In Search of Distraction


DATE: September 2015


ROLE: Researcher

CONTACT: Davide Deriu



This project was my 2015 Master’s thesis in Architecture (History and Theory). A piece of specialised research into an area of specific personal and intellectual interest, carried out under rigorous academic scrutiny. Over the course of nine months I sharpened what was a general interest in the representation of architecture, into a precise and carefully crafted 15,000 word dissertation. Exploring the depiction of architecture through a ill-considered, yet fundamental state of attention. This focus stemmed from a latent curiosity I had for the way in which architecture was typically represented on the “page” (as an object of photography or writing, etc.). Something, that appeared to be entirely detached from its prevailing reality on the “ground” (as experienced in everyday life).

Early on in my research I came to adopt a notion that, I felt, embodied this everyday reality of architecture. This was “distraction”. A concept outlined, somewhat incidentally, by Walter Benjamin in his famed essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’ Here, Benjamin suggested that this prevailing mode of perception and engagement with architecture, could not be understood from the antithetical and tourist-like state of “attentive concentration.” A condition that, I felt, also epitomised the paradigm of architectural representation. Following this, I became possessed to construct and answer the following research question: 

  • Can architecture be represented, instead, as experienced in a state of “distraction”?

Over the course of several months, I addressed this question using a theorised and interpretive research strategy, undertaken from a post-structuralist standpoint. Formulating three corresponding objectives to be considered in turn:

  1. To critically interpret Benjamin’s notion of “distraction” for use within the contemporary context of this thesis.
  2. To understand, generally, the nature of architectural representation.
  3. To formulate, from a synthesis of the prior two objectives, methods capable of representing architecture in a state of “distraction”.

In addressing the first objective, I carried out a critical review of literature and historical interpretation of Benjamin’s notion of “distraction.” Establishing that, despite the complex and often over-determinate influence of political ideology on the integrity of his rhetoric, this concept could, in fact, be appropriated today with little to no adaptation or expansion; other than to say, simply, that architecture typically exists more as a backdrop to life than as an object in life. In addressing the second objective, I carried out a further review of literature, this time on the nature of representation in general. Finding that this perceived state of “attentive concentration” was in fact an a priori condition, initiated at both its formation and reception. In addressing the third objective, however, I concluded that this observation, far from introducing a paradox into my research, could instead inspire a methodological approach for the representation of architecture in the state of “distraction”: by “mediating” or “disrupting” the attention active at either side of its two-fold structure. This, in combination with the two prior objectives, led to the formation of two subsequent methods of representing the “distracted” experience of architecture. The first of these was “narrative”. A method which, acting on the formation of representation, shifted the object of delineation away from architecture per se and onto the “narrative agent.” Thereby capturing architecture collaterally, as a by-product to this alternative focus – akin, in my view, to the way in which it exists in everyday life. The second method was “montage.” A means of disrupting the reception of architectural representation by relying on a (contestable) analogue, posed by Benjamin, between the distracted experience of architecture and the symptomatic “shock effects” of montage media. Once these two methods had been fleshed out - in terms of their operative potential - their retroactive occurrence was examined among existing sites of (unorthodox) representation to the famous, Maison à Bordeaux (designed by OMA). Concluding that the “distracted” experience of architecture could, in fact, be represented yet only to a marginal degree.

Finally, after some time spent musing on the relative success of my findings I focused on something that, I felt, was the key pragmatic concern highlighted by my research in general - the potential representation of this and other marginal(ised) realities of architecture, within the space of architectural criticism. Something, which, up until that point, had been largely unconsidered; due in part to the stagnation of its professional practice, the cultural consensus on what constitutes a “measurable” experience of architecture and the orthodoxies of certain representative practices. The latter, sorely in need of some inspiration from the arts.

Since completing this dissertation, I have setup my own online space designed to address this vacuum in architectural criticism. Establishing, what I consider to be, a site of “counter-criticism”; representing and (where possible) critically considering alternative realities and relationships with the built environment.