Imagine That!

The architectural imagination is a unique intellectual predilection that is brought to fruition by an architectural education. This imagination is the architect’s greatest asset and is patiently cultivated in the schools and in the profession through an embodied and reflective process ruled by the reciprocal measures of craft and discovery. Beyond a traditional relationship with the practice of architecture, current interdisciplinary research at the Carleton University School of Architecture has confirmed the contribution of architectural imagination in areas of investigation as diverse as medicine, flight simulation and training, and heritage conservation. This short essay is a reflection on the value of architectural education–specifically in the area of visualization and representation–in cross-disciplinary research. To that end, we will discuss methods for training the architectural imagination at Carleton and the impact this has had on our research agenda.

Typically, students entering the first year of their architectural education understand images as a system of signs that, like words, can be employed to communicate their intentions. Drawing, and image-making in general, is used as a kind of writing and assumes a reader who shares established signifier-signified relationships. While the illusion of seamlessness in the semantics of images is essential for the production of architectural drawings as they are used in construction and contract documents, it is clear that this “instrumental” character is a conceptual and practical limitation in more speculative endeavours that are outside the bounds of intentionality as such.

In educating students of architecture, achieving a command over the craft of image-making is necessarily balanced with the ability “to see” and “to see into” the images being constructed, beyond the “instrumental” problems of craft that involve technique, mimesis and convention. Here the meaning of the image, not unlike a metaphor, is intimately connected to the act of interpretation. In other words, meaning is not centred in the image per se, but in the play between image and imagination. Representation, in this case, is a means by which the intentional threads of conceptual and language-based modalities of thinking and making are slackened and image-making is a technology by which the world is simultaneously interrogated and augmented. The inextricability of the way in which we see, think, and make the world is recognized as constitutive of the space of invention whereby access can be gained to theoretical and speculative areas in a multitude of disciplines.

The questioning of the transcriptive power of systematic architectural conventions is all the more vital in the context of the awesome mediating power of computer technologies. Digital media is arguably transforming the discipline of architecture at its very core. Furthermore, the very terms of the debate have yet to be articulated. The history of architecture testifies to the fact that every major upheaval occurs around issues of representation over and above theoretical, technological, or material innovation. Research and training in this new representational arena is of the utmost importance within schools of architecture. Critical to this theoretical and practical investigation is the willingness and ability to carry on an interdisciplinary discourse in a world immersed in and determined by progressively more sophisticated modes of visualization.

At Carleton, students in the first term of their architectural education are introduced to image-making through two intense, studio-based courses: Drawing and Introduction to Multimedia. In Drawing, students work through 12 exercises that examine the representation of space using a variety of traditional media and representational techniques. These exercises develop basic skills while challenging students to recognize their own bodies in the perception and creation of space. Increasing in depth, their drawings explore pattern, surface, folds, the body as object and as subject, and the delineation of inhabited spaces. Weekly drawing assignments are complemented by lectures and readings in the history and theory of architectural representation. Introduction to Multimedia develops sympathetic themes to those explored through Drawing using photography, digital imaging and video. While developing basic skills in photography and image-building, students are led to challenge the hegemony of perspective and to consider their bodies as both subject and object.

In the winter term of the second year students are introduced to digital modelling after progressing through the aforementioned sequence of drawing and multimedia. Together, these foundation courses offer a rigorous, embodied understanding of craft, vision, and visuality. Introduction to Computer Modelling is composed of weekly lectures and labs. Lectures on the history and theory of representation in architecture and art are primarily focused in the modern era and do not describe technical issues per se. The lectures are complemented by a three-hour weekly laboratory in which knowledge, facility, and skill with a determined set of software are attained.

The intertwining of the architectural imagination with traditional and new media image-making technologies requires knowledge of the history and theory of representation (“new” methods are not strictly speaking new), an embodied understanding of the media at hand, and a playful approach to (the) technology. The relationship between the technological will and the creative imagination has never been an easy one where the aforesaid “intentional threads” are most often characterized as deterministic and oriented toward domination of human and non-human nature alike. This paradoxical relationship to the traditional role of representation, between intentions and revealing, is critically and imaginatively illuminated by tracing the artifactual biases evident in pre-modern modes of drawing through perspective to the likes of Piranesi, the Neo-Modernists, and Libeskind. Such is the historical and theoretical context that positions our modern representational legacy. Furthermore, it is the same context that conditions research and interdisciplinary collaboration.

Representation and Research: Crossing Disciplines

New modes of visualization and communication are radically affecting nearly all disciplines and industries today and architecture has much to advance and contribute to a greater understanding of cultural and scientific practices. The ability of architecture to be lateral in its contribution is due to the tradition of virtual and real world-making that is constitutive of the discipline. In the areas of new media application, research and collaboration, architecture can be equally lateral and no less playful in its speculation. The architect’s mtier is not building per se but the creation of artifacts that make meaningful and significant building possible. The premise is that cultural content and design-based research activity will greatly determine technological innovation and advances in the context of real world applicability alongside pure and applied research and development in the technology industry.

Despite evidence to the contrary, cross-disciplinary research in architecture is nothing new. In fact, the isolation and specialization of the architect is a very recent phenomenon. Multidisciplinary collaborations between researchers and architects in related content and technology disciplines are not only possible but, from our experience, considered by collaborators as “value added.” Current areas of cross-disciplinary research at the Carleton School of Architecture involve industry, governmental and university units such as: the National Research Council (Visual Information Technology group and Computational Video group), Communications Research Centre Canada (CRC), Heritage Canada, Systems and Computer Engineering, Computer Science, Information Technology, Industrial Design, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Neurobiology, Medicine, Cultural Mediations, Art Hi
story, Music, Sociology and Anthropology, Canadian Studies (Heritage Conservation), Cognitive Science, Film Studies, Geography and Environmental Studies.

Stephen Fai is an Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the School of Architecture, Carleton University and researcher in the Carleton Immersive Media Studio. Michael Jemtrud is an Assistant Professor and Supervisor of Graduate Studies in the School of Architecture, Carleton University. He is also the Director of the Carleton Immersive Media Studio (CIMS) which is a Canadian Foundation for Innovation and Ontario Innovation Trust “New Opportunities” funded research unit. CIMS was recently awarded a CFI “Innovation Grant” with a number of interdisciplinary partners as one of two major components that will form the Centre for Advanced Studies in Visualization and Simulation (V-SIM) at Carleton University.