Tuesday, March 18, 2008

McLuhan + 50

It’s been about fifty years since communications theorist Marshall McLuhan developed his ideas about the ways in which communications media not only affect the conveyance of ideas but become the ideas themselves. The linear thinking that was promoted by typeset books, the passivity and lack of creative demands that video places on its viewers, and so on, are the larger and more important cultural frame within which any of the content must be understood.

There’s far more I’ll need to do with McLuhan’s work. For instance, Joshua Meyrowitz has used McLuhan’s theory to examine “cyberspace” and the ways in which it eliminates some of the work of cities and buildings in his 1986 book No Sense of Place. But my work in this post is much more constrained — to talk about the fundamental problem with studying architecture through looking at photographs.

Buildings are three-dimensional, inhabited objects in community context. They engage many of our senses at once. They frame social interaction. They are encountered at all times of day, in all seasons and weathers, and over the course of years. Photographs are none of these things. They are two-dimensional objects set onto a page in a re-configured context. They frame geometric relationships and light-dark contrasts. They engage only our sense of sight. They are photographed at one point in time, at one point in their aging cycle.

We can learn about architecture from looking at pictures almost exactly the same things that we can learn about women by looking at Playboy:
  • That they are objects of the admiring or critical gaze
  • That there are certain subcultural norms that determine which models are to be photographed
  • That the appropriate way to see them is determined by light and composition
  • That the models’ past or future existence is irrelevant to our interest
  • That the images are set within pages of framing text and images of other models, all of which sets an overall interpretive and definitional frame
If we wish to construct an architectural education that focuses on compositional issues, then our books and slide shows are the perfect media. If, however, we wish to construct an architectural education that has any bearing on our experience of habitation, then architectural photographs are perhaps the most inappropriate — indeed, hostile — mode of communication we could possibly employ.

I’ve had an interesting series of conversations with some of my colleagues in design education. One of the things they almost universally try to do with beginning design students is to keep them from thinking about buildings, and instead to help them think about form and space, about design methods and so on. One said specifically that if we were framing design education about ideas of habitation, then all of the students’ prior experience in places would be perfectly appropriate evidence to bring to bear. But if instead we want to focus on composition, then we need to eliminate habitational thinking (and political thinking, and social thinking, and experiential thinking…) . Photography helps us do that.

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