Through a lens
There is an old newspaper cartoon showing two airline pilots gazing out of their cockpit window. 'The people down there look like ants, ' says one of them. 'They are ants, ' says his partner. 'We haven't taken off yet.' I was reminded of this gag when reading Zoomscape: Architecture in Motion and Media. According to the book's blurb, Mitchell Schwarzer - chair of visual studies at California College of the Arts - argues 'that our perception of architecture has been fundamentally altered by transportation and camera technologies'. If this statement triggers alarm bells, then that's probably due to the intellectual trajectory of academic media studies - too often theorists treat images as if they were actually the things they represent.
Granted, Schwarzer appears to argue that Miami Vice single-handedly regenerated the cop show's southern Florida setting, but this is an aberration in an otherwise nuanced and thoughtful book. A clumsy attempt to merge architecture with media studies it ain't.
So what exactly is a 'zoomscape'? In Schwarzer's viewpoint, people experience the built environment indirectly. First, mechanised transport, and then various forms of photography, constantly mediate our understanding of architecture. Six succinct chapter titles, such as 'Railroad' and 'Television', divide the book into respective 'transport' and 'picture-making' sections, although each half is equally concerned with the way man-made structures and landscapes become visual images.
Bypassing plans and the bricks and mortar, our eyesight is the main way we connect to our material surroundings. Use and function play at best a marginal role in a zoomscape, unlike the combination of vehicles and lenses that takes centre-stage in this account.
Recall the impact of the 1972 'blue planet' photographs taken by Apollo astronauts, the 'first visual document of the Earth as a singular entity'. Schwarzer does, using this example of 'globalism'to conclude his assessment of still-photography zoomscapes. He amplifies the notion that snapshots from space fired up a sense of geography in the popular imagination by suggesting that every geographical image, no matter how fleeting, provides an authentic bond between cities and their citizens.
Thus the non-architects among us, myself included, only encounter the profession and its products by looking through the windows of planes, trains and automobiles or watching the opening credits of a sitcom. The nameless urban hell of Hill Street Blues became more familiar to its viewers than the nameless urban hells they passed through on the way to work. If we only see cities through various types of glass - windows, lenses or television screens - then surely such sightings are more real to us than any particular structures.
It is a seductive argument until one stops zooming about and considers the following:
how do we appraise the buildings we pass or enter on foot? Why, visually of course, yet this is but a holding exercise until we bring our other senses and our reason to bear on our surroundings. And how do we know folk respond to architecture in the ways described here? We don't. Whereas some media studies provide analyses of how audiences behave, here we just have to take the author's word for it.
Not unlike the Las Vegas he discusses, Schwarzer has built an entertaining edifice around a banal insight. The big question - 'so what?' - has few real answers in this book.
Graham Barnfield is a fellow of the Wolfsonian-FIU in South Beach, Miami