Seeing through the illusion
Rolf Sachsse, who lectured at the AA last week, is one of a fairly rare breed: a former practitioner turned theoretician. He originally trained and worked as an architectural and advertising photographer and now holds professorships in photography and electronic imagery; art history and media theory.
He approaches the relationship between architecture and the media with a dry sense of humour. 'I'm glad you can see me as a legless man,' he suddenly announced at the aa, in an unexpected reference to the way the mirror-faced stand of the reading desk showed the audience an image of itself in place of the expected view of the lecturer's lower body.
Sachsse delights in the means by which the visual image can be manipulated. His lecture, tracing many of today's developments in the presentation of architecture through the media, back to the last century, and particularly to the work of Mendelsohn and Mies, dwelt with some enthusiasm on the bizarre media phenomenon of the Barcelona Pavilion. Built in the knowledge that it would stand for only six weeks, but be hugely photographed, its enduring image was created by photographs which were, almost without exception, touched up and modified by Mies. A replica of the building was constructed in recent years, the original having been inexplicably lost in transit after it was dismantled. The old photos were used as the basis for making the drawings for the work, which was then extensively photographed again.
Mies introduced a photographic frame into his drawings, and also made great use of photomontage, in a deliberate and calculated use of imagery, as in the postcard he produced of his Weissenhof scheme with Arabic styling, and the advertisements he placed for his Lakeshore Drive apartments in Chicago. These techniques were developed by his student and assistant Stanley Tigerman, and became part of the basic armoury of postmodernism; however, Mies' approach had been presaged by Mendelsohn, who not only made use of the best photographers of his time (Arthur Koestler, Otto Eisenschinck) to create images of his buildings, but also, as his drawings reveal, designed buildings (the Einstein Tower) - according to those preconceived images.
Sachsse traced the development of architectural images through the activism of the 1960s, in the work of Archigram, Zund-Up and others, to the possibilities offered by today's computer technology. The histories of film and propaganda production since the 1920s run in parallel. Indeed, Sachsse suggests that the technology available today is overwhelmingly harnessed to generate images that, as in German political propaganda of the late 1930s, makes it impossible to tell whether an image depicts something that has been built or not.
'We have to learn to re-read images,' he concluded, 'as they did 500 years ago when perspective was introduced.'