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Investigations into image-making

review

Architectural Representation and the Perspective Hinge by Alberto Perez-Gomez and Louise Pelletier. mit Press, 1997. 505pp. £34.95

'Experimental video, computer graphics, and virtual images have radically transformed the late-twentieth-century understanding of reality,' contend Alberto Perez-Gomez and Louise Pelletier at the start of Architectural Representation and the Perspective Hinge, 'yet the architectural profession is still reluctant to question the transparency and homogeneity of its means of representation.'

How true. From the most sophisticated digital image to the humble 1:1 construction detail, the modality of representation is almost always treated as if it were entirely neutral; and if distorted, those distortions are merely technical or superficial, not symptoms of an unrecognised underlying assumption.

It's not surprising. In all cases too detailed an investigation of the nature of image-making would undermine its purpose. Computer images are expensive and often created to convince sceptical lay audiences; start deconstructing the image and it loses its efficacy, while construction details enshrine a division of labour between hand- and brain-work, an issue which most architects choose to ignore. Yet Foucault and Derrida have demonstrated how traces of invidious power structures can lurk in the most innocuous social patterns. Banham, in his posthumously published inaugural lecture, argued that architecture is distinguished from other modes of building design by its use of drawings. A serious study of the under-charted territory of architectural representation is indeed overdue.

Perez-Gomez's and Pelletier's study starts to fill this gap. The late Robin Evans skirted the territory of geometry as the basis for representational constructions but died without producing anything definitive. Otherwise architectural writers have to draw on related investigations from art history, many of them descendants of John White's 40-year-old The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space. Our authors enter an area where there are few methodological pointers and little in the way of existing secondary literature to review. The bibliography lists numerous primary sources - many of them from optics and geometry - passing that essential test of serious academic endeavour, which is to re-interpret old favourites from your discipline armed with methods from elsewhere.

Having established the validity of their subject by arguing that architectural projection is not neutral, Perez-Gomez and Pelletier identify three intellectual traditions. 'The distorted image', cosmology, and the 'image without an observer' are each described as a 'variation'; the book has a rather unconvincing musical metaphor as a structure which culminates in the paragraphs in the 'coda' being given musical notation.

Discussion of each of these three traditions is wide-ranging, and raises new (or resurrects overlooked) material, but the most satisfactory is the first. Its heart is a discussion of how emerging concepts in geometry from Euclid to the baroque era informed architectural representation. In Girard Desargues and Juan Caramuel de Lobkowitz they introduce important theorists of the seventeenth century whose few built works seem to convey the possibility of a serene beauty through geometrical projection.

Perez-Gomez and Pelletier's underlying theme is that projection should allow some depth and mystery. Images should not be immediately transparent and space should be left for 'an architecture of resistance'. Caramuel's curious plan for the Piazza of St Peter's, Cartesian geometry, axonometric projection, the abstracted three-dimensional frame for plan, section and elevation codified by Durand, and above all cyberspace are vilified for eliminating depth; the distorted skull in Holbein's 'Ambassadors' (which demands a moving 'inhabitation' of the picture for its significance to become apparent), Piranesi, and certain aspects of Le Corbusier have potential for 'resistance'.

The mixture is heady, perhaps too heady to remain under tight control. Perez-Gomez and Pelletier occasionally lapse into unfortunate generalisations and truisms. Page 233 informs us that 'Unlike the nineteenth century, the Enlightenment could not easily reject . . . primary evidence', and slightly further on, 'the eighteenth century would always uphold . . . coherence', while on page 386 we are admonished to 'recognise that there are dangers present in the technological world . . . '

For all its erudition, the book is ultimately more a polemic for a certain type of architectural representation than a historical study. And lacking a grasp of historiography leads to an irony, that in arguing for a richer means of architectural representation, the narrative and sequential structure used in support itself tends to the flatness and uniformity which the authors deplore in architecture, where examples from ubiquitous sources are assembled from a monocular standpoint with little regard for their historical context.

But if that is the price we have to pay to make the means of representation a serious field of study, it is probably worth paying. Especially if the next 500-odd pager investigates the relationship between drawing and professional status.

Jeremy Melvin is an architectural writer and teacher

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