Andrzej Piotrowski


  I would like first to explain how my work can be seen vis-à-vis other uses of computers in architecture. Let me begin by saying that computers transform the processes of perception and cognition. This transformation determines what can be recognized as digital data and structures how the outcome of digital operations is made perceivable. My work started with the comparative analysis of the distinction between the two kinds of interaction, when a person experiences a material building versus when a person perceives digitally represented information about the building. My findings highlighted certain general characteristics of digital technologies in architecture: (1) software used in architecture was initially developed outside the discipline of architecture; (2) the high cost of digital technologies leads to its fastest development in two areas of application--an analysis of a building’s physical performance and commercial promotion of architectural designs; (3) the development of technology in these two areas starts to dominate not only the operations of architectural offices but also the popular perception of what architects do.
The most popular software used in architectural offices is AutoCAD. Its greatest advantage is the analytical precision and ability to manage large quantities of simple information. At the same time, it operates by creating a particular system of knowledge about architecture. What this system admits as valid information pertains only to attributes of a building that can be rationally analyzed, that is measured and described in categories that are either true or false. Following Cartesian duality between matter and thought, in this system, only a physical form is acknowledged to be the object of cognition. Lines on the screen, either in a plan view or in a wireframe model, refer exclusively to sizes and positions of physical elements of architecture. This kind of rationally structured map allows one to analyze only the quantitative complexity of a building, for example, the performance of structural elements, energy loss and gain, as well as simple information of number and location of multiple elements needed to assemble a building. Following the logic of traditional dichotomies, the other side of the Cartesian duality is silenced in this process; that is to say, these symbolic attributes of a building that architects design to trigger the interaction between architecture and human thought become secondary. I believe, however, that a building has a symbolic value only when it is perceived as a reality in which the physicality of its form is only one of many dimensions that human thought is meant to perceive and to reflect upon.

Contemporary software used to promote architecture makes use of the other side of the Cartesian duality. It aims at the total control of perception. The most advanced digital technology for simulation of photorealistic views of prospective architecture evolved from the applications designed for the entertainment industry. A client’s need to see a realistic model is not that different from the appetite for special digital effects that draw crowds of people to cinemas. Traditionally rendered, photorealistic still images are much less attractive than a virtual walk through a prospective building. The commercial usefulness of such a visual simulation depends on the assumption that it is possible to digitally control visual sensations.3 Moreover, visual sensations are equated with visual experiences in architecture. It already becomes common that not only still images but real time virtual reality is constructed in such a manner that texture mapping, light rendering, and resolution of pictures will make it difficult to distinguish between simulation and the viewing of a material building. Be as it may, it needs to be noted that our fascination with visual sensations draws attention only to the instantaneous perception of what is made available within the field of vision. It is telling that despite the fact that digital technology can construct a multitude of projection systems it is always a perspectival and unioptical view that simulations use. This is the view that equates viewing with visual possession. In this process, architecture is reduced to a flow of images whose function is to dazzle and seduce a potential client.

Despite the undeniable usefulness of the analytical and commercial uses of digital technology in architecture, I would like to draw attention to those attributes of architecture that are often made invisible when architecture is reduced to a quantitative construct or a visual effect. What is often left out is the specificity of how buildings interact with human thought. Architectural form and knowledge/memory shape the relationship between architecture and thought. Thus, an important part of interpreting a building is a matter of establishing an interplay between experiences created by this form and all that a person remembers and values in this specific place and at that specific time. In this interplay, a physical construct of architecture is placed in a complex network of references.
This way of turning immediacy of perception into symbolic process of representation in architecture is analogous to Jean-Francis Lyotard’s representational consciousness. Lyotard states that the accumulation of experiences and the delay of the immediacy of reaction to what is being perceived at a particular moment shows

„[...] how perception stops being ‘pure’, i.e. instantaneous, and how representational consciousness can be born of this reflection (in the optical sense), of this ‘echo’, of the influx on the set of other possible - but currently ignored - paths which form memory."4
It is this process of structuring of experiences and accumulative stimulation of thought that is essential for the symbolic functioning of architecture. Architecture encourages that any instantaneous visual sensation be placed in the field of memory. Recollections of previous experiences, memory of the material and symbolic contexts in which a place exists, physical and metaphoric distance, create a complex network of references in a mental space where the reading of symbolic meanings is made possible.
Thus, a central issue in my work became the recognition that thought can be guided and organized by the specificity of architectural form. In architecture, the field of individual or culturally shared memories is always superimposed on a particular composition of an architectural space. Buildings consist of parts that can be seen one at the time. The way each element can be entered or exited encourages the memories of what has already happened and the anticipation of what may happen. The relationships created by these places may unite various thoughts or they may establish a dialogue between conflicting concepts. These relationships grow out of, for example, particular shapes of a material form, sequencing of experiences within a building, or changes in light intensity. To substantiate this point I will present the part of my current research that attempts to digitally map out how a particular building was designed to heighten these processes of interdependence between thought and architecture.
To test how new technology can be used to map out the symbolic attributes of architecture, I created a specific strategy. Three initial decisions provided a conceptual framework for my work:

(1) Instead of prospective buildings, I studied historic and materially existing architecture;

(2) Instead of placing emphasis on the newest technical possibilities of digital technology, such as animation or virtual reality, I studied the traditional notion of mapping as production of still pictures;

(3) Instead of approaching digital technology as revolutionary medium, I attempted to understand new opportunities that the computer graphics create in the context of history of representational techniques and conventions in architecture.

Consequently, the primary objective of this research was to develop and test what I call photographic mapping. This mapping was meant to capture these attributes of a building’s composition that structure representation of its symbolic reality. The buildings I studied are located in Greece, Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain, Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States. Practically, such work required visiting a particular building and documenting its perceptual characteristics on site. In each case, I visited a particular building and identified which attributes of its space have the strongest impact on the way this building implies possible modes of experience: for example, the building’s ability to direct attention to its particular features, its ability to suggest play of analogies, as well as its ability to organize multiple experiences in one’s memory. These characteristics had to be conceptualized as a particular way of viewing which the space encourages. Next, these multiple experiences and the structure of their symbolic interdependencies were transformed into a multiplicity of photographs. The number of pictures needed to capture how one’s perception is structured varied from a few pictures to four 36-exposure rolls in one building. In many cases, a particular building implied many structures of experience, which were equally significant. A particular set of photographic documentation, however, was to present one set of attributes, which established a strong sense of symbolic relationships within and without architecture.

When brought to Minneapolis, the photographs became the rough representational material for the next phase of my studies. Most of this work was done with the help of a computer. The films were scanned and converted into high resolution graphic files. Additional information concerning buildings’ forms, such as measured drawings, was studied and prepared for a digital integration. One of the crucial elements of this phase of research was to explore how reality was depicted at the time when the building was constructed. In my approach it was essential to view architectural space as yet another device for representing symbolic reality. In some cases, architectural sketches, and in some other cases, illustrations of mythical events, provided the most interesting insights into the structuring of symbolic thought of that time. At the end of this process, multiple photographs taken at the architectural site were assembled into a composition in order to heighten their ability to represent symbolic characteristics of that architecture.

These pictorial compositions were assembled electronically using Adobe Photoshop software. Most of the images were created as RGB, high resolution files, varying in size from approximately 30 to 150 megabytes. These files were later professionally recorded on large format photographic films and photographically printed.5 At present, the collection of such images consists of eleven 20 x 24 inch (50 x 60 cm) Ilfochrome, C, and black and white prints.

To illustrate how this photographic mapping works as a mode of representation, I would like to discuss two compositions. As I have already mentioned, each photographic map is conceived in direct response to the idiosyncratic features of a piece of architecture. Because my objective is to illustrate the strategy I developed, I will compare two different but related samples: the study of the Pazzi Chapel in Florence, Italy and the study of Kukulcán in Chichén Itzá, Mexico. Though different in their cultural setting and time of construction, these two buildings exemplify the temples of their time.

One of the most important questions that photographic mapping enforces is what kind of viewing a particular building encourages, or what needs to be seen in one’s mind when the experience of the whole building is recalled. This question is essential here because buildings are not the assemblages of equally memorable experiences. In the architectural space of the Pazzi Chapel and Kukulcán, what is seen at a particular moment exists in a specific relationship to other views possible in the space of these individual buildings and their surrounding. 

The Pazzi Chapel consists of three volumes organized along the line of symmetry. Though separate, because they are located outdoors and indoors and different in size and degree of enclosure, these volumes are highly integrated. It is the use of linear elements, the front colonnade and pilasters, that creates the superstructure which unites all components of this building. The emphasis on frontal viewing and the direct movement through space reinforces the omnipresence of the system of regulating lines created by the play of shadow and the darkness of pietra serena. The whole form of the building can be seen as a system of these regulating lines constructed in space and then translated into rooms, walls, doors, and windows. In response to this discovery, my photographic mapping was meant to capture how the consistency of the articulated lines integrates the various layers of this space. The composition of this picture follows this finding. A „worm view" vertical oblique projection system seems to work in a similar way as the multilayered experience of this building. This projection system emphasizes the lining up and the repetition of orthographic articulation of this architectural form.

When moving through the main entry sequence and through the layers of columns and walls, a person would see and remember the repetition of locations and sizes of the articulated elements. Even when facing the farthest wall behind the altar, a person is aware of its position in precisely regulated order of this symbolic reality. What made this building a Renaissance composition was the fact that it gave the priority to the construction of space in the interplay of cognitive processes. 6

The Kukulcán temple, though it consists of a similar number of spatial elements and is similar in physical size, provides a completely different sequence of symbolic experiences. In Kukulcán, each chamber presents itself as a separate symbolic domain. This sense of separateness of symbolic singularities, which a person experiences, can be seen as analogous to the structure of a mythical Mayan universe. This symbolic reality was interpreted as consisting of multiple layered domains within the sky and the earth. These symbolic worlds were inhabited by the mythical impersonifications of the forces of nature. 7 It is this kind of structuring of human perception and cognition which can be uncovered in the composition of Kukulcán. The two inner chambers of that temple exist in a physical proximity, but their experiential characteristics emphasize their separateness. Each volume draws attention to its verticality, which gives these spaces a figural character. The simplicity and symmetry of the shape of each space, symbolically carved out from the solidity of a stone, adds to this reading of form. As the result, the sequence of experience for a person who enters Kukulcán consists of three elemental conditions: of being at the top of the platform and in front of the temple, of being in the transverse, narrow but tall, space of the first chamber, and of being in the most inner second chamber partially filled with massive structural elements. In response to this reading of how Kukulcán structures the processes of perception and cognition, I decided that a cross-section view might reveal these attributes. My photographic map not only shows how the articulation of a shape of vertical space creates these singularities of an experience, but it also brings to the fore the sense of entering into the solid interior.

Another quality of architecture that became crucial in photographic mapping of these two buildings was symbolic structuring of daylight. Photography allowed me to capture the complexity of light phenomena with great accuracy. However it is the possibility of using a computer to map out light as an integral part of spatial and experiential relationships that reveals what daylight contributes to the symbolic functioning of architecture in these two buildings.

In the Pazzi Chapel daylight fills all the spaces. Though a screen of columns admits much more light than big stained glass windows, the sense of light filtering through the structure permeates the whole space. As my composition shows, light intensity changes (though this change is subtle) when a person crosses the threshold of the door. The similarity of light distribution on the exterior and interior walls, instead of emphasizing the distinction between the inside and outside, draws attention to the same sense of continuity and integrity, which I have already noted. It is the articulation of architectural form that becomes well-visible in this even light.

Daylight in Kukulcán operates in a very different way. As my composition shows, the range of light conditions differs from the almost unbearable brightness of Mexican sun outside of the temple to a low-intensity light deep inside, which makes visual perception almost impossible. The reason why the vaulted tall ceiling of the second chamber is barely visible on the picture is because very little light reaches that place. Though I might have compensated the exposure and photographed this space with high visibility of details, my intention was to show how the perception of this inner space was made difficult. One’s inability to distinguish visually between surfaces and shapes enhanced the tactile and auditory perception. In so doing, light added to this chamber’s symbolic dimension--to how this place resembles a mythical underworld. This interplay of various modes of perception was an integral part of Mayan symbolic practices.

This comparison of daylight in the constitution of symbolic reality reveals that the manner in which architectural form is usually recorded in the West evolved from the practice which emerged in the Renaissance--from Brunelleschi’s construction of perspectival space translated now into a unequivocal construction of cognitive processes. As the Kukulcán example shows, photographic mapping creates a chance of capturing other modes of thought.

The last issue that was important in the construction of the two images was the symbolic relationship between architecture and its surroundings. The vertical oblique view used for the Pazzi Chapel reveals that this piece of architecture can be thought of as a composition of many parallel elevations. The wall surrounding the courtyard of the Santa Croce cloister, where the chapel is located, exists as one of these layers. As the picture shows, the chapel grows out of, or transforms, the already existing wall. The front colonnade creates an illusion that it is the outer surface of that wall which was peeled off, structured by a screen of columns, and slightly shifted in space. The already existing wall itself exists in an almost unaltered form. It flows continuously behind the columns, and the architectural articulation of pilasters seems to be almost accidental. The interior elevation creates a replica of the already existing wall and its new articulation, but the emphasis here is on the dark lines drawn on the surface. The inner elevations reveal how the regulating lines transform all the walls, including the already existing exterior wall, into a set of interrelated compositions. Thus, to some degree, the whole courtyard is integrated into relationships of the chapel.

Kukulcán presents a different issue. The cross-sectional view shows how the positioning of this temple in its surroundings acquires a symbolic meaning. Unlike the integrated world of the Pazzi Chapel, Kukulcán reveals the transition positions between physical and metaphysical realities. The temple is located on the top of a pyramid. One needs to climb above the line of trees and to see the horizon before he or she can enter the temple. It is this moment when a person stands on the front platform, as if suspended between „heaven" and „earth," which prepares for and propels the next experience. As my picture attempts to show, the transition in the experiences could not be more intense than the experience of leaving the elevated space flooded with light and entering the small, compressed, and dark interior of the Kukulcán temple. It is this movement from one extreme condition to another that gives it metaphoric richness.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that digital technology will have a lasting and positive effect on architectural thought. The digital data management and the new analytical methods in the design process will provide scientific grounds for decision-making in architecture design. Buildings designed in this way will be more efficient and more reliable. The new techniques of visualization, and especially new simulation techniques, will open completely new ways for social and political processes in designing architecture. Prospective architectural decisions can be articulated, discussed, and disseminated as never before.

My work attempts to add another aspect to this vision. I would like to emphasize that any technology has a tendency to foreground what it does best. Architecture should be acknowledged, however, for its symbolic specificity. Parallel to the development of all the techniques that are directly derived from the new technical capabilities of digital technology, there is a constant need to study those aspects of architecture which can never be „prompted" by new technologies. As my research leads me to believe and the two compositions may suggest, digital technologies can be used to explore the modes of knowing architecture that have been in the domain of history, theory, or representation.8 Though less efficient or profitable, when integrated into these modes of knowing architecture, digital technology will be a potent tool for investigating that which always was central for the creation of architecture--the interplay between architectural form and human thought.



The collection of eleven 20 x 24 inch (50 x 60 cm) images, which this research produced, has been exhibited at the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis and is now available as a traveling exhibition called Structures of Memory. Please direct your questions to Andrzej Piotrowski at <piotr001@tc.umn.edu>.

1 The initial version of this essay was originally published in the proceedings of the 85th ACSA Annual Meeting, Dallas, March 1997, pp. 529-34.

2 This research was supported by the University of Minnesota Graduate School Grant-in-Aid, Graduate School and McKnight Foundation Summer Grants, Department of Architecture. Film recording and prints by Procolor Professional Color Services Inc. in Minneapolis.

3 Paul Virilio sees computer-supported technologies of viewing as "industrialization of the sensations, the reproduction of the visible giving way to its pure and simple production." Paul Virilio, "The Interface," Lotus 75 (1993): p. 126.

4 Jean-François Lyotard, „Matter and Time," The Inhuman, Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 1991), p. 42.

5 Recently, I have started using more efficient and accurate direct digital recording on photographic paper.

6 This representational function of rationally constructed space may be seen as related to the discovery of perspective by Brunelleschi. In his The Origin of Perspective, Hubert Damisch referred to Brunelleschi as „[a]n architect [...] for whom the problem of architecture was inseparable from that of representation and the problem of the representation of architecture inseparable from that of the architecture of representation, insofar as this latter can be formulated in terms of construction." Hubert Damisch, The Origin of Perspective (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1994), p. 61.

7 See, for example, Linda Schele and David Freidel, A Forest of Kings, The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya (New York, NY.: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990), pp. 66-67.

8 For a more in-depth discussion of the issue of the relationship that exists between representing and knowing architecture see my essay "On the Practices of Representing and Knowing Architecture," The Discipline of Architecture, Andrzej Piotrowski and Julia Williams Robinson, editors, to be published by the University of Minnesota Press.

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