MA Studies > Fine art > Fine art alumnus > Pedro Kok

Pedro Kok

The room of architectural representation
It may be redundant to say that a certain field of production is at crossroads in contemporary life, particularly those related to artistic output. All fields are subject to ongoing transformations, their relevance and pertinence questioned constantly. I went into the 2010 Venice Biennale with a certain question: with widespread access to architectural imagery, is architectural photography still relevant today within the exhibition space?

Here I present two short texts: the first is a description of my ongoing project of a system intended to manipulate architectural representation. This system is being developed firstly as a prototype and will later evolve into a operative model. Research conducted on the first three months of the course, as well as observations from visited exhibitions, contributed to the modeling of this system.

The second piece of text is an investigation on how photography and video were used on a current and significant architectural exhibition: the Venice Biennale. Later, it will be complemented by notes from the 2010 Lisbon Architecture Trienal. If possible, I would also like to investigate an yet undetermined exhibition, which is not architecturally centered, but where issues of architectural representation are developed.

Though there is no clear goal – or imagined outcome – of these findings, I do not view them as mere report. This review is being used to situate my work among others, and to study new possibilities of production in the field of architectural representation. These notes are then intertwined with personal commentaries onto the viewed work, and how it relates to my own; nonetheless, this being a first draft, my impressions are not final in any sense.

The choice to report from an exhibition was made as it concentrates different approaches in a dense setting, allowing for immediate comparisons. It also produces ample documentation through catalogs, essays, books and reviews, which not only help to retrace previous steps, but also elucidate questions which had passed unnoticed.  

The concept of ‘The room of architectural representation’ is that of a system, present in a physical or virtual space, where a person manipulates various elements of architectural representation. Rather than displaying predetermined fixed images, a mixing system is developed where these elements can be added, layered, subtracted, combined and separated from each other. The initial state of fragmented representations is followed by that of agglutination of the pieces. This condition has only the duration of the person’s manipulation. No final product is generated at the end; the system is reset, and all pieces return to their particle state.

There are three main elements in the system: controllers, data sources and outputs. The controllers determine who operates the system and how this interaction is established. Data sources are pre-determined materials brought into the room (photographs, videos, drawings, models, texts, speeches) or material inserted through the controllers. The output is the spatial element where these data-sources are combined and exhibited (on a screen, projected on a wall, on a model, on the room, out of the room, into a virtual space etc.).

I see myself as a provider of photographs and videos, collector of other types of representation, and assembler of the system. Though the setting of architectural exhibition can be one of the intended places of display of my work, I also think that this work could generate an architectural exhibition wherever it is displayed. An event should not need to be titled “architectural exhibition” in order to ratify and legitimize what it is being displayed. 

The prototype is being built in Quartz Composer computer software, and is operated remotely through OSC commands sent by a tablet computer. It contains photographs and videos shot for the making of the prototype, but at this point, the main focus is on getting the system operational and experiencing with possible interactions. 

‘People meet in architecture’ was the title chosen by Kazuyo Sejima, architect and chief-curator of the 2010 Biennale. Sejima describes the central theme as: 
The 2010 edition of La Biennale is an exhibition about finding architecture; to reconsider the potential of architecture in contemporary society. [...] This exhibition allows people to acknowledge various ideas from diverse backgrounds and will reflect the present, which in itself encapsulates future potential. We hope that this show will be an experience of architectural possibilities; about an architecture created by different approaches, expressing new ways of living.
An architecture exhibition is a challenging concept as actual buildings cannot be exhibited. – models, drawings and other objects must take the place of buildings.
With 47 installations in the Exhibition portion curated by Sejima, and 55 national participations which had independent curatorship, the Bienalle accounts for a multitude of displayed material. Alongside with the symposia and talks the time necessary to view the exhibition in its entirety – its objects, images, videos and fragments on display – may surpass it’s own duration. As such, I’ve concentrated my attention mostly on the Exhibition portion, and partially on the national participations; meanwhile some aspects could have been overseen or willfully ignored.

First and foremost, I’ll discuss the installations where photography and video were not on display. Ultimately, these are events of spatial experience and experimentation, where the visitor is asked to interact with the designed environment. This acknowledges the limits imposed by architectural representation, as outlined by Sejima, doing away with it. Architecture is generated within the exhibition, only to be experienced during it’s duration. Photographic, video e textual records of these spaces can be and were produced, but they cannot replicate the experiences.  

Examples of this type of installations are cloudscapes by Transsolar & Tetsuo Kondo Architects, where a spiral bridge leads the spectator up in the room and into an artificially created cloud layer; Your Split Second House by Olafur Eliasson, where stroboscopic light visually freezes water movements inside a dark room; Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet installs forty speakers that encompass the space, each playing separately recorded voices of a choir. 
  Your split second house    
On the other extreme, there were several exhibitions which were entirely based on the display of photographs, most notably the works of Bas Princen, OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen, Walter Niedermayr, Luisa Lambri and Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW). Their setting varied from the white cube (Niedermayr and Labri), to deteriorated rooms (Princen and OFFICE) and open exterior spaces (RPBW). Ultimately, all these works had no intention to situate, describe or illustrate the  architectural project.

The subject of these photographs vary from the urban setting to the building detail. Luisa Lambri’s photographs display, in a series of diptychs and triptychs, the passing of time within architecture. Fragments of moving lights, of the surrounding nature and vestiges of human presence. The work is not about the specificities of a certain building, but actually those of all or any building.  

On the other hand, Renzo Piano selected images of his buildings from several photographers, where the focus is on those people who “meet in architecture”. This a very direct and explicit way to reference the exhibition’s theme. Presented in large dimensions in an open public area, the prints become sculptures; comparably, the people in them are statues.

My investigations on how to indicate time and human presence in architecture led to merge photography with video. Moving elements, mainly people, were placed inside the photographic frame as to indicate the constant changes in the environment. The insight brought by Lambri’s work is that it can take only two images to indicate a passage of time, and not solely the twenty-four frames per second of film.

My take on the human figure was, at first, as a graphic symbol within photography that gave architecture a scale reference. As of recent, my interested has shifted into exploring how people’s presence and actions modify the environment, the architecture and the resulting image.    

Wim Wenders approaches the Rolex Learning Center building in Lausanne, Switzerland through a  narrative, ten minute long film titled ‘If buildings could talk…’. Here, the building itself is the narrator and protagonist, speaking to people about what buildings do for them. Meanwhile, the viewer is led into the spaces as the camera floats through them in continuous movement. The technical aspects are of highest level, as this is the first 3D film exploring architecture. Wenders states:Don’t get me wrong: this is not a metaphor.
Buildings DO speak to us!
They have messages. Of course.
Some really WANT a constant dialogue with us.
Some rather listen carefully first.
And you have probably noticed:
Some of them like us a lot, some less
and some not at all.

There’s an ethereal perception when listening to the narrative, in some way consequence of the lightness of the described building.  Still, I consider that the narrative aspect was slightly overused, though understandable considering Wenders’ background in flim-making.

Earlier this year I produced a short video about the same building. With fixed camera angles, I also explored the building as the protagonist, but in the way that it frames both the camera and each person’s activities. Though not scripted, each of their actions are connected to the preceding, current and succeeding shots, to the soundtrack and to the architecture. I explore how to bring together fluidity of movements and strictness of architectural photography.

The national exhibition of Portugal presented four short-films on houses, by different artists. Untitled (SUN 2500) by João Onofre is continuous multi-angle, fixed camera, footage of a sailboat being lifted through a residential city block and placed into a swimming pool which can barely accommodate it. This delicate and uncanny operation is recorded from within the domains of the house; its architecture framing the views of the boat, becoming in fact a stage. 

Porto by Filipa César is a first-person walkthrough of a 1970s housing complex in Portugal. Present day residents subtly appear in the long continuous shot, as the camera moves from the urban setting into a residence’s room. The narrator (architect of the complex) then reads through an old newspaper article which attacked the project, and contextualizes the harsh political conditions at the time of the development. This is a very subtle documentary.

In Julião Sarmento’s Chromelech, a house receives three female visitors which are filmed doing leisurely activities. A strong emphasis is given to their body figures, as a sensual counterpoint to the house’s sobriety. Shots are strictly composed, akin to Untitled (SUN 2500), albeit having much more camera movement. This motion brings up the matter of culling and occlusion in architecture, that is, how movement is a process that can continuously select and block out spaces to display. 

Finally, Casa na comporta by João Salaviza has a stronger narrative and storytelling procedure; man is the protagonist and architecture the backdrop. The house built upon sand is where man departs from and returns to. As outside and inside are undistinguishable, one can neglect the notions that exterior, façade and interior photography are detached from each other. 

Each of these videos contribute to a new and different understanding of possible composing elements of an architectural film, both conceptually and in their making. As I describe in ‘The room of architectural representation’, these elements can contribute to the proposed system. 

An appeal from the curatorship urged participants to bring in and display physical models, as a way to attract the interest of the general public which is not trained to read technical drawings. The result is several exhibitions focused primarily on the model: Studio Mumbai, Aires Mateus, Tom Sachs, Christian Kerez, Atelier Bow-Wow and others. 

Of interest to my research was the work Detached by Pezovon Ellrichshausen Architects. Physical models of a house were placed hovering in front of photographs of the buildings’ site. The model relates closely to the background, which in itself is not only scenery, but an architectural photograph in a complete manner.

As an interim answer to the my first question – on the relevance of architectural photography today within the exhibition – I would say that the type of photography that serves to illustrate the architectural project has almost disappeared. In the 2010 Venice Biennale, one can only see traces of it in the national participations – most notably, Brazil, Chile, Italy and Nordic Countries – and in even fewer Biennale Exhibitions – Lina Bo Bardi retrospective and Noero Wolff Architects are the few examples. I see my work as a potential way to reintroduce architectural photography in the exhibition space.