles took two hours, slightly faster than walking, although during the final stretch into Stockton speeds of fifteen miles per hour were reached. Tracks soon spread throughout England and the industrializing world. In the United States there were twenty-three miles of track in 1830. By 1860, the figure had climbed to more than 30,000 miles, and passenger trains traveled at speeds between twenty and thirty miles per hour, three times the speed of a horse drawn coach. Toward 1900, train speeds of more than fifty miles per hour were common. And by the late twentieth century, bullet trains routinely charged across the landscape at almost 200 miles per hour.
Excerpt on Indian Railways
Along the expanding rail lines of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the understanding of architecture grew from local to regional and eventually to continental scale.. Gradually, the dispersed buildings and places along the rail routes fused into shared viisual identities and heritages. Instead of understanding a place largely through one's ability to walk about its streets or avenues, people who rode the rails began to recogniea linear, sprawling notion of place: cities elongated into the countryside, towns reaching other towns, the buildings of one place relating to those of another through the newfound proximity afforded by trains.(Schwarzer 2004, p 14)
Everything felt different from fast moving trains. No longer did people experience the built environment with their full range of senses. Rail vision was no ordinary mode of sight. It was a new way of viewing, part human and part machine- the vision of velocity. The effects were exhilarating but also jarring. Seen from a train, works of architecture seemed to rush in and out of view like gusts of wind. Pieces of buildings or bridges, witnessed seconds apart, joined together. Features close to the train could feel perilously near to the compartment and appeared more liquid than solid. Far-off structures could seem uncannily remote. Because of its smooth horizontal trajectory, and because it separated the place of viewing from the things being viewed, the train turned the built environment in something of a moving picture show. (Schwarzer 2004, p 32)
The rail view also introduced new restrictions to the visual perception of the built environment. Unlike automobiles or airplanes, trains course along fixed lines of track. The rail view occurs along pre-determined right-of-ways, a separate rail space. (Schwarzer 2004, p 32)
Contrary to the frontal view from the locomotive or the circular vistas available on special viewing cars, the rectangular windows of seating compartments afford little sense of where the train is heading, Passengers gaze diagonally or sideways, at objects rushing by. Experienced at speeds out of sync with the human body, the rail view often finds itself out of view, searching for fixed form while the engine moves steadily forward, mile after engineered mile. (Schwarzer 2004, p 33)
The landscape built by the railroads and seen from them is a place fleeting and linear, and environment the throes of movement and change, a corridor of new and old, of invention succeeded by obsolescence. The implications for the experience of architecture were, from the start, profound. Instead of knowing buildings and cities inside out, seeing them slowly and close at hand, the rail traveller perceived only passing surfaces, glimpsed from a distance. The full-bodied, sensual and sustained relationship to building becomes a fast, flattened gaze. The view from the train can either vault into the void(and the future) that lies ahead or get left behind on the side of the tracks. (Schwarzer 2004, p 39)
From the train, architecture is witnessed as a torrent of images from which viewers can often discern only the gist of customary meanings. (Schwarzer 2004, p 33)
1. Fagus Factory
Jaeggi, Annemarie, Fagus: Industrial culture from Werkbund to Bauhaus, Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000
Kepes, Gyorgy, The nature and art of motion, New York: George Braziller, 1965
Nagy, L, Moholy, Vision in motion, Michigan: P. Theobald, 1947
Schwarzer, Mitchell, Zoomscape: architecture in motion and media, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004
Sharp, Thomas, Town and townscape, Great Britain: Jarrold & Sons Ltd, 1968
Whisler, E, Bailey, View from the Road: communicating the history of route 66 through mobile perception, Master of Architecture: Thesis, 2010