Perspectival change: The abstraction & fragmentation of the built environment through changing values of the picturesque in media representation

  • Janice Chow

    MA in Architecture, Royal College of Art, 2019

5-07

Fetishes & Obsessions & Trends, Oh My!

November 7, 2019

Janice Chow, Royal College of Art, MA in Architecture ‘19

The term “picturesque” was first defined in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1703 at the same time it was flourishing as a pictorial genre in the eighteenth century, but originated as a topic in discourse as early as the late Renaissance in Italy when “pitteresco” was used to describe the manner in which a subject was depicted in a painting. In early eighteenth-century France “pittoresque” referred to a quality of being in the style of a painter. Only later in 1768 was the “picturesque” introduced in the English sense by William Gilpin, who defined it as “a term expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture.”

Gilpin’s definition flipped the viewer’s focus on the subject as the generator of beauty, moving from the emphasis on the singular artist back to his subject, which would be regarded as actively presenting itself to appeal to the tastes of the many—elevating “picturesque” from a neutral descriptive term into a popular aesthetic ideal. These ideals, originally developed in the context of naturalistic landscape for scenic touring, expanded the parameters of Gilpin’s initial definition into actual criteria guiding landscape design and architecture, resulting in our general understanding of the picturesque today—as a conceptual framework from which to view and evaluate landscapes in real life. 

“[Moving] from a neoclassical, academic, and literally explicated picturesque that referred essentially to human actions … to a passive and subjectively sentimental picturesque,” the evolution of the “picturesque” concept is decidedly tied to the medium that depicts it. 

Technological advancements change the nature, and the consequent relationship, of the audience with their various forms of media. “Print technology created the public. Electric technology created the mass. The public consists of separate individuals walking around with private, fixed points of view … [allowing] the luxury of this posture, this fragmentary outlook.”

Fragmented viewpoints disseminated via printing enabled the rise and popularisation of the “picturesque” as understood by Gilpin and his successors, but the even more fragmented viewpoints distributed through electronic mass media may be nudging the “picturesque” back to its earlier interpretations in “pitteresco” and “pittoresque”—as shown by the evolution in the relationship between the built environment and its various forms of representation in popular social media today. 

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Controlled perspectives, the hyper-curated image, and photography’s mass-market appeal today have turned “key views” into popular commodities to be marketed and distributed. 

After affordable photographic equipment democratised photography and the sharing of pictures, the practice of prescribing viewing angles that encapsulate the maximum effect of a scene burgeoned. To “promote picture-taking behaviours” in the 1920s, Kodak placed “Kodak Picture Spots” along American roads and landscapes to highlight particular subjects to photograph. The company subsequently sponsored these signs to be placed in national parks, world’s fairs, and Disneylands to help visitors capture and bring home the perfect postcard picture. That “rare, one time moment” became accessible to all, as anyone who wanted a good photograph of a certain subject could simply find the Picture Spot marker and take a photo that mirrored the model picture helpfully attached onto the same signpost. The representation of a place thus soon became less about a record of personal discovery than a checklist activity as proof of one’s visit there. The ease of taking these perfect postcard pictures changed the nature of inhabiting and experiencing new spatial environments, especially during travel. Picture spots detract from the thinking and exploration otherwise required to read a complex urban environment, further removing the beholder from his frame of context.

The value of a postcard-perfect, “Kodak moment” image has undoubtedly furthered the trend for architects and planners to implement picturesque ideals in their built work. Digital photography in particular has given rise to the so-called “post-photographic era” where “digital imaging was beginning to subvert irrevocably the chemically constructed certainties of a supposedly truthful photographic image.” A combination of factors are at play:

The rise of image-based media to the most popular mode of consuming architecture and cities aside from actual travel. The abundance of mass media channels promote globalisation as well as flatten cultures, which is best demonstrated in contemporary visual culture. Image feeds and blog platforms have allowed the ability to consume high art and “prosumer” photography and amateur projects in one fluid scroll. This condition also applies to architecture, enabling a fast-paced feedback loop of influence, production and reproduction; most evidently seen in terms of the building’s outward aesthetics. 

The advent of curationism in the face of changing media landscapes created and emphasised an audience-centric attitude towards representation. Curation in a contemporary social media context involves prescribing and maximising the value of any niche, quirk, and personal vision that commands and influences a certain audience. As the internet offered “ever-proliferating data and novel methods of being connected, and watched … it led to accelerated curatorial ways of thinking. Value had to be performed like never before.”

In arguing that architecture has now been annexed as a tool of capital, created and valued by the market as an investment asset rather than by the people as a means of shelter, Reinier de Graaf identifies “the moment that architecture and marketing become indistinguishable” , citing the reversal of process where “computer renderings precede technical drawings, the sale of apartments precedes the design of structure, the image precedes the substance, and the salesman precedes the architect.”

Everything combines to form an attitude that basically equates “architecture” with “product”. The two outputs of design, in the present economic system, are no longer separated by scale and function, but united in a single capital-gaining purpose. Architecture and marketing now go hand in hand. As cities compete globally for economic and cultural power they increasingly vie for attention and media coverage through their own highly-curated representation. The image of urbanity through architecture has long been a tool for marketing and today’s neoliberal market provides no exception. Just as companies gain traction through crafting a brand image, cities are increasingly broadcasting themselves to a global audience through what catches attention most on mass media: photogenic, Instagram-worthy moments. 

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The Instagram notion of value within the picturesque image, then, is the quality of curatorship and the emotions and atmospheres that an image feed is able to inspire. It affixes the value back onto the image creator, curator or influencer and their personal aesthetic style, unconsciously bringing the definition of “picturesque” closer to the 17th century “pittoresco” and “pittoresque”. 

To take advantage of this new notion of value in Instagrammability, the built environment is increasingly conceived with the intent to be widely circulated on mass media from the start, with photogenic-ness as a main design strategy. The recently published, hospitality-oriented Instagram Design Guide proves this. It is not unreasonable to predict that buildings and interiors will soon be designed to align with Media Impact Value, an algorithm emerging from the fashion industry that measures the impact of popular social media posts to calculate & assign monetary value to digital content, favouring “impressions” above all else. Already, outside the architecture and planning industry, an image that works better at generating impressions earns more money for its sponsor, thereby making the image more valuable as media content overall. 

Maximising Media Impact Value has influenced a range of aesthetic styles calibrated to perform well on Instagram. This Instagram-oriented approach has permeated everyday consumption of products, services, architecture, arts and culture, but has had a significant impact on the built environment as it is the easiest to be appropriated into stage sets to serve as a backdrop for additional purposes, such as marketing products or selling branded experiences.

Because it is quicker and easier to implement existing Internet trends in real life than popularising something from scratch, cities worldwide have hopped onto similar trends leading to the materialisation of what some people have dubbed “AirSpace”, fragments of the city with a homogenous, universally liked aesthetic that “share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset.” From interiors—exposed brick, mid-century furniture, commercial art, plants—to outdoor locations—the graffiti-walled arts district (Brooklyn; Miami; Shoreditch), the big city name sculpture (Amsterdam; Toronto; Budapest)—geography has been broken down and cities worldwide, as viewed through the Instagram lens, have become a collection of spaces linked and made generic by technology: gentrification by aesthetic. 

Thus in a strange but completely predictable turn of events, the built environment is increasingly being transformed to cater to the snap-happy tourist, seller, or content-creator hoping to convey a certain “vibe” on their Instagram feed. As sharing creates further value through Media Impact, real places are being designed to cater for immediate virtual popularity rather than subtler spatial qualities to be experienced in person.

The changing values of the image have shaped the way we view, and consequently build, to accommodate those values. Mass media has evolved the definition of the picturesque, which in turn has shaped the way mass media is consumed. 

In the Renaissance-era meaning of picturesque, aesthetic quality was attributed to the artist’s personal manner and sphere of artistic creation. The classic English picturesque separated the author from his image, and valued the “image” as its own elevated entity. This enabled the image of the built environment to be gradually commodified out of its original context and meaning, resulting in lasting effects on the physical urban realm. Somewhat ironically, in the contemporary picturesque, the relationship between the beholder and his environment has once again been inverted—all attention is re-focused on picture creator—but the physical environment has been relegated to a backdrop for any kind of antics one can imagine.

[1] Literal meaning: in the manner of a picture, or fit to be made into a picture.

[2] William Gilpin, Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, etc. Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; Made in the Summer of the Year 1770 (London: A. Strahan, 1800), p. xii.

[3] Edmund Burke distinguishes between “the beautiful” and “the sublime” in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), while Gilpin repositions “the picturesque” to mediate between these opposing states. Here I am using the general definition of the word “beauty” meaning “aesthetically pleasing”.

[4]  Dabney Townsend, “The Picturesque.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 55, no. 4 (1997): pp. 365-76.

[5] McLuhan, Fiore, p. 68.

[6] Defined by some as “a rare, one time, moment that that is captured by a picture, or should have been captured 8by a picture.” Jordan Crook, “What Happened To Kodak’s Moment?” accessed 8 April 2019, https:// techcrunch.com/2012/01/21/what-happened-to-kodaks-moment/.

[7]  James Benedict Brown, Mediated Space: The Architecture of News, Advertising and Entertainment (London: RIBA Publishing, 2018), p. 74. Commenting on W. J .T. Mitchell, media theory and visual culture academic.

[8] Coined by art writer David Balzer.

[9] David Balzer, “Reading lists, outfits, even salads are curated – it’s absurd,” accessed 8 April 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/18/david-balzer-curation-social-media-kanye-west.

[10] Reinier de Graaf, “Architecture is now a tool of capital, complicit in a purpose antithetical to its social mission,” accessed 18 March 2019, https://www.architectural-review.com/8681564.article.

[11] de Graaf, Architectural Review.

[12] Vale Architects, Instagram Design Guide, 2018.

[13] Commonly broken down into views, clicks, and shares.

[14] An example of the value of Instagrammability in architecture, being a commodity in today’s economic context: The Modern House, mixing their role as estate agents with curated editorial storytelling, turns their brand of aesthetics into a commodity that generates a 12% “design premium” for property sellers.

[15] Kyle Chayka, “Welcome to Airspace: How Silicon Valley helps spread the same sterile aesthetic across the world,” accessed 10 December 2018, https://www.theverge.com/2016/8/3/12325104/airbnb-aesthetic-global- minimalism-startup-gentrification.