architecture & music

Tim Hungerford

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations

... and the things you can't remember tell the things you can't forget
that history puts a saint in every dream ...
and Matilda asks the sailors are those dreams or are those prayers ...
Tom Waits, 'Time' from Rain Dogs

Walter Benjamin's often repeated thesis has proved to be seminal in the debate surrounding the issue of reproduction, especially that of photography. The question I want to pose here, is how to speak of this lack (want, failure, lapse). Benjamin, touches upon, speaks of 'lack' by coupling 'time and space'. A yearning or nostalgia. Pothos ... that (absence) which incites, provokes, and compels.(1) In terms of a desire-making machine, as a counter-effect of desire, as plenitude, exercise, and functioning.(2) If 'lack' is associated with exclusion or absence (void) something other must take its place, reading between the lines, off-frame.

A gap in time. The interval between a cup just touching the chequered linoleum floor and smashing to bits. A lapse of infinite time, a few seconds maybe; leaving traces, coffee stains.(3) That which resists (resilient), the barely there, the styleless. A significant Other. Lacking the obvious arrangements of harmony, scale, rhythm, structure, order. A minor event, of surfaces rather than depths. Misreading the gap. Touching the edge of the frame, speaking about the room next door or behind. Infiltrating and subverting language in the space between sense and nonsense, aesthetic and unaesthetic.(4)

... the photograph is pure contingency and it can be nothing else (it is always something that is represented) ...(5)

How can architectural photography be spoken of in terms of a minor literature? As an event of surfaces, not of depth or symbolism. By removing it from the 'major' institution (artistic, tourist, landscape, architectural) what would a minor (architectural) photography be if it is not intended to 'express', to 'represent', or to 'imitate'? How does it affect the language (photography) in which it is effected.(6) In comparison to the 'major' or 'dominant', that which predominates, bounds, brackets, binds. Recognised and understood in terms of composition, rhythm, scale, frame, light, dark, shadow and narrative (in the space of the architectural journal).

A minor photography contests completeness, asks more questions than gives answers, offers clues: fragmenting, substituting, corrupting. In this way architecture becomes incidental to photography. By photographing, framing fragments, by exclusion and ultimately displacing architecture. The question is not so much 'what' the photograph is; but rather, how the photograph is seen. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes acknowledges the punctum (poignancy, irreversible absence, displacement) as that aspect of the off-frame which the spectator brings to the photograph.(7)

The camera undoubtedly contrives and manipulates (substitutes and fetishizes), as does the photographer (the Operator), to what end? The proliferation and use of mass media has given rise to an experience of architecture grounded not in the architectural object (as a temporal or sensory experience); but rather in the 'architectural supplement'. "... [T]his dematerialisation ultimately condemned architecture to a higher level of fetishization as it began to be framed by a new market that provided more powerful substitute exhibition and publication values."(8) This certainly has an untold impact on our relationship to architecture. It becomes a question of equivalence, of both/and.

To think about modern architecture must be to pass back and forth between the question of space [and time] and the question of representation. Indeed, it will be necessary to think of architecture as a system of representation, or rather as a series of overlapping systems of representation.(9)

It almost seems paradoxical to consider a 'minor architectural photography' as Other. As the minor certainly relates to our real ­ typical, everyday, banal. A street sign is always in the way (there are certain to be hordes of tourists posing for their souvenir snapshot). Interiors are clumsy and cluttered, marked by our artefacts of unapproved taste "... sedimenting the past in the present".(10) Paint chips. Have you ever come across a colour photograph of the Villa Savoye? It just doesn¹t work. It doesn¹t satiate our desire for the high contrasts between light, dark, and shade. The profound figure/ground juxtaposition between architecture (white) and field (black) becomes lost in the infinite hues of a cibachrome print. Our desire is for that polarity, simplicity of understanding. Architecture resists dispersed attention.

... (do architectural photos ever include runners, fighters, lovers?)(11)

Beatriz Colomina's Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media, traces modern architectures engagement with other practices in, photography, film, publication and exhibitions arguing that "... architecture only becomes modern in its engagement with the mass media, and that in doing so it radically displaces the traditional sense of space and subjectivity".(12)

Le Corbusier quite systematically included his modern artefacts (derby hat, trademark black rimmed glasses, golf clubs, automobiles) in the photographs of his (modern) architecture, as if to exaggerate and lay claim to the modern. These were not just traces; they are read as a continual presence and possession maintained and asserted.(13) Neglecting here, supplanting there.(14) Here again the issue (confrontation) of closure erupts, or at least fails. Le Corbusier's territorialisation (pissing in the corners, mapping, misreading).

Venturi replaces Le Corbusier's automobile with his mother seated and centred in front of the facade. This substitution (oedipalization) announces more than the 'birth' of Venturi and postmodernism. The mother figure does not simply fill the void left by the car "... the Vanna Venturi house announces the theme of the mechanical extension of the body, a dangerous liaison between the 'machine-for-living and the body of the architect's mother."(15)

Both instances are significant for their cluttered and messy misreadings. For their desire to territorialise architecture via photography, placing it in the nursery, by fetishizing and oedipalizing it. Venturi and Corbusier impart another reading that is not minor ­ but heroic, definitive, complete. Left for dead.

Ultimately ­ or at the limit ­ in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes ... the photograph must be silent ... this is not a question of discretion, but of music.(16)

Here, Barthes speaks of another lack, the absence of sound; or rather, silence as music, as memory and punctum. Music, both literal and metaphorical, is what animates the photograph, what allows one to animate it, to enter the frame. Only when one is not listening. Silence is ever more apparent for its 'quality' of absence. The 'what' (how) the spectator sees (hears) as distinct from what is 'presented'. The incomplete building(17), a discordant harmony, an awkward silence between lovers (fighters). Picnolepsy. Silence becomes that much more powerful in its 'lack' as it distracts and detracts from the 'what' is there. As generosity. Generosity in the sense that no prescribed orthodoxy is given, the spectator is left to chance. A gap between what you can't remember and what you can't forget.

The mouth kisses the mouth spits; no one mistakes the saliva of the first for the second.(18)

Sediment accumulates. Paint chips. Renders fail. Buildings deteriorate in time assuming a patina of stains, streaks and spalling, revealing their deficiencies and failures. "In the process of subtracting the 'finish' of a construction, the weathering adds the 'finish' of the environment."(19) Surfaces exposed to weathering become a surface of documentation, continually evolving, marking time. To this end the photograph exploits and reveals surfaces as an unending metamorphosis. Resilient surfaces are designed no stave off the inevitable through the use of composites, durable coatings, elastomeric sealants. But when similar technologies (linoleum, glazed tiles, latex paints, aluminium and chrome) are applied to interiors the resilience becomes something other, no longer is there need to resist weathering. These surfaces are not the planer, smooth, objective surfaces of 'white' hygienic architecture. The interiority and privacy of the space reflects ad infinitum. These surfaces mirror the gaze, arresting it (mine, the camera's) for only a moment. Chintzy decorative elements and applied polychromy become the subject of the architecture.


  • 1. Roland Barthes, A Lovers Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard, Hill and Wang, NY, 1978: 15
  • 2. Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993: 56
  • 3. See Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, trans. Philip Beitchman, Semiotext(e), NY, 1991: 9/10: "The lapse occurs frequently at breakfast and the cup dropped and overturned on the table is its well-known consequence. The absence lasts a few seconds; its beginning and its end are sudden. The senses function, but are nevertheless closed to external impressions. The return being just as sudden as the departure, the arrested word and action are picked up again where they have been interrupted. Conscious time comes together again automatically, forming a continuous time without apparent breaks ... picnoleposy."
  • 4. See Deleuze, He Stuttered, in Gilles Deleuze: The Theatre of Philosophy, eds. Constantin V. Boundas and Dorothea Olkowski, trans. Constantin V. Boundas, Routledge, NY. 1994: 25: "Rather what they (Beckett and Kafka) do is invent a minor use for the major language within which they express themselves completely: they minorize language as in music, where the minor refers to dynamic combinations in a state of perpetual disequilibrium ... They are big by virtue of their minorization: they make it run along a witches course, they place it endlessly in a state of disequilibrium, they cause it to bifurcate and to vary in one of its terms, according to ceaseless modulation."
  • 5. Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. S. Heath, Collins, Glasgow, 1977: 28
  • 6. See Deleuze & Guattari, Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, ibid. In the foreword by Reda Besmaia: xvi: "Thus, Kafka's work is revolutionary in the way it affects the language in which it is effected. A language that is a 'major' language is affected by a strong deterriorialization factor and is subjected to a series of displacments that make it slow down or crawl ... or send it into a panic, unfolding at a vertiginous pace."
  • 7. Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography: 56
  • 8. Robert E. Somol, My Mother The House, in Fetish: The Princeton Architectural Journal, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, NY, 1992: 58
  • 9. Colomina, Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1994: 13
  • 10. David Leatherbarrow & Mohsen Mostafavi, On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1993: 82
  • 11. Bernard Tschumi, Architecture and Disjunction, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1994: 123
  • 12. See Colomina, Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media: ix: In the preface Colomina alludes to 'minor literature' in the construction of her text as a coming to terms (with writing) as a bi-lingual author. "I have managed to become a foreigner in both languages (English and Spanish), moving somewhat nomadically through the discourse on an unofficial itinerary. Traces of this complicated movement can be found throughout this book. The text is somehow suspended between the languages and times it is constructed."
  • 13. See Colomina, Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media: 84: Le Corbusier also colonised the architecture of Eileen Grey¹s E.1027 house. He defaced her interiors with a series of eight drawn murals without her permission.
  • 14. See Colomina, Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media: 111: "Le Corbusier discarded everything that was picturesque and contextual in this house (Villa-Schwob), concentrating on the formal qualities of the object itself. But the most striking modification in the photographs of this house published in L'Esprit Nouveau is the elimination of any reference to the actual site, which is, in fact, a steep terrain. By eliminating the site, he makes architecture into an object relatively independent place."
  • 15. See Somol, My Mother The House: 50-71: "It is almost exclusively on the basis, endlessly reproduced, that this house has been marked as the origin of post modernism and Venturi¹s paternity." In this photograph, Vanna Venturi (Robert Venturi's mother, for whom the house was built) is seated and centred in front of the facade, ankles crossed, a book on her lap, she has just glanced up at the camera, as if caught off guard.
  • 16. See Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography: 55: Elsewhere, Barthes reveals that those photographs he desires are like classical sonatas.
  • 17. See Karsten Harris, The Dream of the Complete Building, in Perspecta 17, 1980: 36-40: "Such insistence on the integrity and unity of the work of art demands of the spectator that he keep his distance from it: don't touch! The complete work of art leaves nothing for us to do."
  • 18. Leatherbarrow & Mostafavi, On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time: 109
  • 19. See Leatherbarrow & Mostafavi, On Weathering: The life of Buildings in Time: 16: "Our aim in the argument that follows is to revise the sense of the ending of the architectural project, not to see finishing as the final moment of construction but to see the unending deterioration of a finish that results from weathering, the continuous metamorphosis of the building itself, as part of its beigining(s) and its ever-changing 'finish'."

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    gap is Linda Marie Walker and Paul Hewson
    gap is designed and sponsored by Virtual Artists
    gap co-exists with parallel
    this page last modified 25 Nov 1995