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It was the first studio session. We’d come prepared to talk through preliminary findings and were already anxious about where amongst the rubble of thoughts spilled into lengthy slide presentations our projects would emerge. One person in the group did not revert to a slideshow for this first discussion, they simply brought some objects, books and sketches and placed them on the table and talked about them. While everyone else stood up like successive keynote speakers, every week they resisted, sifting through the various things they were making instead. Despite this alluring departure from such a common setup, their slideshow-shortage was still called into question after midterm, when our critic decided it really was necessary, in order to show respect to the visiting jurors, to dutifully put together a slideshow presentation.
A routine format in Architecture school, the slideshow seems to have become the dominant mode through which we organize the entire development of a project, not just its final delivery. Each week, the usual messiness of process is ceremonially tidied into a neat performance. We sit and listen to each other click through countless sets of slides as we subject classmates to our latest project update. Initially, these presentations can be especially protracted. Photos, graphs, maps, charts, and drawings are pulled off the internet and copy-pasted into Slides, as if the primary goal is to exhaust all possible directions of one brief. Diligent gathering, rather than critical curation, seems to be encouraged by the medium.
Why do we organize our work this way? Is it merely a hangover from COVID when education was conducted by means of screen-share? At the time it felt unsettling to amass a week’s worth of loose work into a pristine set of slides. The appearance of cohesiveness is easy to emulate, no matter how hastily the material has been assembled, since orderliness is inherent to the format.
Slideshows are not a neutral container with which to fill content; the software determines the way ideas are collected, communicated and received. Packing information into a series of slides prioritizes sequentiality, forgoing the ability to parse content or to easily evaluate relationships between things. Stuff is stacked linearly in time. A relentless, one-way trundle through thoughts, images, topics. Each slide serving up a portion of information, its fixed space — Widescreen 16:9 — privileges the essential. Its equivalent is a series of successive slogan-packed business pitches, except filled with architecture rather than market statistics.
Such a rattling through can be managed elegantly, or less so. Regardless, it is largely television-style: nourishing a short attention span. The slide transition becomes an event, like the cinematic jump-cut. A constant flicker. The enjoyment and command of which is down to the pace and flair of the presenter. The format imposes itself. As statistician Edward Tufte wrote of PowerPoint, it is “presenter-oriented, not content-oriented, not audience-oriented.”1
Not side-by-side, the slideshow relies on memory for the construction of a commanding narrative. Architects rarely organize information into actual bullet points on the screen, as in the classic corporate slideshow, but the way it is often used might be comparable to a list. This was the brief, this is a map of the site, this was travel week, this is a sketch I did, a plan, a render, a section… Surely this disposition not only affects the viewer; the creator’s attitude must be influenced when habitually engaged in consecutive thinking. What feels more concerning than slideshow presentations in final reviews is the automatic way in which it is used as the container for ongoing research. The fact that, when in the midst of a project, we customarily return to it each week, always engaging with our critic and fellow students in orator-mode. This can’t be the only way to approach the organization of research and the delivery of a project.
In the Object Lessons symposium organized in April last year at the Yale School of Architecture, slideshow presentations were banned. Each speaker had to talk directly to the audience using a physical object as their only prop. One presenter sidestepped this restriction by making listeners close their eyes while narrating a fictive presentation, complete with images, captions and videos that were scrubbed back and forth. The imagined presentation felt as real as having watched a slideshow, calling into question its use. More recently, I sat in on a mid-review which used a 360-screen. All the presentations were assembled in Google Slides, yet the unconventional display manipulated space and reoriented us refreshingly with each new presentation.
This is not a call to disregard the slideshow. It can be used cleverly and its successive frames are, more often than not, used to string together a compelling story. This is instead a suggestion to think critically about how and when to use this presentation format. There is a common adage that architects don’t actually make buildings, they make representations of buildings. Perhaps it could be said representations aren’t even the primary material of architecture anymore, just slideshows.
FORMAT is a recurring column that confronts the modes, methods and medium of Architecture as a discipline. A rifle through some of the many unquestioned formats of architectural education, poking at them with a critical, yet tender, curiosity.
- Edward Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within. p.4 ↩︎