04/06: Diagrams of Diagrams

This post, like yesterday’s, is a reproduction of an assignment for a class called Visual Epistemologies taught at PennDesign by Orkan Telhan. The assigment asks for summary, quotations, questions and personal responses. Today’s writing is on Diagrams of Diagrams by Anthony Vidler

Anthony Vidler sketches out a thorough history of the use of the diagram as a rhetorical device in architecture for the past century. Diagrams have been used to design and explain projects of vastly different scales, styles, intentions and impacts. Architectural drawings historically have never been works of art in and of themselves, always serving as a medium between designer and building. Drawings fulfill a specific and technical role, incorporating scale, perspective and cultural context clues as a means of describing the quality of a space. Modern architecture stripped drawings down to abstract geometry, engaging less with public and client and more within the professional discipline. “Diagrammatic architecture” came to signify “an object without depth, cultural or physical, one subjected to the supposed tyranny of geometry and economy.” In the 18th Century J.N.L. Durand explored and used the diagram as a means of language, explaining form, proportion, order in simple and economical terms. Modernists took this version of the diagram as “a graphic representation that is itself a tool for the installation of the utopia it outlines.” Diagrams became rhetorical devices for Rudolph Wittkower and Colin Rowe, allowing for the villas of Palladio and Corbusier to be described as proportion and collection of elements. Diagramming was an exercise in abstraction, allowing architecture to reference its past in a very flexible manner. It facilitated a transition from analog and industry to a new digital reality, “one where the distance between image and reality can no longer be measured by any critique of the spectacle.” With this intimate connection between reality and representation, abstraction needs to be reconsidered. “The potential openness of the sketch, of the drawn line in all its subtleties, is reduced to thin-line clarity and allover surface pattern.” The digital’s “notorious aversion to any ambiguity” require a reevaluation of the nature and role of abstraction in aesthetics.

Diagrams of Diagrams: Architectural Abstraction and Modern Repre Diagrams of Diagrams: Architectural Abstraction and Modern Repre Diagrams of Diagrams: Architectural Abstraction and Modern Repre Diagrams of Diagrams: Architectural Abstraction and Modern Repre

  • Operating between form and word, space and language, the diagram is both constitutive and projective; it is performative rather than representational. In this way, it is, [Robert] Somol concludes, a tool of the virtual rather than the real and a means of building (in both senses of the term) a virtual architecture, of proposing a world other than that which exists.”
  • In its reduced and minimal form it dries out, so to speak, the representational excess of postmodernism, the citational hysteria of nostalgia, and the vain attempts to cover over the inevitable effects of modern technologies, effects that modernists had attempted to face with the invention of abstract aesthetics. In its assertion of geometry as the basis for architecture, it opens the way for a thorough digitalization of the field, but in a way that overcomes the simplistic and often rigid models based on functional analysis proposed by design-methods theorists like Christopher Alexander.”
  • The digital drawing is nothing more nor less than the mapping of three- or four- dimensional relations in two, more like an engineering specification than an abstraction.”
  • In a digital world defined by binary code, how can concepts such as ‘random’ and nuance be integrated into design?
  • What is the difference between an abstraction of an abstraction and a diagram of a diagram?

A ‘reaction’ or response to this work is difficult in that so much of it reads as a statement of fact and summation of history rather than proclamation of a position or argument. What is the focus of this piece? A survey of the role of drawing in architecture? Mapping transitions in the aesthetics of architectural drawings? Is it a clarion call for “an aesthetics of data, of mapped information”? Is it a lamentation of the lack of ambiguity in digital diagrams? Vidler claims that the diagram “becomes less and less an icon and more and more a blueprint—or, alternatively, the icon increasingly takes on the characteristics of an object in the world. …’blobs’, however much they look like geometrical diagrams of form, architectural or not, are robbed of their iconic status in favor of their programmatic role in the production of the forms they image” (pg 17). This statement never seems to be adequately explained. Are diagrams unable to be icons because of their role in the design process?


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