Regarding Regarding

Mark Morris

teaches architectural design and theory at Cornell University Department of Architecture. He is author of Models: Architecture and the Miniature and Automatic Architecture: Designs from the Fourth Dimension. His dissertation tutor at the Architectural Association was Mark Cousins who studied with Ernst Gombrich at the Warburg Institute. Mark’s research focuses on architectural models, scale, and questions of representation.
Seeing depends on knowledge
And knowledge, of course, on your college
But when you are erudite and wise
What matters is to use your eyes.

—Ernst Gombrich

From its Anglo-French origins, regarding is defined as attentive looking, gazing in a specified fashion, or paying particular attention. Its Old French derivation also implies watching, guarding, and looking back at. As modes of seeing go, regarding is a proactive sort of vision overlaid with judgment. In so many ways, the capacity to regard is fundamental to the identity of the architect.

A pedagogy of regarding, if one can call it that, within an architectural curriculum owes something to art criticism, which shares architecture’s preoccupation with visual analysis. Ernst Gombrich would be the salient figure and link between these disciplines. His work from Art and Illusion to The Image and the Eye sought a formal or rational study of art through optical and psychological study as opposed to art history or a quest for a zeitgeist. His inclusion of a few architectural examples, alongside artwork in his lectures and books, expanded the scope of his research and his audience. As an Andrew D. White professor-at-large at Cornell from 1970 to 1977, Gombrich brought his methods and techniques to students and interested faculty, Colin Rowe being one of them, in a series of lectures and interviews. Rowe was familiar with Gombrich through Rudolf Wittkower. Gombrich espoused the training of the eye and the mind to interrogate form and look for patterns, dissonance, alignments, aberrations, visual quotation, part-to-whole relationships, compositions of solid versus void, and genre-specific attributes. In short, he advocated a way of seeing now familiar to architects, and this familiarity is, in part, owed to his advocacy and interdisciplinary approach.

Architect at work from Catalogue modèle de l’architecte, 1913 (Paris, France). <br />
Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Libraries.
Architect at work from Catalogue modèle de l’architecte, 1913 (Paris, France).
Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Libraries.

In order that we might better understand the characteristics of regarding, it is necessary to supplement Gombrich’s thinking with a review of philosophical perspectives on the nature of perception. Regarding is a form of exteroception, the means by which we gain knowledge of the world outside ourselves through our five senses; sight, in this case. It requires subjectivity and objectivity, internal and external awareness. In Critique of Pure Reason Immanuel Kant sets up the dichotomy of intensive and extensive quantities of perception. Intensive is aligned with intuition, extensive is aligned with perception based on sensation. He acknowledges a kind of apprehension, aligned with intuition, not dependent on sensation: “All cognition, by means of which I am enabled to cognize and determine a priori what belongs to empirical cognition, may be called an Anticipation…”[1] Perception is the combination of anticipation and sensation; substantiating the claim that to see something you have to be looking for it in the first place.

Descartes, however, has other notions of vision that are indispensable to the question of perception: “all the objects of sight communicate themselves to us only through the fact that they move locally by the intermission of transparent bodies which are between them and us.…”[2] We neither see objects as they are (extensive) nor as we are (intensive), but as something produced in between as a result of the tension caught between these types of quantities. These transparent bodies are translators of visual information and this translation takes place, Descartes imagines, in the fluid of the eyeball, a funneling of the world through the wet optic vestibule en route to the mind.

The mind’s interpretation of this information permits it to form judgments, good and bad. Descartes writes of deception (bad perception) as having two possible triggers: appearance and judgment about something based on appearance or, to put it another way, misapprehension and misjudgment.[3] Misjudgment is the more powerful outcome according to Descartes. He relates it to the case of the phantom limb, where the patient imagines pain in a lost arm or leg; the feeling of pain is real and the judgment assumes that the limb is there. Vivid dreams, likewise, offer appearances that may lead to erroneous judgments.

Hallucination, or a waking dream, is required to support imagined things; the misjudgment must be met by misapprehension in this equation. An architect’s ability to creatively explore “in the mind’s eye” is a form of hallucination whereby something is visualized based on a supposition that may be purely speculative. “Realizing one’s vision,” finding a way to build the hallucinated design (every academic project, every competition; in short, every architectural proposal), is a process of post-rationalization of hallucination that is ultimately a working definition of architecture as a creative practice.

Internal vision, creativity, is more than insight or proprioception. It is a phase beyond any perception where the mind alone, equipped with the memory of so many images, can amalgamate, fracture, reconcile, or layer images to produce something new and hold that assemblage long enough to export it in the form of some representation; a drawing, for example. When Rowe evokes Claude Lévi-Strauss’s use of the term bricoleur and writes that “artistic creation lies mid-way between science and bricolage,”[4] he joins internal vision and scientific observation as the circuit, not the dialectic, of any architectural endeavor. Architects individually may be assigned the label of bricoleur or engineer, but, for Rowe, this dichotomy is merely illustrative of the creative process running in different directions: “the scientist and the ‘bricoleur’ are to be distinguished ‘by the inverse functions which they assign to event and structures as a means and ends, the scientist creating events … by means of structures and the ‘bricoleur’ creating structures by means of events.’”[5] Each drives the other.

The bricoleur relies on “a set of tools and materials which is always infinite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions.”[6] The stock is an archive of images and recollection of experiences that can be raided to answer any project brief. One’s power to draw from multiple precedents, to form a fresh response with the DNA of everything they have previously noted as memorable, is one’s stance as a bricoleur. A precedent study at the start of a design project is a strategic means to enrich the stock. This process of massaging the memory with precedents to aid internal vision is part of the looking back inference of regarding. Maintaining this stock involves looking at architecture firsthand (traveling) and secondhand in books and journals, in class as projections, and so on, and looking at it in a way that constructively transfers to memory.

Perception is, therefore, not seeing, but thinking through what one has seen and stored in memory. Rudolf Arnheim claims, “All perceiving is also thinking, all reasoning is also intuition, all observation is also invention.”[7] Descartes concurs: “Perception … is neither a seeing, nor a touching, nor an imagining…rather it is an inspection on the part of the mind alone.”[8] John Miller extends the argument for perception being fueled by but detached from literal vision in his Metaphysics or the Sciences of Perception. Perception is defined as “a grand phenomenon of the conscious current,” having three aspects: consciousness, emotion, and cognition. “Not only is all Consciousness Perception, that is, every conscious gaze a perceiving, and all of it a perceiving of that that we are conscious of, but all Perception is conscious.”[9] Miller links perception to emotion and pleasure in part because it permits abstraction and analysis. Architects know this pleasure; they may be addicted to it.

The “conscious gaze” is inverted by Jacques Lacan who locates consciousness in the object being gazed at rather than the subject. This is an extension and reworking of Freud’s claim that one might project a fear or desire on an object; project being the optimum word linking thought, vision, and the architectural sense of project or work resulting from visual thoughts. Such a psychoanalytic proposition sits comfortably with architects who may imagine that their work holds something of their perception or represents their way of seeing the world.

To even think such a thing, a Lacanian breakthrough must transpire, a moment when the architects realize that they are looking at things in a particular way. This epiphany is the result of retraining the eye to regard rather than merely see things, to store them in memory (looking back) and then abstract and analyze them on demand. All this feeds that particular brand of creativity architecture values: not whim, not pure originality, but thoughtful synthesis of known elements deployed for new purposes. The role of originality is to blend the stock with a unique capacity for abstraction so the known elements are not clearly deciphered as with a collage. The capacity for such measured abstraction is rooted in one’s powers of analysis, making the specific portable and mutable.

Since Lacan’s death in 1981, a broad-based shift in visual preoccupation was prompted by a mechanism useful for transferring and holding images. The computer has altered architects’ visual training and crafting of representations to be regarded by others. Faculty and students at Cornell were at the forefront of advancing the visuality of computation, their contributions notably embodied in the so-called Cornell Box. Functioning as a proof and claim for virtuality, the green, red, and white cabinet could be filled with objects—cubes, spheres, mirrors—and its photographed image compared to a computer rendering of a virtual double. The aim was to check the capacity of software applications to accurately represent not only the objects but calculate their interreflections and shadows. Accuracy was assumed to be beneficial, but figures like Stan Allen would take exception to the premise that the digital should strive toward photorealism, “it ignores what has traditionally given architectural representation its particular power of conceptualization—that is to say, its necessary degree of abstraction, the distance imposed between the thing and its representation.”[10] The distance imposed harkens back to the Cartesian gap between the physical thing and its image as perceived. This is the space of regarding or the gap where regarding figuratively operates. And it happens all the time on the computer when software is used heuristically, diagrammatically, analytically, or as Allen puts it, “used against the grain” of its intended mimetic function.

The more substantive shift in perception under the auspices of the digital has less to do with the quality of images and more to do with quantity. Image searches on the internet have replaced a whole culture of visual research previously grounded in hard-copy access provided by libraries and print media; the slide being a virtual and literally projective auxiliary. Gombrich’s carefully selected and sequenced slides had time to settle on the retina and be committed to memory as a byproduct of their persistence in the visual field. The same temporal dynamic is not easily recaptured in the flit between a search engine’s results that display as slides on a light table, but when selected singly struggle to manage the same critical work as their magic lantern forbears, in part owing to their variable resolution, cropping, and color saturation. More problematic is the selection itself based on popularity rather than architectural eligibility. Images are not all equally useful. If regarding is defined as attentive looking, it cannot be said that Google gives rise to an alternative sensibility of regarding. It simply does something else.

Contemporary architectural critics come back to the question of apprehension through historic case studies. When Rosalind Krauss critiques Ruskin’s claims that neglect and lack of toys in childhood forced him to become a keen observer and generate “that capacity for attention so pure and so disinterested,” she admits, “Ruskin’s view-hunting is a means of transforming the whole of nature into a machine for producing images, establishing in this way an autonomous field of the visual—characterized, indeed, by those two qualities onto which the optical sense opens uniquely: the infinitely multiple on the one hand, and the simultaneously unified on the other.”[11] The multiple refers to attention to detail, and the unified aspect refers to the power of abstraction. In this way, Allen’s concern about the saturation of detail in digital renderings is answered by acknowledging only through fastidious looking at details—their multiplicity, density, diverse scales—can meaningful abstraction be distilled. Krauss describes this obsessive scopic grazing as Ruskin’s luxuriant stare. Gombrich, building his own case for visual training, credited Ruskin’s assertion that reading an image requires an education.

Philibert de l’Orme, The Bad Architect and The Good Architect, the first volume of architecture (Le premier tome de l’architecture), 1567. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Libraries.
Philibert de l’Orme, The Bad Architect and The Good Architect, the first volume of architecture (Le premier tome de l’architecture), 1567. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Libraries.

Philibert de l’Orme, The Bad Architect and The Good Architect, the first volume of architecture (Le premier tome de l’architecture), 1567. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Libraries.
Philibert de l’Orme, The Bad Architect and The Good Architect, the first volume of architecture (Le premier tome de l’architecture), 1567. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Libraries.

The connotation of regarding as a form of guarding is the most etymologically obvious. It suggests that to really look at something without too much distraction is to guard, preserve, and conceptually protect something with all that perception implies. Architects guard things by looking at them, thinking about and through images, and making more images in kind. The creation of images is dependent on the careful looking and archiving of many more. The archive is guarded by memory and strengthened by frequent additions and raiding for the purposes of creativity. The capacity to regard is fundamental to the identity of the architect, and this also plays out visually. Philibert de l’Orme’s architectural 16th-century allegories show the “bad architect” without eyes or hands wandering a dry landscape and the “good architect” in a classical garden teaching a student. De l’Orme gives the good architect four hands and three eyes, the third eye being an eye for wise seeing.

Le Corbusier’s iconic eyeglasses remain a sign of the architect and his perceptual prowess. The glasses suggest the eyes have been exhausted by professional commitment. They also literally frame the world and objectify the discipline, intimating that anyone who wears them might see as an architect sees. This trope remains popular with architects: Philip Johnson, Louis Kahn, Eero Saarinen, Peter Eisenman, I.M. Pei, Toyo Ito, Rafael Vinoly, Peter Cook, Daniel Libeskind, Nicholas Grimshaw, Wolf Prix, and so on. A next generation faithfully copies this group, even in an age of contact lenses and laser eye surgery. But there are no magic glasses that instantly produce an architect. Rather, it takes a particular education dedicated to retraining the eye, lengthening attention spans, and testing the retention of visual information to produce one. Regarding remains an unusual expertise and one that may still deserve undistracted attention. This seems a skill worth guarding.

Instant Architect, a favorite image of the architecture blogosphere, courtesy of Archinect.
Instant Architect, a favorite image of the architecture blogosphere, courtesy of Archinect.


1. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, James Creed Meredith (trans.) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952), 180.
2. The Philosophical Works of Descartes, Elizabeth S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross (trans.) (New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 1970), XV:13.
3. Ibid.
4. Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, Collage City (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984), 103.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., 102.
7. Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974), 5.
8. The Philosophical Works of Descartes, II:2.
9. John Miller, Metaphysics or the Sciences of Perception (New York: Dodd and Mead, 1877), 30.
10. Stan Allen, “Terminal Velocities: The Computer in the Design Studio,” in The Virtual Dimension: Architecture, Representation and Crash Culture, John Beckmann (ed.) (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), 246.
11. Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious, 5th ed. (London and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 6.


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