Deadly Perspective or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Spectacle

written for Second Year History and Theories at the Architectural Association, 2012

“Why is order so wonderful? Why must we praise it so? Why is it identifiable with all human value? Why do we see it when it is not even there? We have seen why: we praise order because it is an adaptational necessity for us that we experience order…”

– Morse Peckham[1]

The perspective drawing is dubious. It has, for centuries, aided and abetted architects in providing a calculated and mimetic representation of the built world and the rhetoric they pour into it. Unlike its more abstract predecessors, the plan and section, the perspective system “implies an assimilation of the image with the depicted object in a general process of mechanized mimesis”.[2] If we are to equate architectural drawing to a kind of language that operates most effectively as discourse, then this mimetic transformation has distorted the semantic function of the “words” by pushing their meanings outside the boundary of the drawing; like a proto-augmented reality.

It has long been suggested that architecture can create order in a world of chaos and disorganization, and the means by which this shall be translated into reality is through drawing; this is a misconception. “The uninhibited imagination of the 19th century was a motivating force behind major large scale social change, exemplified by the housing reform movements of post-Industrial Revolution London”.[3] Proposal drawings depict perfect unity and order in convincing pictorial townscapes; but this begs the question, why is this order so wonderful? Though none were ever as successful as the drawings portrayed, there is significance in their social and architectural failure that can be pointed out through analysis of the drawing.

Looking, specifically, at the Bird’s-eye perspectives of Sir Robert Owen’s utopian proposals of the 19th century offers an insight to the collapse of, what Robin Evans has termed, the “space of translation”[4] and the disparity between the image of architecture as a defining order and its use as self-criticism. If the architectural drawing is to be considered a separate practice than its built form, what is the relationship between the rhetorical exposition of space and the perception of an ordered experience within it? How has this relationship changed form in the critical and anti-utopian projects of the mid-20th century, such as Archizoom’s “No-Stop City” and Superstudio’s “Continuous Monument”, and similarly been received as images of order?­

In order to accommodate the new scale of industry and society, Sir Robert Owen’s proposal for New Harmony in 1825 envisioned a walled city nestled in a hilly landscape. Clearly reacting to the horrid conditions of workers in the newly industrialized European cities, his drawing reduces all signs of it to a single billowing smoke stack. Perched upon a hill in the foreground is a group of people, a family perhaps, looking down onto the town as if admiring their new integrated haven. Similarly, the viewer in reality seems to share this total view of the landscape, a form of support for the project of coherence and order. A winding river in the background and a series of peculiar ships, drawn in elevation and out of scale in reference to the foreshortening, alludes to the need for transport. Together with the trees, a frame is built around the image, echoing the enclosure of the architecture. What actual representation of architecture there is falls short of being specific enough to understand how exactly the built form is supposed to create this social order.[5] It is the pictorial depiction of non-architectural objects and use of perspective that “form an image that could be understood as analogous to actual vision…the possibility of its existence is reinforced by the image of its existence.”[6]


“New Harmony” by Robert Owen, 1838

Indeed, Owen conveys a powerful notion in his imagery; but at what cost? How are we to differentiate between the communicative drawing and art-object?  “If [the drawing’s] advantage is the ease of translation, its disadvantage stems from the same source: too close a likeness, too cautious a liaison, too much bound up in the elaboration of frontalities.”[7] Concurrent to the creation of this drawing, it was increasingly common for architectural drawings to become prized by collectors and exhibited as works of art, objects of fashion, farther from the making of buildings and closer to being an advertisement.[8] The proposal for New Harmony, then, has been compromised in its intentions as an architectural proposal, but in a curious way, manages to see them advanced as an artwork. For, as Robin Evan writes, “to regard a drawing as a work of art, as we usually understand it, is to regard it as something to be consumed by the viewer, so that his rapacious appetite for formulated experience may be assuaged”.[9] It is here that Owen’s vision of architectural order achieves its goal; under the pretense that art offers us order and facilitated by mimetic characteristics of the perspective.

An understanding of this linear progression of order perception (environmental condition to architect to drawing to viewer to society at large) can be facilitated by Morse Peckham’s observation of common misconceptions of why we value art

The sense of value arises from the satisfaction of need, and our basic need is for order…the reasoning [for art] is this: ‘I value art; therefore art must offer me order’[10]

This is especially interesting when considering the lack of architectural detail in Owen’s representation of New Harmony. To adapt another of Peckham’s analyses, this time on hypostatization in human perceptive behavior

Unity of any kind is something the human being always tries to perceive if he possibly can…To orient oneself to a situation is precisely to perceive as a unified field, though at the cost of suppressing and perceptually altering data and configurations which you cannot so unify…The hypostatization serves as a defense against the problems and confusion and disorientation which are elicited in the individual when he notices disparate data, when he becomes aware of the gap between the behavioral pattern and the demands made by the interaction with the environment[11]

From this it is possible to postulate that Owen’s project for New Harmony is an extension of his personal perceptive response to the poor conditions of industrial workers in the city, and the drawing is the visual manifestation of his desire for order in the form of a totalizing architectural utopia. The details of the drawn proposal are unclear because there is no previously programmed response to this new industrial environment, and the data has been altered to allow for innovation. In effect, New Harmony failed as a utopia, but the resonance of the drawing maintains that architectural form can, indeed, predetermine sets of social relations. Is this a desirable condition? What would happen if such order were achieved? Certainly the failure of Owen’s proposal signifies a paradox in the translation rhetorical architectural drawings into reality; that such ordered utopias are unsustainable.

The radical architecture movement of the 1960’s moved to challenge to hierarchies of the new avant-garde and the giants, such as Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, and Kahn, still dominating the field. In Italy, government policy insufficiently alleviated social strain and the overly conservative climate was becoming the target of growing young radical architects.[12] Two groups, Superstudio and Archizoom, emerged with seminal works depicting architectural utopias, labeled “negative” or “critical”; conceptual projects which imagined monumental architectures replete with all the amenities of Modern humanity. Respectively, these two groups employed perspective, in a series of disturbingly serene montages and drawings, as the material focus of their concepts.

Archizoom’s No-Stop City was an aggressive reassessment of the metropis’ failings to advance at the same rate as the rest of the industrial system. In their introduction text for Residential Park they posit the question of whether the “modern city is nothing more than a problem which has not been solved, or if, in reality, it is not a historical phenomenon which has been objectively superseded”.[13] Immediately, the issue of the modern city is reduced in complexity to being a problem solvable by a singular architectural solution, a reaction mirroring the alteration of overly complex data in human perceptive behavior. Their basis for a solution to this urban crisis was “not to develop a metropolis better tailored to the needs of man and coordinating them more effectively, but rather to grasp the exact nature of the objective urban-architectural laws underpinning society at this time”.[14]

In their attempt to visually represent a user-negotiated positioning of parks and housing, the idea of an objective urban-architectural law does not distinguish itself very much against the outmoded “bourgeois way” meant to be the antithesis of their project.[15] The image of a receding series of extruded blocks, apparently the parks, is highly traditional in its use of architectural form, for it appears to be simply rectangular boxes. The elevated Bird’s-eye perspective also serves to exaggerate the totalizing nature of this proposed architecture. Truly, it is far from “freeing mankind from architecture insomuch as it is a formal structure”.[16] Its ambiguity manages to avoid signifying an achievable building, but also hinders its representation of a conceptual liberation from architectural determinism in its reliance on gridded formations. In relation to the social configuration of this critical utopia they describe a user who is granted the highest level of liberty in a rigid figuration, where architecture may recognize its real destiny in the urban phenomenon.[17] The inconsistency of their rhetoric is apparent in the inability of the image to abandon its hegemonic depiction of architecture as the ultimate provider of order. The idea that “[architecture] will prefigure a general layout of things and at the same time set itself up to defend the partiality of the individual experience” is one that would be multiplied in the work of Superstudio, as well, with equally contradictory relations to their imagery.[18]

archizoom no stop city

No Stop City by Archizoom

In the accompanying text for the Continuous Monument, Superstudio introduces their desire to formulate architecture out of a single act, to realize cosmic order on Earth and affirm humanity’s capacity for acting according to reason.[19] A storyboard documents the historic traces of Man’s attempts to order the world, first in forms of measurement and then finally with the monumental dominance of the Earth. This would be the supporting evidence for an architecture “capable of clarifying once and for all the motives which have induced Man to build dolmens, menhirs, pyramids, and lastly to trace a white line in the desert”.[20] Following this, a series of collages depict the monumental architecture spanning landscapes, cutting across cities, and disappearing into the horizon. The only visible detail is an overlaid grid, because “the square block was seen as the first and ultimate act of architecture – a point of intersection between technology, the sacred, and functionality: a shape referring to nothing but itself”.[21] Superstudio’s images call into question the unwavering historic belief that order is born out of monumental architecture, but another question could be asked of their adaptation of the grid, with its paradoxical self-referentiality.

Continuous Monument storyboard

Continuous Monument storyboard

The perspectives of Superstudio capitalize on their mimesis, especially when combined with photography; they become consumable as artwork. By eliminating the possibility of the drawing to be interpreted as a real building, the Continuous Monument is able to become the signifier for a critique on the shortcoming of architectural discourse up to that point. “These collages were not representations of a positive utopia but illustrate the ubiquity of ascalar architectural ideas, the unfailing allure of the grid and cube and their invisible capitalist rationale of machine production”.[22] The collages also adapt a similar rhetorical exposition of architecture to that of New Harmony, in that they make no signification of how they intend to operate, only that it articulates a faultless relationship with its users and the surrounding landscape; unified and ordered. The self-referentiality of the grid signifies our desire to perceive order in our surrounding environment, suggesting a total predictability of any and all possible interactions with the environment. It is paradoxical as an image because, if the monument and grid represent the satisfaction of order, “then there is no reason why a healthy mind should pay any attention and every reason it should not.”[23] Rather, it is a forewarning of the inevitable failure of utopias.

As the monument passes over the city of New York it seems to dwarf the skyscrapers as relics of the past, harboring safety and illusion within its glassy surfaces. It is interesting how, in this particular image, the monument counters its architectural righteousness by its juxtaposition with another monumental city that it is purporting to have failed. Superstudio’s anti-utopia confronts the trend of architecture that presumes to solve urban crisis. The Continuous Monument is framed in a condition in which the progressive impoverishment of the Earth is reaching a point of “standing room only”, and the single architectural construction would offer the optimal living zones; a model of total urbanization logically extrapolated from “oriented history”.[24] In applying apply Peckham’s understanding of orientation in behavioral science, “oriented history” must mean this architectural construction can perceive the entirety of history as an ordered field. A description of the monument, as it effortlessly crosses the desert, explains

The continuous monument is the extreme pole of a series of projecting operations centered round the idea of the ‘single design’, a design which can be transferred from one area to another, remaining unchanged: an impassable, unalterable image, whose static perfection moves the world through the love of itself that it creates. Through a series of mental operations, one comes into possession of reality and reaches serenity: thus architecture is understanding of the world and knowledge of oneself.[25]

The statement is enough to shake one’s core. The prospect of an architecture that understands the world comes unnervingly close to the likes of HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Clearly, by endowing architecture with such great powers, Superstudio is using irony to critique the way blind ambition for order has, at times, served to benefit various oppressive powers via monumental architecture.[26] And, though the images portray a populace seemingly satisfied in all their needs, one has to wonder if that is a misnomer; if it is not really total psychogenic death that would sweep over this dystopian society. “Imagining the capitalist city swept clean of commodities and reconciled with nature…however beautiful in its purity, is monstrous in its totality”.[27]

superstudio continuous monument

Continuous Monument crosses New York City

Continuous Monument crosses the desert

Continuous Monument crosses the desert

Morse Peckham uses, unsparingly, the extreme example of Hitler’s final solution to put into perspective the possible psychological manifestation of a depraved hunger for order. He states

The death-wish is not a desire for death: it is a symbol of the desire for order on the part of men and women whose perception of the disparity between humanly created perceptual order and demands of their transactions with environment has resulted in an unbearable tension. The desire for death is merely the desire for the most perfect order we can imagine, for total insulation from all perceptual disparities. [28]

This statement means to demystify the historic claim by art critics that order is a defining characteristic of art. Rather, it is counter intuitive to think such a thing because we already turn our world into order by our very existence in it, it is unnecessary for art to do this. This misconception can be translated into the context of the perspective images, as discussed thus far, in the way that architecture is continually represented as dictating our every interaction with the environment; whether literally as with Owen, or critically as with Archizoom and Superstudio. This paralogical belief has offered us such utopian tendencies towards architecture that, as the images come closer to representing reality, it becomes more difficult to shake off the illusion that perfect order cannot come from architecture. “It is the damaged personality, it is the neurotic, it is above all the psychotic whose behavior exhibits an uncontrollable and passionate rage for order. Those who fail totally reach for the ultimate order, psychogenic death”.[29]

Though Archizoom and Superstudio’s projects are conceptual critiques of architectural misconceptions, their images encounter the same flaws as the drawing of Robert Owen, which is to infuse the rhetorical image of architecture with the idea that it may successfully subjugate the environment into predetermined sets of social occasions. To propose Man’s departure from dependency on architecture within a utopian image of architect is a blatant contradiction. What these drawings really tell us is that the utopia is dead the moment it is captured on paper. There is no possibility for it to exist as a building, but the drawings may still address the very necessary need for continuing critical discussion on architecture’s evolutionary shortcomings. It is merely that characteristic of perspective that serves to undermine the space of translation and deceive our perceptive relationship with architectural images as ordered an ordered experience.

[1] Morse Peckham Man’s rage for Chaos p. 39

[2] Mario Carpo Perspective, Projection and Design: Technologies of Architectural Representation p. 163

[3] Karin Tehve Conventions of Architectural Drawing: Representation and Misrepresentation p.125

[4] Robin Evans Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays p. 154

[5] Karin Tehve Conventions of Architectural Drawing: Representation and Misrepresentation p.130

[6] ibid. p. 129-30

[7] Robin Evans Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays p. 172

[8] James Ackerman Conventions of Architectural Drawing: Representation and Misrepresentation p.35

[9] Robin Evans Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays p. 160

[10] Morse Peckham Man’s rage for Chaos p. 34

[11] Morse Peckham Man’s rage for Chaos p. 30

[12] Martin Van Schaik Exit Utopia: Architectural Provocations 1956-76 p. 148

[13] ibid. p. 157

[14] ibid. p. 153

[15] Neil Spiller Visionary Architecture: Blueprints of the Modern Imagination p. 87

[16] Martin Van Schaik Exit Utopia: Architectural Provocations 1956-76 p. 166

[17] ibid. p. 161

[18] ibid. p. 161-165

[19] ibid. p. 126

[20] ibid. p. 126

[21] ibid. p. 150

[22] Neil Spiller Visionary Architecture: Blueprints of the Modern Imagination p. 87

[23] Morse Peckham Man’s rage for Chaos p. 34

[24] Martin Van Schaik Exit Utopia: Architectural Provocations 1956-76 p. 131

[25] ibid. p.131

[26] ibid. p. 150

[27] Hal Foster The Art-Architecture Complex p.9

[28] Morse Peckham Man’s rage for Chaos p. 34

[29] ibid. p. 34