The Utilized Image

[Maijorca house, Otto Wagner]

In architecture, there is no lack of text devoted to graphics and imagery, and one could speculate on any manner of relationships between architecture and the arts. My intention here is not to elucidate some grand theory on this impossible-to-categorize (and ever-changing) link, but rather to identify one particular thread that has caught my attention recently: The Utilized Image.

Whenever and wherever it was that someone had the great idea to paint an entablature on a wall, we find the first interaction between architecture and the graphic arts. Building construction had, I assume, already been mastered – at least to the point where a reasonably flat surface could be created, such that a reasonably skilled painter could ply his trade. I assume this was sometime in the Greek or Roman era, when decorum required a certain plasticity of the facade, thus restricting large-form painting to the interior walls. Although of course the Greeks painted their facades as well, no self-respecting architect would propose a flat, painted facade until well into the 1800s. [1]

I believe this gives us the semblance of a category: image as appliqué. The architecture, completed, receives a coat of imagery that may of may not relate to the architectural narrative, has very few spatial qualities – save perhaps color or trompe d’oleil effects – and is applied, for the most part, using extant techniques and technologies. In effect, the building is not unlike a canvas. This type of image use remained in architecture throughout history, but perhaps reached its apex in the patterned walls of Art Nouveau, the Vienna Secession, the American Aesthetic Movement, and other similarly-concerned movements. Gradually, with the greater popular tolerance of plain, flat facades (a trend perhaps influenced by the preponderance of industrial structures), this type of graphic application moved to the exterior of the building, epitomized by Otto Wagner’s Majolica House in Vienna (1899), before vanishing in the blinding white-out of early modernism. (In fact, it’s not all that far removed from Adolf Loos’s 1910 Goldman & Salatsch Building, across town)

[Ricola Storage Building, Herzog & de Meuron]

The image as appliqué re-emerged in the post-modern era, as designers such as Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown discovered the “decorated shed” in the American landscape, and applied this theory-rich (and, i imagine, cost effective) typology to respectable architectural projects. This presages the best-known work of Herzog & de Meuron, who grew to fame on the strength of such projects as the Ricola Storage Building (Mulhouse-Brunstatt, France, 1993), whose basic form is familiar to any traveler through industrial areas of Switzerland. The ultimately functionalist canopy is the sole expressive addition to a rectangular form. The interest in the building, then, lies in the application of the leaf motif (from a taxonometric photography by Karl Blossfeldt). The encouragement of rainwater to drain down the concrete end walls and the expected juxtaposition of this with the repeated, industrialized “nature” of the primary facade is a more nuanced version of Venturi Scott Brown’s “Best” Store, and the colored polycarbonate imbues the interior with a certain glow, but ultimately the image remains an appliqué.

[McCormick Tribune Campus Center, Rem Koolhaas/OMA]

At Ricola, as at other projects as recent as Rem Koolhaas/OMA’s McCormick Tribune Campus Center (Chicago, 2003), the image is used effectively, intelligently, and in ways that tie to a larger architectural narrative in ways that were inconceivable in the late 1880s, when truth was beauty, and beauty truth. The leaf at Ricola, for all its cultural context, obviously refers to the herbs used to make the eponymous candy, as plainly as Mies’ gaping maw devouring unsuspecting students simultaneously mocks and pays tribute to the campus’s architectural heritage.

What these images do not do, however, is inform the architectural space in any meaningful way. They affect atmosphere, or course, and neither project would be the same without their respective grey-green and orange glows, but these images are used, not utilized

[SUVA House, Herzog & de Meuron]

In the cases previously mentioned, images may have been inspirational, or may have been applied to the buildings as a surface treatment, or both, but were never “utilized” in the design process as a generative tool. In recent work by Herzog & de Meuron, there seems to be an increasing utilization of the image in the design process. Images and techniques from the graphic arts have begun to play a larger role in their architectural process, in new and novel ways.

For example, the architects have built (or planned) numerous projects featuring screen-printed glass. An early example of this is the SUVA House (Basel, 1988-1993), where they added a glass facade to an existing office and apartment building. The benefit of a printed glass second skin is fairly obvious, the printing blocks some light and thus acts as a shade. From the interior, at close range, the windows are transparent, but from a distance, outside, the details of the printing blur, allowing a modicum of privacy. In their Elsässertor II building (Basel, 2000-2005), the evenly-spaced colored dots give the facades a consistent red or blue shade from the exterior, but since the effect is created by a dot pattern, the light entering the offices remains untinted/untainted.

This appreciation for the perceptual differences from different distances may have affected the trajectory of the utilized image in architecture, directing it towards larger applications on the scale of a building, or even an urban plan. While this can be seen in the architects’ Greek Orthodox Church (Competition, 1989), it is not until their Cottbus University Technical Library (1998-2004) that the utilization of imagery as a broader architectural strategy becomes evident.

[Cottbus University Technical Library, Herzog & de Meuron]

The library, an amorphous form in plan, could become difficult to navigate if all interior surfaces were treated in the same manner. Instead, the floors are painted in large colored stripes which have nothing to do with the organization of the library material. The TV test pattern on the plan of a library clad in a pattern of superimposed text ties into a larger concept wherein the continued dominance of the written word is asserted forcefully while simultaneously allowing new media to slip in underfoot, but the true utility of the applied image is realized once you’ve associated “yellow” with psychology, for example, and your search is enhanced. These large swaths of magenta, cyan, etc, give the plans an additional, perceptual level of organization.

To go a step further, the architecture and the image reach a level of previously unseen symbiosis in the architects’ Prada Tokyo (2000-2003), in which the building’s structure and interior organization derive from the pattern of the facade. This thread continues at their Beijing National Stadium (2008), where the structure, image, and space merge completely.

Obviously, the utilization of a graphic image as a generator in the design process has some merit, but I believe there is more work to be done. Herzog & de Meuron hint at possible further developments with their New Link Quay proposal (Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain, 1999-2002, planned completion 2010). The project is at urban scale, and the forms and features of the plan are derived partially from a large scale image reduced to a dot pattern. I imagine the initial image would become apparent from the air, or in satellite photos, the proliferation of which (thanks to Google Earth) has reasserted the viability of the roof as the “fifth facade.”

However, I think the true potential lies not in the utilization of arbitrary images in architectural form-making, but in the application of geographically, culturally, and socially relevant imagery on an urban scale, at one-to-one. The use of GPS systems and new methods of data collection, visualization and distribution (geo-tagging Flickr photos, for example, or graphic representations of traffic patterns) could be extended and graphically enhanced to provide useful images for architectural production. Where the analysis of sites and contexts was once an academic exercise, these methods can now be used in the generation of diagrams and images that can then be utilized extensively in the process of architectural design.

[1] this, like all facts in this blog, is pure speculation, and may get a proper citation if and when I get around to it.

[HdM dates from this list of selected Herzog & de Meuron Projects]