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The ever-conflicting views of the image conscious and the ordinary

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What do ordinary people think of the architectural drawings, computer-generated images and photographs of buildings that are increasingly appearing in the newspapers? Do they find them helpful in understanding the projects and buildings that are portrayed? Well, not exactly. It is my suspicion that their immediate reaction springs from the broad spectrum of ideas that link the deeply suspicious to the profoundly hostile, and settles there.

A quick desktop survey suggests that the only exceptions to this rule occur when the headline, the title of the article (or the caption to the illustration or headline itself), actually orders the reader or viewer to approve of the project. So while a chatty 'Sweden is quietly proud of its new Folksam Tower' may produce no more than an indulgent nod, something more ecstatic, such as 'All London is in love with its new Gherkin skyscraper' - a form that strengthens the mad idea that the building really belongs to the citizens, and even hints that they might one day have to pay for it - works wonders. Old favourites, like 'The rape of Torquay', could never turn into a full-bodied promise to hate the town like poison.

This exposes a broad area of enquiry that, like the ceaseless investigations into 'the intention to buy as the Holy Grail of the retail experience', has subtleties that have been ignored for far too long. My own researches, under-funded as they are, must now serve as an introduction.

We can begin with a typical arts page from the London Evening Standard, this one headlined: 'Is this our Waterloo?' A reference to 'a massive skyscraper proposed for the riverside [which] will be a blight on our city's skyline'. The accompanying artwork appears to be an aerial view of the Shell Centre on the the South Bank, but is actually focused on another building ringed in white so as not to be mistaken.

Fat chance. To anyone who knows this part of London (which must include a good part of the readership of the Standard), the most prominent building in the frame is the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo - but this won't do. The image is designed to show how inconspicuous this, the largest building in the picture, would be if the new project were allowed to be built. And which project is this? It is the one with the white ring round it, the P&O Waterloo project, looking very inconspicuous despite the 120 metres of height and the 111,000m 2 of offices it hopes to bring to the party.

At this point, a second pair of eyes joins the dicussion. A layperson is asked for his opinion.

He stares at the image keenly.

'Why are people objecting to this building?' he asks. He is given the explanation as above but he is not satisfied with it. 'It doesn't look any different to any of these other buildings, ' he protests, gesturing over the terminal, the Shell Centre and the Royal Festival Hall. 'Look, they've even had to put a ring round it because the others are so alike - you couldn't see which one it was. How pathetic!' Pathetic or not, Mr Layperson is not happy with this situation.

The uniform light-blue colouring of the artwork, so pleasing to the architectural eye, seems to him mere subterfuge. But, in the course of further conversation, it becomes clear that much of the exchange is unwittingly at crosspurposes. The layperson actually thinks that all buildings look the same, just as all cars, even all traffic, looks the same. The architect sees them as individual items, separated by their history, brought together only by development and the prospect of change.

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