The student voice of the Knowlton School of Architecture
By: Jonathan Rieke
Forgive the intellectual misstep I’m about to take: James Carmeron’s Avatar vs. Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless (À bout de soufflé).
At the expense of being heavy handed, the latter is a canonic piece of the short history of cin- ema while the former is, or will prove to be, an entertainment-movie. There is no question that these are fundamentally different things, but it is not hard to see how one could conceive that they are similar.
Apparently, both films, for lack of a better word, are of the same medium, both huge box office successes and both seen as revolutionary when they were released. Cameron’s film, as for its place in the history of cinema, represents an ad- vance in the way films are perceived by the audi- ence; it’s largely the natural result of technologi- cal advancement and is undoubtedly a small step forward in the march towards three-dimensional cinema. I would argue, however, that Cameron’s film is insignificant in the broad history of the discipline – Cameron has simply advanced the “image” of film and has left the formal elements of the medium unchanged; in fact, his strict adherence to the techniques of continuity editing is part of a filmic routine that dates back to DW Griffith in the teens of last century; Cameron’s film, an early foray into what McLuhan might call a “hot” three-dimensional media, could conceiv- ably mimic the role of Tron (1982), in so much as that film was an early revelry in the digital.
Godard’s film, however, revolutionized cinema- tography in a completely different way.
Godard’s manipulation of the formal elements of the film – his use of jump cuts, temporal overlap, extreme long shots, the dolly shot, heavy-handed transition, unmotivated action, disunity, and a shifted moral agenda, as epitomized in Breath- less, broke with the mainstream French studios of the 60’s and fundamentally changed the discipline.
Clearly, not every film is Breathless and not every director is Godard and certainly films such as Avatar are necessary cultural products and can be learned from, but a prospective filmmaker would certainly not study Avatar the way in which he or she would study Breathless.
Likewise, a prospective architect would not study Jurgen Mayer’s Metropol Parasol project the same way in which he would Corbusier’s Villa at Garches. Not every architect, however, is going to be Corb, blah blah blah….
This seems unnecessarily long-winded for a conclusion so obvious, but I think it becomes more difficult when today’s architecture student is bombarded with scores of high-gloss, high-contrast, visually seductive and undeniably cool- looking renderings of the sort Mayer, along with countless other contemporary architects produce. Such imagery makes the consumption of a project such as Mayer’s so much easier than one like Corb’s, yet Mayer’s importance, retrospectively, 90 years from now, will not be what Corb’s is today. It’s also true, in this specific example, that Mayer’s rendering completely lies about its con- text – however, not more awfully than his model does – it certainly does not illustrate the way in which its awkward scale destroys the public space surrounding it.
Rendering in this fashion, I think, deceives the student into believing that the goal of the studio experience, the goal of his/her education, is the production of such compelling images. This, as opposed to the careful consideration of things such as, I don’t know, scale, that if more carefully considered would surely improve a project such as Mayer’s and are, as it turns out, fundamental to the study of Architecture. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with or bad about a seductive image – they do look nice after all – the making of these cannot be the goal of the student project. These sort of highly-refined “sexy” renderings are detrimental to the discipline in their sole encouragement of the production of like objects – they are a sort of self-perpetuating sickness that leads, usually, only to a superficial engagement with architecture.
In the same way that Avatar allows the viewer to lean back in his seat with his extra-large buttered popcorn, pocket-full of Sour-Patch Kids and consume the seductive visuals without a second thought about
Lt. John Dunbar Kevin Kostner Dances with Wolves the film’s content, sexed-up rendering offers a highly consumable, non-crit- ical and often hyper-spectacularized version of architecture that amounts to not much more than a pleasing visual stimulus. This is not to say that an architectural project cannot be good and look good at the same time but, in cloaking itself in a provocative visual language, the representation of the project can easily hide its own nature; a sort of Descartes-ian pseudo-reality in which very little can be “clearly and distinctly perceived.”
In school, especially the image is our most useful, if not our only, tool for explaining and arguing for our ideas. This is just to say…