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THE IMAGE OF THE URBAN ENVITORNMENT1

The problem of image, in particular, the image of a town, is one of the most complex in architecture. It therefore makes sense to turn to its sources to examine it on an elementary level, on the basis of the mechanism of perception, and on this foundation to try to extract number of professional lessons. In this problem, I see three main questions: what is an image in architecture, what is the image of a town, and what is the role of the architect in the creation of image of a town? Thus,

WHAT IS AN IMAGE IN ARCHITECTURE?

The basic image of objects of architecture and design, and any other tangible objects, is composed of a sum of information, which it carries and which is perceived as a certain amount of signals. There is information which is conceptual, emotional, and aesthetic. The contents of the process of perception of information is the comparison of it with information stored in memory of loads of previously learned information called "perceptual models" of the tangible world (i.e models, formed in consciousness during the perceptual process), which for simplicity we will further just call "models". In the absence of analogous or associatively similar "models" in the process of perception, an individual's consciousness forms new "models". This development of new "models" takes significantly more neural energy than the use of existing "models". Low volume of information or the creation of few new "models" leads to a lowering of neural expenditure, dullness. A large volume of information or the creation of many new "models" is linked to elevation of neural expenditure, stress. These principles are very important in the perception of environment. Repeated elements (details, styles of houses, fragments of development) are not perceived as new information. For this reason, such an environment incites dullness. Contrarily, an environment which is completely composed of new elements can incite stress. (In such a way, a town is stressful to visitors from rural areas.) (Ill.1.1)
The information which an object of architecture or design carries includes new information which is transformed into new "models" in the perceptual process together with information that is familiar and has already been transformed into "models". On the foundation of the sum of old and new "models" a certain general model is formed, and becomes the general image of a given object of architecture or design. Since every tangible object carries a certain amount of information, every structure from dog kennels to architectural masterpieces - and any object of design - from spoons to supersonic airplanes - in the consciousness form a specific image. However, these images all differ one from another in the amount and quality of conceptual, emotional, and aesthetic information they contain.
Since information is perceived with several sense organs, the outside world forms not only visual images, but also auditory, gustatory, olfactory, and tactile images. In particular, objects of architecture and design form along with visual and auditory images, those formed on the basis of smell and touch. In perception, all of these images unite in different combinations and form certain synthetic images of objects of architecture and design. (Ill.2)
So, in our consciousness, the image of the Kremlin in Rostov, Russia is inseparable from the toll of its bells, the Pitsunda resort in Caucasus from the smells of the pines and the sea, and the image of a Russian log cabin from the feeling of the smooth, warm surface of a log Such examples are infinite. Sounds, smells, and tactile sensations are included in the synthetic images of objects of architecture, and typically this occurs spontaneously and outside of the will of the author who is usually concerned with only the visual image. But, there are many examples of conscious creation of synthetic images which have an effect on several sense organs, mainly in memorial structures where the strength of impact of an image must be notably great. For example, a bell toll is included in the image of the memorial for the burned hamlet Khatin in Belarus, the sound of the metronome in the memorial for the genocide in Salaspils, Latvia, and the Aeolian harp in the image of the monument to guerillas on the mountainside in Beshad, Poland. The image of the minaret of the Koutoubia in Marrakesh, Morrocco erected in 1195, includes a persistent (to this day!) fragrance of musk which was added during its erection to the mortar on the order of a caliph in the memory of one of his victories.
We say that an image consists of different conceptual, emotional, and aesthetic information in different proportions Naturally, objects of architecture or design, which are close in purpose and the information that they carry, form an image of a type of object of architecture or design, which include their most common information. These images of types of structures and objects of design allow people to orientate themselves even in unfamiliar environments - not to confuse a theater with a residential house, a railroad station with a daycare, a door with a window, a table with a chair, a spoon with a plate, etc. On this basis people form dynamic stereotypes, situational reflexes, which provide automatic behavior in environment which is necessary for existence and these appear to be essential conditions for the existence of any live beings in both natural and artificial environments. This is the same mandatory "recognizability" of objects of architecture or design, these are the same "stereotyped images", which could seem to be a banal triumph, which served to be the subject of countless philippics among very and not very highly creative individuals, but which should nevertheless be necessarily taken into account by architects and designers in their work, since without this recognizability and without these stereotyped images, people cannot exist in their environments. Therefore, each image of an object of architecture or design must be created in the general course of the image of a type. What concerns the possible and desired degree of difference between a concrete image and an image of a type, this is one of the most complex problems for architects and designers in the design process.
Of course, with time stereotyped images change. With the advent of new functions, materials, structures, equipment, and methods of construction and production, there appears the necessity for new forms of architecture and design and therefore, new stereotyped images. But the need for a stable sign system - a stable system of stereotyped images, is an innate human need. These "rules of the game" force man to all too often inadvertently invest in new functions, materials, structures, equipment, and method of construction and production in traditional "recognizable" forms. The psychology of man is reminiscent of that anecdotal city administrator, who in the beginning of the 20th century would not allow automobiles to appear on the streets until the cab horses got used to them. Indeed the first automobiles appeared as phantasmagoric monsters - carriages moving without horses. This stability of stereotypes also defined typological relations to architectural objects. Temples of ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and other peoples of the ancient world were built as dwellings of the gods, until they turned into independent types of edifices and formed independent stereotyped images. On the type of dwelling were first built palaces of the ancient world, medieval Europe, and Russia. In the 18th and beginning of 19th centuries, at the time of the appearance of government buildings in Russia - courts, barracks, hospitals, research and educational establishments, etc, they all initially simulated the format and stereotyped images of palaces. Everywhere and always, stereotyped images have changed gradually, little by little, eventually arriving at completely new sign systems, systems of stereotyped images.
Since the process of perception is a subjective one, image is a subjective phenomenon, as well. For this reason, an image of a given object of architecture or design will differ to a certain degree among people. And of course, an object of architecture or design forms different images for its consumer and author, for whom this image includes conceptual, emotional, and aesthetic information associated with the process of creative work, and who envisions the image which will be produced in the consumer as little as any person could the authentic tone of his own voice.
Yet the subjective images of a given object also possess similarities in different people. These images, as we discussed earlier, are largely dependent on the number of existing "models" in the mind - the result of previously learned information and past experiences. However, similarities among people, which belong to one region or civilization, within it - to one particular historical epoch, and within that - to one social group, possess certain similarities of experience, received information, and so, certain similarities in "models". On this basis, in turn, for each similarity among people a system of images characteristic to it is formed, among them - images of objects of architecture and design, i.e stereotyped images. Their summation in combination with conceptual, emotional, and aesthetic stereotypes is the foundation for the spiritual culture of a civilization, epoch, and social group. This circumstance gives critics the possibility to evaluate the image of an object of architecture or design relatively objectively, approaching it always from the position of the stereotypes of the corresponding spiritual culture. But this same circumstance also establishes the inadequacy of an image of the same objects for people belonging to different social groups, historical epochs, and regions or civilizations.
For example, the image of a country manor of 19th century Russia was filled with certain meaning, emotions, and aesthetic impressions, which are formed for the representative nobility, was radically different from the contents of the image of the same manor formed for the peasants. For a pigmy from central Africa, a person from a completely different region and civilization, the image of such a manor - for him an entirely alien edifice, would be filled with completely different meaning and emotionally and aesthetic impressions.
Aside from "perceptive models", characteristic to one or another human similarities, certain conceptual, emotional, and aesthetic representations and corresponding "models" characteristic to all people have an effect on the formation of an image of an object of architecture and design since they are determined by psycho-physiological peculiarities all people share. So, for all people, a pyramid standing on a summit will evoke a representation of instability, the color red will excite, and proportions characteristic to the human body will be perceived as being beautiful.
Such are the structure and laws of the formation of an image of an object of architecture and design. But,

WHAT IS AN IMAGE OF A TOWN?

For a town which is none other than a combination of objects of architecture and design, of course structure and all laws which are characteristic of individual objects are prevalent, differing only in its larger complexity. And of course, the image of a town always exists, since the town - is a combination of tangible objects, and is therefore also a source of information. But this information differs in different towns in quantity and quality. Since any actively exaggerated problem of an image of a town of the present appeared on the basis of dissatisfaction with the modern town environment, it is important to find out how this environment differs from the historic one.
An obvious difference of the modern environment from an historic one lies in the fact that the latter is packed with a great deal of information. This trait is determined by the diversity of the fragments of developments, houses, their details, objects of design, and finally, the polychromy of the environment. All of this diversity is usually concentrated on relatively small territories and is perceived by the person in relatively short intervals of time. The basis of the wealth of impressions which historical environments carry, lies in this fact. Contrarily, characteristic to the modern environment, there is repetition of details, types of houses, development, design, as well as an almost unanimous, colorless plainness. This being said, structures are usually placed with significantly less density. As a result, in comparison with the volume of information in the historical environment, a person's perception in analogous intervals of time is extremely minute. And here arises the nostalgia for the historical town environment and attempts to artificially recreate it. (Ill. 1.3, Ill. 3.`)
On the whole, I come to the conclusion, that one of the main, and possibly the main shortcomings of all modern architecture, ubiquitously perceived as "boring", "drab", and "dull", is the deficiency in the information that it carries, generated by, along with monochromy, also by endless repetition of a few details. Moreover, the logic of the formation of modern style, forces the scantiness of forms, understood as a sign of "modernism", to also spread to those buildings which are constructed with traditional methods, in particular, to a significant portion of residential and public buildings, erected using bricks. And so the phenomenon of constructivist buildings of the 20th century which were erected manually, but through its forms symbolically depicted a product of industry, repeats itself. Recently, there were attempts to overcome the dullness of environment, i.e. its minimal informational potential primarily through the creation of sculpturally complex structures. However, I presume that such a strategy does not promise positive results. To begin with, in correspondence with the stereotyped reasoning of the modern architect, plastic richness of edifices is created in most cases through the endless repetition of the same details, which as we saw does not increase the informational potential of an edifice, in view of the particularity of human perception. (Ill. 2.2)
I will allow myself to express the presumption that for complete "scanning" of information, it is necessary for there to be visual organization of its forms into a clear perceptive system. It was in this way that the compositions of facades were built in historic architectural epochs. And the richer and more diverse were the forms of the edifices, the more concise were the systems in which they were organized.
In modern sculpturally rich edifices, the whole array of their details are usually organized into complex systems, which are visually perceived as being chaotic. In this case, the "scanning" of information is complicated, and for this reason, in perception the model created is generalized and slurred, and therefore carries a small volume of information. In this way, a similar richness of forms is not justified. (Ill. 2.1)
Aside from the quality of development, there is another factor which causes the historic environment to differ from the modern one. A person living in an environment always leaves in it a trace - of his work and simply the fact of his existence, in this way increasing the informational potential of the environment. There are sometimes apparent and sometimes imperceptible changes which a person produces in the environment, and this is a now still puzzling, but at the same time quite an existent phenomenon, as is the biological sphere and its traces. For this reason old towns possess such charm. Victor Hugo once said, "Each wave of time leavesits own strata, each generation - its trace, each person adds his stone". This is what lies in the basis of the effect of density and richness of a cultural layer, which is a part of the informational potential of an environment, that which always characterized old towns and territories in contrast with the scantiness of a cultural layer in new towns and territories despite how successfully they are built.
But,

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE ARCHITECT IN THE CREATION OF THE IMAGE OF A TOWN?

This general question includes several specific ones.
Does the architect participate in the creation of the image of a town? Of course, since he actively forms the environment and its informational potential.
But can he individually create the image of a town, even if he designs the town in its entirety? Of course not, since in the formation of the image of an environment, apart from architectural objects, many other motionless and mobile objects of design contribute, along with sounds, smells, and the presence of the people themselves that are living or have once lived there.
What is the main task for architects in the creation of the modern urban environment? Evidently, since its main shortcoming is in its low informational potential, it is in the maximal augmentation of informational potential. But, even an architect possessing a large reserve of ideas can "produce" a limited amount of new information in the sphere of architectural forms and their mutual placement in an expanse. Therefore it is important for each area of a newly created environment to have as many creators as possible.
It is for this reason that projects carried out by one, two, three authors, which imitate historical environments that throughout all time were richer in the information they carried, are always so out of tune. On the whole, the apologists of the "retro" style confuse purpose with consequences, informational richness of an environment with the concrete forms of its manifestation. And, they are wrong.
The right path is not the path of stylistic reminiscence, nor the path of nostalgic dreams, but instead the creation of an organic modern urban environment, however, an environment which is characterized by richness of its informational content. And one of the methods for attaining such a goal is the method of orientation towards the active formation of the environment of a town and consequently, its image, not only with the help of professional design work, but also with the help of the spontaneous work of the people who are living in this town. The method with which the images of towns were formed in historic epochs. (Ill. 3.2)
Until now, the matter in question was merely quantitative parameters of information carried by the urban environment. But its qualitative parameters are not of less importance.
Image in general, and especially the image of such a complex system as a town, is mosaic and unstable. It is different for different parts of the town and its fragments, for different times of the year and times of day, for different weather and lighting conditions, for holidays and weekdays, etc. It can come together in one whole image or crumble into a number of fragments. Finally, it is after all, subjective. It is different for children and adults, for women and men, for people of different social groups and psychological types. Moreover, it comes together under the influence of one or another affectAnd it comes under the influence of a moment in memory that surfaces and is colored by the immediate mood.
All the same, it is possible to talk of certain objective prerequisites for the formation of the desired architectural basis of the image of a town. The instruments for the creation of an image are professional methods and methods for the attainment of a needed scale of an environment, levels of its unity and diversity, ability to change and stability, and other characteristics. But these are already questions of professional proficiency - an independent topic and subject for an individual conversation.2


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1 The first edition of this article was published by the author under the same title in the journal "Architecture USSR" Vol. 7, 1983, pgs.36 - 39.
2 The mentioned topics were examined by the author in the following published documents:
- in the articles located on the author's current website: "Form in Architecture: An Outline of the Phenomenon"; "Architectural Scale: The Structure and Methods for Its Use"; "Urban Planning at the Turn of the 21st Century";
- in the text located on the author's current website : "Urban Planning Systems: Basic Principles";
And in the articles:
- "The Urban Environment: Unity and Diversity", Construction and Architecture of Moscow, Vol. 6 pgs 2-3, 1982. (USSR).
- "The Urban Environment: Stable or Modifiable? Mosproektovets Vol. 30, pgs 2-4,31; Vol. 31 pgs. 2-4; Vol. 32 pgs. 2-4. 1983 (USSR).
- "Metamorphoses of the Urban Environment", Architecture. Vol.10, pg.2, 1985. (USSR).

VIKTOR MASHINSKY
ARCHITECT
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