In my last article I reconnected with an area of enduring interest for me: the representation of the “distracted” experience of architecture. This topic is an attempt to capture the prevailing reality of our interaction with the built environment. One that is defined not by the attentive interest it typically receives through conventional representation (often examined through expository writing, photography or drawing) but rather by the opposite state of attention: one that guides the peripheral and often unconscious interaction it receives in everyday life (here defined as “distraction”). Through my prior research on this subject, most prominently coming from my Master’s thesis, I came to establish two distinct methods I saw as capable of capturing this condition (at least to a marginal degree). The first was “narrative”, which sought to shift the object of representation away from the architecture per se and onto the “narrative agent” through whom the environment would be revealed collaterally as it rises and falls relative to their interaction and perception. The second was “montage”, which – rather tenuously from a theoretical standpoint – sought to create a similar state of “distraction” in the viewer of architectural representation by disrupting their visual engagement, using sharply contrasting scenes and brief temporal exposures (a use of montage typical of early Russian Constructivism). In my last article both of these methods were brought together to some degree in the representation of a series of city walks carried out in 2016. Here, I organised a collection of photos (captured automatically using a wearable camera) into ‘GIF’ files, exposing each image for 0.4 seconds in chronological order and thereby reflecting not only my point of view during these walks but also my linear progression through the environment. Interestingly, these images created something of a ghostly impression on the viewer: leaving one with a broad sense of each cityscape rather than a detailed understanding of any specific part. An insight more akin to that of a long-term resident than a fleeting tourist and for that reason, I believe, a substantial qualification of my attempt to represent the “distracted” experience of architecture.
At the end of my previous article I decided that I wanted to reorganise these photos into a new format. One that focused even more on the qualities of my “narrative method” and which, consequently, may come to capture even more of the “distracted” experience of architecture than before. From this point on, I began looking at two different formats: one, a photographic collage ordered chronologically without text; and two, a more conventional written narrative supported by images where available. However, during this process it occurred to me to combine both of these styles and produce something similar to a comic book or graphic novel. A format which I recognised as a powerful means of telling stories and one that shifted the often polarised hierarchy between text and images into one of greater balance and convergence (ultimately creating something of a “montage” between them). The following representation is a product of that idea and comes to capture, through twelve black and white photographs with a small narrative text superimposed on each, part of a journey through the Marais district of Paris in May 2016.
My general impression from the above series of images is one of a congenial experience of the built environment. One whereby the architecture is indeed not itself the object of representation but simply a background, activated and perceived in relation to an otherwise more dominant and important focus or “story” – that of everyday human experience. It is this which reflects the hypothesised state of “distraction” typically present in our everyday interaction with architecture and for that reason serves to further qualify, in my mind, my attempts to represent this condition. There are many interesting mechanisms at work in the above representation and I’m going to explore these through the framework of my “narrative method” and in particularly through the sub-categories of: “narrative focus”, “narrative sequence” and “narrative agency.”
“Narrative focus” is perhaps the most important characteristic of this method and it is this which is largely responsible for communicating the analogous experience of architecture to the spectator. This is achieved through its inherent focus on the “narrative agent” or “actor”, to whom the architecture is typically perceived and interacted with in a state of “distraction” – which is to say, in relation to an alternative focus or interest. This can be seen in the above representation through both the text and the images. In the text, the “narrative agent” has provided the context to their focus and attention at each moment and in doing so, helped articulate and define the role of the built environment to the spectator (revealed here most vividly through the accompanying images). The images themselves also reflect this “narrative focus” through their first-person perspective and “candid” character, which together reflect a congenial visual impression of the built environment guided without any specific interest in the architecture per se. Interestingly, the combination of these two elements (the textual and the photographic) within the same space, creates a further layer of depth and interpretation to the representation that would not otherwise be possible through an individual reading of each. The effect on the spectator is substantial: activating their imagination and deepening their appreciation for the “story.” For me, this is best understood as a consequence of “montage.” Not in relation to my existing “montage method” (which functions based on the operative dynamism of film) but rather the more commonly appreciated quality in art theory, which that of it’s “allegorical potential:” capable of generating new meaning from perhaps otherwise disparate parts (in this case, an image and a sentence).
The second category of “narrative sequence” refers to the innate temporal continuity that is typically present in narrative works and which thus reflects an analogous unfolding of experience to the spectator. In this context, such a quality is crucial as it permits an understanding of the environment as it would be experienced naturally and not, as is often the case in architectural representation, chopped up and reordered inline with an alternative hierarchy. In the above representation this “sequence” is communicated in two ways: through the ordering of the panels and through the content of the narrative text. The order of the panels (which includes the images and their textual counterparts) follows a chronological left-to-right top-to-bottom arrangement, communicating intuitively the linear progression of the story to the spectator. The text, however, relays the individual temporal context of each panel to the spectator by indicating the general activities and actions of the “narrative agent” at each moment. The effect of this second temporal layer is substantial when compared to a version without it: dramatically improving the legibility of the overall “story” by deepening the temporal significance of each scene and thereby improving their connection with one another.
The third and final category is that of “narrative agency.” This is perhaps the least important one in this context but it is useful to consider it anyway as it will no doubt have consequence in future works. Many representations of architecture make observations and descriptions about the built environment but very few render the agent responsible for them to the spectator and therefore create something of a misnomer over their authority. In the above representation this agent is made implicit within the first-person narrative and in doing so a critical layer is established for the spectator: highlighting the subjectivity of their account and in many cases (when sufficient context is available) providing additional information to use when interpreting their observations.
There are a couple of additional things to note about this representation outside of this “narrative” framework that refer rather specifically to the medium of sequential art. The first is the presentation of the individual panels in the story. In the above representation these are all kept the same but they could perhaps have been altered, either in size or format, to give greater significance to certain “moments” or to change the dynamic of the narrative flow. The second is the “exposure” of each image as controlled by the text. Within the theory surrounding sequential art, it is a commonly held idea that - almost in a filmic manner – the images are exposed to the viewer for as long as it takes to read the associated text (referring here not just to the narration but also any possible dialogue). In the above representation, however, this is not really considered as it is of minor consequence in comparison to the ability of the text to communicate the temporal context of each image to the viewer.
Reflecting somewhat more broadly on this and my other attempts to represent the “distracted” experience of architecture, it seems to me that this format comes the closest, perhaps secondly only to film, in capturing this condition. It is, for all intents and purposes, a spatial rendition of an otherwise filmic structure and dynamic, especially when considering the more creative examples found in comic books and graphic novels. It brings together the visual and narrative elements of a story along a clear temporal continuum that is, by comparison, poorly achieved through other more conventional formats. For this reason, I would like to continue to refine this style but also explore the potential of this “narrative method” in film; perhaps creating an even more potent “narrative sequence” through its significant temporal structure.
Ultimately, I’m left with one outstanding concern in relation to the “distracted” experience of architecture which that of its resolution with architectural criticism. This was, for me, the original concern I had when starting this research several years ago but I soon ran into difficulty when exploring it within the constraints of academic research. There is something of a quite obvious paradox to all of this: namely, the contrary state of attention required to consider the “distracted” experience of architecture, critically. However, I do believe that a place can be made for this, to some extent or another, even if it is only as part of a ´building review´- leaving the interpretive process up to the spectator and continuing the critical process of the author as usual. In the next article I intend to produce, I hope to have considered this issue a little more and if possible, come up with a template for its integration within architectural criticism.