CARPO, Mario

'Tell, Don't Show' at Symposium: Writing and Critical Thinking in Architecture (2)

Series: Symposium
Date: Friday 25 March 2011
Time: 10:30
Venue: Lecture Hall
Running time: 30 mins

Literal Transcription:

MARINA LATHOURI: Now, I would like to introduce our first speaker, Mario Carpo, who is an architectural historian, who has extensively written and researched the relationships between architectural theory, information technology, media, and technologies of architectural representation. Mario is currently professor at the Georgia institute of technology, and also Vincent Scully visiting professor of architectural history at Yale University. Before that, he was visiting professor at a number of European and American Universities, and also a visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome, at the Getty Research Institute, and at the Clark Art Institute. Mario was also head of the studies at the CCA, Montreal, between 2002 and 2005, he has written and published extensively, his most recent publication is ‘The Alphabet and the Algorithm’ (released last week), ‘Architecture in the Age of Printing’ (2001), a commentary on Leon Battista Alberti’s Descriptio Urbis Romae, and also he has written and published a number of essays on architectural representation, which have been published in various magazines, such as Perspectives, Projections and Design, the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Log, Grey Room, Architecture D'Aujourd'hui, Arquitectura Viva, Architectural Design, and so on. The title of his talk is ‘Tell, Don’t Show: On Scripting and Scribing and the Almost Inevitable Demise of Digital Images.’

MARIO CARPO: Thank you, Marina for the generous introduction. I received a title—Writing and Critical Thinking in Architecture—and an assignment for this talk: to articulate the role of writing in the realm of contemporary architecture and culture. I would like to start from a particular, specific aspect of the matter, just a little thing, a technicality, almost, but one which I think it is crucial to our understanding of the present time and revelatory of the major shift, now underway, in the media at our disposal, to write about architecture. I would like to consider, briefly, the relationship, that we, architectural writers, entertain with architectural illustrations—the topic was already mentioned, of course—with the images that are meant to accompany our writings. To accompany, I say: that might not be the right word. Companionship implies some mutual affection, and any architectural writer knows that the relationship between our texts and images is often not so friendly. How many times are we asked by publishers, or editors, to eliminate pictures which we think we need, or to add images we do not need? And we will argue: our readers will never, ever need. Yet publishers or editors have the last word on this. How many times we would desperately need images, which we cannot publish because of the insurmountable amount of copyright issues. We all have—I presume—horror stories we could tell on this—I have some myself, which I should keep for the coffee break. Yet this tyranny of architectural images of the copyright orders is in historical terms only a recent development. There were no coffee table books in the Middle ages, and no illustrated magazines in Classical antiquity. Cicero’s wife, I think her name was Terentia, did not read Architectural Digest. In fact, from the beginning of historical times and until the sixteenth century, images of architecture were an absolute rarity. There were not many of them around, and no wonder those that did exist were so lousy, that there was not much to do with them anyway. For most of our collective past, until the Renaissance, architecture evidently existed, but architecture images did not. This may suggest that architecture can exist without the mediation of images. And, as architecture could do without images so often in the past, well, perhaps it could do without images again in the future. And, I would argue, it just might.

The modern power of images, including architectural images, started, only in the Renaissance. With the almost concommital invention of two cultural technologies, that seem to be made for one another. Geometrical perspective, as defined by Leon Battista Alberti, and printmaking. Around 1435, Alberti’s geometrical perspective defined perspectival images as the indexical trace left by beams or rays of light onto a physical surface, the picture plane. (Shows the very famous interpretation by Albrecht Dürer). Alberti’s book, of course, had no illustrations at all, which is a bit strange for a book which is about perspective. The technical term Alberti used in this context, was actually not a beam of light, but a rocket. In Alberti’s theory, visual beams are rockets that hit the picture plane, and when they do, the impact leaves a trace. (Shows another interpretation, also by Albrecht Dürer, where the ‘rockets’ have been replaced by strings and it is possible to see the intersection of the string with the picture plane: where it hits, it leaves a mark). It would be hard, even for Peter Eisenman, to imagine something more indexical than that. More or less at the same time, drawings started in turn to be printed, using mechanical matrixes; woodcuts or metal plates, just as this woodcut (shown) by Albrecht Dürer, of the date of 1525.

Then, as now, all imprints of the same matrix look the same, always the same and the same for all. This started in the Renaissance: the geometrical indexicality of perspectival images was multiplied by the mechanical indexicality of print. Both perspective and print recorded and transmitted indexical visual traces, the mark left by a beam of light on a picture plane, or the stamp left by a printer’s plate on a piece of paper. And, sure enough, a bit later—actually, 404 years after Alberti invented geometrical perspective, photography multiplied the power of perspectival images, because photographic images are machine-made perspectives, where the physical traces of light are not laboriously reconstructed by the hand of a painter, but automatically recorded by technology. If Alberti could have seen a photographic image, well…how much he would have liked it. Perspective, print, and photography: all these technologies, together, created the power of modern images. The power of the image’s trustworthiness, the power of proof. When an image is photographed, and or when a photograph is printed, an indexical chain traces the image back to the matrix, from which it was printed or to the archetype, which it represents. If something occurs in a photograph, it must have occurred in real life. Photographic pictures, just like Alberti’s perspectival images, are automatic imprints of reality. They are indexical images of nature itself. But digital images do not work that way. The geometry, whereby a picture is captured, in a digital camera, for instance, has not changed, but the technology whereby pictures are recorded and transmitted digitally, has changed very much. Digital images, as the name indicates, are recorded and transmitted as files: they are first digitized, meaning, translated into numbers, by sampling and quantization, this numbers are then stored, retrieved and sent around at will. At some later point, this strings of numbers, may or may not be reconverted into a visual picture. When this happens, all kind of things can happen, but in most cases without and outside the control of the maker of the original picture. An example with which we can all be familiar: if we send an illustrated postcard, a good, old, traditional printed postcard to one hundred friends, each friend will receive the same picture, and will see the same picture on that postcard. But, if we email the same picture to 100 friends, as a jpg attachment, for example, each recipient will most likely see a different picture. And variations, as always in the digital domain, may occur randomly, or by design, or by the unpredictable intervention of some external entity, actor or network, as Bruno Latour would say. Digital images drift, every instantiation, every manifestation, every occurrence or epiphany of the same digital file, is a different even, and one that the maker of the original picture can neither control, nor anticipate. And, as digital pictures inevitably drift, because that is inherent in their very technical nature, they inevitably cheat. Digital images can no longer be held as true to reality. The indexical chain that used to link photographic images to the event which they represented has been broken by digital technology. In the case of old good photographic pictures, editing and post-production were the exception. In the case of digital pictures, editing and post-production are the rule. All digital pictures are inevitably post-processed, at some point, by someone, or even when we chose to do nothing at all, by technology itself. Yes, old photographic photomontages could cheat, and they did. They could cheat, precisely, because we expected old photographic images to be true to reality, but today, all digital images are, in a sense, photomontages. And today all images are digital, at least at some point in their course of their life as images. Hence, the conclusion is simple, and drastic: today all images cheat. They can have no documental value, whatsoever. The visual and social consequences of this drastic demotion of the ontological status of digital images, from indexical realism to nothing, or almost nothing, are momentous. Some consequences, have already been felt, also in the daily practice of our trade. I presume we are all familiar with the all too common predicament of the architectural critic, that it has to sift through an endless cornucopia of images, which might be documental photographs of existing buildings, or digital renderings of non-existing buildings, or anything in between, and there is no way to tell. Just as an example, if you open any architectural magazine today and you see an image (shown), you could think that this building does not exist, but then you turn the page and you think that the building shown does exist, because it has even the Eiffel tower in the background. However, in this case the first one does not, it never did, and never will. Sometimes even the captions—when there are some—are deliberately reticent or misleading, and the only way to know if the building that is represented in pictures exists in reality is to check it out in google earth, or go to see it in person, or ask a friend who lives there. And, of course, even the satellite pictures assembled by Google Earth can cheat, just in the same way, and, in fact, I presume they do, when they bear on some special or ‘sensitive’ sites. Some have argued, with some reason, that digital technologies by multiplying images, are facilitating their transmission, extending their functions and uses, are in fact increasing the modern power of images. This is a theory which has its proponents, which I cannot discuss here, but that might be the case, it might be true that in some scientific fields, where digital visualizations are indeed changing the way some scientists engineers, or even surgeons or dentists, for example, work. We have seen that dentists are increasing digital images, that doesn’t make me feel very safe, for the same reason I’m arguing, but let’s cross fingers. In general, in our visual culture, as well as in architectural representations, I would argue that the open ended, uncontrollable mutability of the digital imaging is in fact reducing, not increasing, their ambits of use. This is because, as I was saying, today’s images are no longer any intrinsic value of proof. To retain some of their old trustworthiness, digital images must be validated, or certified in a sense, by some external agency, by the authority of the major or publisher, someone who stands behind the image as the only guarantor of their meaning. And even in that case, that might not always work, this is a famous case study, [shows slide] this is evidently the same picture of the same person, but it is not really the same picture; the picture on the right (if you) go down form the shoulders to the pants, and you see it is a straight line; on the left, at some point, there is a taurus, like a doric column. And the picture on the right was published by all the French media, the picture on the left was published by all the American media. [Audience laughter]. Now, the International Herald Tribune, which is published in Paris, but it’s owned by the New York Times, published both. Now, we cannot tell who was cheating, but evidently one of the two parties was cheating. You multiply this by a factor of one billion, and this may lead to a distrust of digital images, which is not unlike that which prevailed for centuries before the rise of perspective, print, and photography. And which was famously epitomised in the seventh century, by Isidore of Seville: “Pictura quasi fictura (…)” “Pictures are cheat, they are never trustworthy, never true to reality.” That was indeed the case, in the seventh century, whenever non geometrical images where handmade, copied, and transmitted by scribes. Before the invention of printed images, each such image was always at the mercy of the wills of each individual copyist. And oddly, this is increasingly the case today, due to the unlimited variability of machine made, but randomly variable, digital pictures. Images held sway, in the modern age of mechanical making, when photographic images were framed, frozen, authorial recordings of sight. Today’s digital images are a permanently drifting, often anonymous, or unauthorised, mashed up, snippets and snapshots, bereft of any indexical value. Evidently, we can no longer use images as we use to, and one may well wonder if we can use images at all, in this technical context. A small aside: this is not our subject today, but let’s note in passing, that the same tradition from frozen, visual documents, to dynamic generative scripts, has already eliminated another category of images that use to be central to the making of Modern architecture: notational drawings, such as blueprints, construction drawings, images which were meant to show workers how to actually make things. Most such notational drawings or images, are now being replaced by digital information models, and parametric variability is the design logic embedded in most of today’s digital tools for CAD and CAM. In computer-based design and publication, most notational images are replaced by flexible, ruled-based, generative scripts, and in these instances too, individual images are fast becoming irrelevant, because they are increasingly seen only as the occasional and ephemeral spin-off or epiphany or manifestation of the script used to generate them. In many CAD-CAM integrated systems, notational drawings are in fact no longer needed, and they are no longer used, because objects can be fabricated directly out of a digital file. In the new digital paradigm, the parametric script, which can generate families of images and objects alike, is everything. Each individually generated image counts for little, or nothing. And, with a certain symmetry, just as technical and notational images in architectural design are being replaced by algorithmic scripting, pictorial and representational images in architectural discourse, may be replaced by alphabetic scribing: parametric scripting can actually generate images, whereas alphabetic scribing can only evoque the scribe or suggest some of them, but in both cases, the logic is the same, both the alphabet and the algorithm can replace images without providing any ready made picture. In fact, I would argue, this is precisely the reason why today we so crucially need words, narration, interpretation, instead of images. Because, such is the nature of today digital images, that we know that we can no longer trust images. Hence, we can no longer read the information they provide. An image use to be worth a thousand words, but today a few words can make more sense than a thousand pictures. In the course of the last fifteen years, the transition from analogue drawing to digital scripting has changed architectural design. Today, the same transition form image to scribing or describing is already changing the landscape of architectural publications. Some of the most innovative, of recent crop, of architectural journals, such as Log in the United States, Criticat in France—and when I wrote this, I did not know that the inventor would be in the room today—or Candide in Germany have deliberately opted for an almost un-iconic format, one that prompts writers to write, and readers to read. Apparently, some architectural writers and publishers have already concluded that there is no point in spending money to publish additional images, when there are already so many of them available everywhere, online for example, and each of them worth so little. Now, let’s have a look again at these three covers [slide] on these three covers, we only find letters and numbers, and it is not a coincidence. Additional evidence: in the course of the last few months, a conference in Portugal [slide], an issue of AD (Architectural Design) [slide], and an exhibition at the CCA [slide], and when I wrote this I didn’t know that the co-curator would be in this room. They have all tackled various aspects of narrativity, of or anti-iconicity, in contemporary architectural writing, and I could also mention, as additional evidence, the website of one of today’s—I think—most interesting star-architects [showing website of Valerio Olgiati] a website which does not show a single image of any building whatsoever. I’m telling that because you may go and click and check the website and think that part of it is offline. That’s all there is, there is nothing else, you can click on the plus, which means “more,” and you see something meaning “less,” and you go back to the main page. Now, all this, and many other evidence could be added, in my opinion, means something: it means that the demise of the image may be in the making, or at least in the air. The age of the mechanical reproducible image is over, and instead, a new art of scripting and scribing, appears to be rising. The alphabet and the algorithm, narrational computation, are today’s tools. The alphabet and the algorithm make for a good match, they are made for one another, and they are well together, just as perspective and print are intertwined in the Renaissance. Computers have killed the iconic image, and the search of iconicity we are seeing now, in many ways, of life and art, may well be this one song of a techno-cultural environment, on its way to extinction. Our postmodern digital future will most likely be logocentric and logico-centric discourse and computation. This, of course, does not mean the end of visuality, we still will have eyes to see, but our ways of seeing are changing, just as our visual environment is changing in a way that is unparalleled in Modern history. The alphabet and the algorithm are evidently not universal tools, and we shall always need plenty of images of all sorts, but there is no way to go back to the history of iconoclasm, to remark, as many already have, that images can often cheat and numb our senses, but script is always a compliment, and a complement to our intellect.

Transcription by María José Orihuela, Architect, MA HCT at the Architectural Association.

Organised by Marina Lathouri

At a time of rapid technological change and a pervasive global intelligence, where greater numbers of new books, magazines and journals – in print and online – are being published, this event aims to look at different approaches to writing in and about architecture. The aim is to articulate the role of writing in the realm of contemporary architecture and culture and in reformulations of practice. Participants reflect upon the possibility of criticism in these new modes of production of architectural knowledge.

This enquiry into writing and architecture began with a series of seminars in the autumn, exploring writing from the various yet overlapping standpoints of author, editor, critic and journalist and examining intersections with visual art/design practice.


Nasrine Seraji, architect, Director, Ecole d’Architecture Paris-Malaquais, DAZIBAO d’Architectures; Reading Architecture
Yves Lomax, Goldsmiths, Beginning, Ends and Middles
Jane Rendell, The Bartlett School of Architecture, Site-Writing
12.30 Lunch
Mario Carpo, Georgia Institute of Technology/Yale University
Marina Lathouri, AA School, Writing as Architecture
Hannes Mayer, Archithese, To the Root: the changing relevance of thoroughness
Giovanna Borasi, CCA
Joseph Grima, Domus, Collaborative Criticism: magazines in the era of 140-character debate
4.30 Discussion
For further details, please contact Marina Lathouri, Director, MA History and Critical Thinking / PhD

All lectures are open to members of the public, staff and students unless otherwise stated.

February 2020
Su M Tu W Th F Sa


AA Photo Library has DVD copies of Public Programme lectures dating back to 1974


Online Lectures
Lecture Archive



For any issues with video playback please contact
AA Digital Platforms

The Architectural Association, Inc. is incorporated as a company limited by guarantee (No.171402) and registered as a charity (No. 311083). Registered office: 36 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3ES, 020 7887 4000

Click here to read the AA’s latest review report.

Click here to read the AA’s latest action plan.



The Architectural Association receives Taught Degree Awarding Powers by the Lords of Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council.

The Architectural Association (AA), the oldest independent school of architecture in the United Kingdom, is pleased to announce that it has been granted the power to award its own degrees. As of 1 October 2019, the AA has the right to establish new academic programmes and degree awards and is working to create some of the world’s most pioneering courses in architecture to shape and build the future.

Taught Degree Awarding Powers (TDAP) give UK higher education institutions the right to award bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Prospective students worldwide can apply to the AA Foundation Course (Foundation Diploma), Experimental Programme BA(Hons), Diploma Programme (MArch), and nine taught postgraduate programmes encompassing History and Critical Thinking in Architecture (MA), Projective Cities (Taught MPhil) and Sustainable Environmental Design (MSc/MArch), amongst others.

AA Director, Eva Franch said, ‘since our founding in 1847 we have never ceased to create new horizons, institutionally and academically. This is a significant milestone for the AA and demonstrates how we have grown and progressed as an institution that has always valued independence. Receiving TDAP marks a new era for our institution; these are exciting times for the AA. The process has required considerable work from all members of staff and students. I would like to take this opportunity to credit them for this major achievement’.

President of the AA Council, Victoria Thornton added, ‘the TDAP process has recognised our strong governance, academic standards, scholarship and teaching as well as the environment supporting the delivery of taught higher education programmes’.

The School’s application for Taught Degree Awarding Powers was supported by the Architects Registration Board, the Royal Institute of British Architects and The Open University.