Blindfolded Architecture

By Alicia Guerrero Yeste


On the digital moving image and the built environment

Architecture and film historian Andres Janser has observed that a history of the relationship of architects to the moving image is still waiting to be written. I would add that, in my opinion, the analysis of set designs should have little prominence in its contents. Rather, such a history should focus on the analysis of the different conceptions and stimulus derived from the collision of the architect’s mind with the moving image. In opposition to the 1927 statement by Luís Buñuel that “the movies will be the faithful translator of the architect’s boldest dreams”, which seems to refer specifically to a boldness in architectural morphology, currently the moving image seems to be understood by the architect as a mental stimulus or an instrumental reference rather than a territory to appropriate or occupy.

Still, it would be necessary to establish the differences between the relationships to architecture and the moving image of the two present generations of architects. Rem Koolhaas wrote film scripts before becoming a ‘living legend’ of architecture; Jacques Herzog shot some films on video during the ’80s; Jean Nouvel was filmed with Wim Wenders discussing affinities between making films and making architecture and has been quoted defining a sequence in a Fassbinder film as “a stimulus which lead him to develop an architectural idea”. These are examples of the type of relationship that architects over 50 have with the moving image, whereas the younger “digital generation” of architects appear more concerned and fascinated with the production of their own digital films by means of animation, exploring the expression of their architectural theoretical ideas and the conception of their architectural projects.


From the stance of an observer studying contemporary architecture’s link to digital technologies, I keep perceiving the certain disorientation exuded by many architectural projects and statements. Architecture today reveals architects’ urge to speak in a relevant voice, to enter the hall of fame by presenting themselves as messiahs with absolute knowledge. However, critics such as Neil Spiller or Aaron Betsky are sceptical of the results of the application of information technologies to architecture. The reasons for the disorientation that keeps digital architecture from materialising efficiently are diverse, but there is the need to develop careful visual presentations of projects and statements in books and magazines but also in cinematic forms/moving images, something which means leaving behind the security provided by the work of a skilled model-maker, graphic designer and/or photographer, and the conceiving of one’s architectural discourse in very different and more complex terms. This expression should be driven by a humble, open-minded and enthusiastic will to experiment, as digital technologies could guide the development of architecture towards a deep morphological and conceptual progress; nevertheless, the will to experiment is led off-track by relentless imitation of the arrogant production of images of (wannabe) architectural projects by the self-proclaimed prophets of digital era architecture.

When examining architectural projects/ideas developed by digital means, I wonder how much of a debt contemporary architecture (in its processes, techniques and strategies) owes to visuality. And not just to the products of visual culture, but specifically to the nature of visual elements and our capability for visualisation: to its processes and strategies for immersion in the mind, for stimulation, generation and reproduction of ideas and thought. Nevertheless, the more one reflects on the production of architecture through digital techniques the more intense becomes the impression that this is an architecture sometimes based purely on visual parameters and strictly intended to generate a visual appeal. Most architects seem to display a complete lack of interest in the potential of the visual to incorporate new dimensions into contemporary practice, beyond analysing the strictly visible elements that form an architectural artifice.


One of the main reasons why the application of digital techniques to architecture should be considered revolutionary is because it represents the need to reset the mental systems involved in the whole architectural process. The consequential architecture should be the reflection of these new processes of research, conception, design… rather than a fashionable impossible product à épater. But we are witnessing the cultural emergence of a generation of architects overwhelmed by the visual conceptions and expectations they are driven by. However, a few remarkable exceptions step out of this confusion and reinforce the need to revision architectural behaviour from within.

Digital architecture can no longer be understood as an expression of mastery in computer-aided design and should dare to use different mental approaches. If architects talk about generating an architecture for the Information Technology era by means of the computer, they should take into account the depth of the subjective relationship of individuals with the architectural spaces and forms around them.

Most of the displays in recent architecture exhibitions are strictly presented as projects to be featured afterwards in monographic issues of specialised magazines, but not read under any experimental light. They are shown to be looked at, to boast each studios’ mastery at designing by means of the computer, while pretending that this is radically new architecture. Some projects are nothing more than that, a computer rendering of something which could not possibly be built or inhabited, virtual constructions with form but no space.


The role of moving images in contemporary architecture is a crucial issue, the importance of which transcends its mere application as a device for the design and communication of architectural ideas. The generated images, conceived as sequences or even short films, should demand consideration as cinematic expressions and also as part of contemporary reflection about architecture, as examples of what can be called ‘architecturalisation’.

To clarify what is meant by ‘architecturalisation’, I would like to quote K. Michael Hays’ comment in the text Inventories of Suspicion about the concept that guided him and Aaron Betsky to curate an exhibition of works by the architectural office Diller + Scofidio: “Their architecture henceforth need not achieve or even propose a building. Architectural practice as they have conceived it demands not new ideas for buildings but the invention of new categories and concepts for thinking architecture in connection with the specific background practices and contexts that make its practice possible… (Their) strength as architects… lies in the fact that they ‘architecturalise’ the relations between objects and spaces, and current contexts and conditions. Their work produces connections between different levels of existence – the subjective level on which we perceive objects and the objective level that determines how and what we are able to perceive.”

“Architecturalisation” is the result of a process of thought, which can either be executed and materialised by the artist/architect and/or the viewer. It leads to a reflection about architecture and/or an experience of architecture on the two different levels of existence pointed out above by Hays. Cinematic works are proving among the most efficient spaces to “architecturalise”: (i.e. to pose complex reflections about our mental experience of architecture).


Philosopher Jean-Jacques Wunenburger suggests the existence of an anthropological necessity of certain architectural structures to justify the production of imaginary architectures in visual arts throughout history. Experimental and computer animations have proved to be perfect media for “architecturalisation”; and the only laboratories for research on atmospheres, on narrative and anti-narrative spaces, where it is possible to suggest for the viewer those effects most similar to an actual experience of architecture. They are also the tools by which best to define a function and meaning for the cinematic expressions of contemporary architects; and territories in which to achieve a certain visionary awareness about our contemporary experiences and desires: about how we are physically and mentally placed in space, about how space is lived.

To architecturalise is to confess our sensitivity to this fascinating presence of architecture inside our mind and around our bodies. The obsessive concern of digital architects to achieve a specific aesthetics for their architecture overlooks the importance of such impacts, of architectural space as a sentimental, emotional, psychological territory, which is more carefully, intelligently and sensitively studied, observed, comprehended and represented (visualised) by artists and filmmakers than by architects.

Thus, digital architecture reveals the existence of visual approaches and cultural relationships to images different to those traditionally active architecturally. It suggests a need to conceive a closer connection between architects and artists, authors and moving image theorists. However, the goal of this dissolution should be the start of a necessary apprenticeship in order to achieve the maximum exploitation of these digital technologies. Otherwise, we will only be starting a new episode in the history of set designs.

Alicia Guerrero Yeste is an art historian. She writes and researches on contemporary architecture in partnership with architect Fredy Massad. They co-edited architecturanimation (ACTAR, Barcelona, 2002).