Some thoughts on the use and production of images
Images saturate our lives, calling to mind Italo Calvino’s remark, “We live in an unending rainfall of images.” Across this relentless deluge, images appear and disappear in a maddening competition for attention (propelled by an unprecedented speed of production and consumption and by an ever-insatiable market with far-reaching tentacles). This “rainfall of images” permeates everything from politics to entertainment, from art to fashion, from food to architecture. Living daily within this vast and pervasive overflow posits interesting challenges for the architect to remain a critical, effective user and maker of images. As one of the most constructive instruments of design, images derive their strength and presence from their imagined detailed physical composition.
For the last 12 years, I have been teaching a seminar titled “Constructing Images: Case Studies in Architecture, Film, Literature, and Music” at Rice School of Architecture. Each semester, we closely examine a selection of works in these disciplines that reveal how images transcend their initial evocation, fabrication, or manipulation. We focus on the intricate construction that makes, binds, and liberates images within the parameters of each case study. We explore, for instance, how images inspire and contribute to the life of any creative endeavor, or how their distinct depth counters the often-superficial allure that they so easily trade on. We measure the intensity and reach of an image, how its initial or subsequent appearance reveals thin or deep layers, weakening or strengthening that image’s potential to remain relevant.
In most instances, images are ephemeral and fragile, with a brief shelf life that can be easily forgotten or discarded. Yet some images persist or reappear with their original power, wonder, or provocation. This capability of images to prevail emanates most often from the generosity of their respective source or author. Images also endure in the way(s) in which they have been constructed, essentially in how their precise architecture (n.: “the art and science of constructing”) sustains the images’ relevance in time. Thus, an image gains its power from our desire to remember it, to recall it, to revisit it.
Architects use and generate images to describe their designs, often to embody the aspirations behind their works or simply to visualize a concept. When successful, images remain vital and integral to the duration of the work’s life. Images can also be deceptive and diminish the work if their experiential lifespan cannot be transferred or sustained beyond a short period of time. This often happens when architecture rapidly follows a particular trend or fashion, mistaking facile novelty for true innovation. The use of an image in architecture is more effective when it transcends its initial manifestation, when it dissolves in the work to later appear or disappear where it might, or to be present and absent in a perceptive, rewarding interchange with the passage of time.
I have amply seen and felt this phenomenon in the works of poets, musicians, architects, and filmmakers, among others. Throughout the seminar, we discuss this phenomenon via specific case studies under corresponding rubrics.
In the section of the course entitled “Timeless Composition of Image and Structure,” we dwell in detail on four Bob Dylan songs. Dylan, one of the most significant, essential artists of our time, has created an unmatched universe of images in his lyrics. What is most astonishing about his work is the way he meticulously structures each song as an empathetic testament to a cause — a memory, a lover, a history, an event, and so on. In an interview a few years ago, Dylan said, “I can see myself in others,” when describing his peerless musical expeditions. He finds and creates images so that others can see them and learn from them; the generosity of his art is always staggering as we come to see in his mirror of images our own reflections. One of the four Dylan songs we analyze, “Blind Willie McTell” (1983) depicts haunting landscapes of time while baring the cruel legacy of a four-centuries-old injustice. Dylan exposes the roots of the “corruptible seed” that fueled this legacy, whose effects linger into the present day. As the critic Grail Marcus put it, “We are a nation of outcasts from Western Civilization, doomed to forever devour and plunder the land we cannot cherish.”
This examination of Dylan’s work is one of several case studies in the course. We also examine works of such figures as Federico Garcia Lorca, Michelangelo Antonioni, Louis Kahn, Wim Wenders, Lina Bo Bardi, Jorge Luis Borges, Céline Sciamma, Aldo Rossi, Leonard Cohen, and Joseph Brodsky. In Brodsky’s rubric, “The Circular Alchemy of Images,” we read the Nobel laureate’s atmospheric prose poem on Venice, “Watermark” (1996), and the miraculous poem “Axiom” (1990). Brodsky composed the latter as a summary portrait of humanity — in all its terrifying, perplexing beauty — since the world ushered in its first breath. We are led into a primeval flow of image after image that concludes with the astonishing verses:
…space itself, alias the backdrop of life,
rendered blind by a surfeit of plots,
heads toward pure time, where no one applauds.
Don’t be afraid, though: I’ve been there. There in its bowels looms
a huge, wrinkle-spinning wheel, its roots
plugged into a raw material whose supply
we, the deposits, eagerly multiply.
This human rendezvous is unforgiving in its inevitable circularity as it also depicts our own predicament with the “wrinkle-spinning wheel” of images that our convulsive times unleash with unrepentant fury.
In “Ancient and Future Images of the Present,” we focus on a case study in architecture of Louis I. Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum (1974), which offers a moment of respite. The Kimbell is one the most magnanimous buildings ever imagined, a work that emerges from Kahn’s powerful image of a past that is always present and whose meaning persists into the future. The architect states: “My mind is full of Roman greatness and the vault so etched itself in my mind that, though I cannot employ it, it’s there always ready. And the vault seems to be the best. And I realize that the light must come from a high point where the light is best in its zenith. The vault, rising not high, not in an august manner, but somehow appropriate to the size of the individual. And its feeling of being home and safe came to mind.”
Kahn’s search for an ideal structure for the Kimbell supersedes function, as the vault is the primordial image that the architect treasures above all. It allows him to arrive at an uncontestable feeling of well-being where the boundaries between past, present, and future dissolve — they are one and the same — in an ageless composition.
In “The Poetic Image Remains, Returns…,” we look closely at Céline Sciamma’s recent film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019). This remarkable work builds its entire edifice on a single, evolving image that emerges first as a furtive gaze, then as a murmured gesture cast in light and sound. Slowly the portrait at the center of the plot unfolds as a prescient image leading to the intertwined destiny of the two main characters: Marianne and Héloïse. It is a marvel to observe how Sciamma masterfully constructs this evolving image in her narrative. When at long last the film’s conclusive, evanescent image makes its presence felt in real time, it is as etched in Marianne and Héloïse’s lives as it is in the viewer’s mind. I have seen this film countless times, and its power does not wither or vacillate; it grows stronger — beyond the fragility of its evocative beauty.
Near the end of the seminar, I convey to students that the experience of architecture is the greatest provider of images as it constantly generates them day in and day out. This happens in any work of architecture regardless of its import, era, or provenance. It is most felt in works that allow the images to arrive unencumbered, without a descriptive or instructional manual to find them. These daily images are always there, not shouting for attention — unsuspecting, whispering. For example, every day I look forward to sitting by either the south- or north-facing windows in my studio, wondering what delights they will bring that morning.
At this very moment I can also recall, somewhere in time, my first visit to Erik Bryggman’s Resurrection Chapel (1941) outside of Turku, Finland. Black-and-white images of the chapel from architecture publications preluded my visit, along with some knowledge of Bryggman’s few, but exquisite, works. All the drawings and photographs that I had seen up to that point amounted to a millisecond in the eternity of my experiencing this utterly sensory, poetic work of architecture: I now approach the rugged steps to the chapel; I sit in one of the warm pews; I look out the glazed portico; I see the ivy amber leaves bridge the altar; I hear the cry of a distant bird so close to my ear; I glimpse at silent steps reflected on a low pane of glass; I marvel at a cross suspended by delicate filaments of light; I rest my eyes on a garden’s immemorial corner…. It is not the speed, sequence, or instantaneity of the image that takes hold of our senses; it is the generosity of a space, which allows us to compose its experiences. We are in the middle of a liberated, generous, timeless construction that we might sometimes call a song, a poem, a film, an architecture.
Carlos Jiménez is a professor at Rice School of Architecture and principal of Carlos Jiménez Studio.