Image alteration – intro to architectural theory assignment, 2003

A student of mine manipulated this famous image of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial for an assignment on myth and architecture. I had asked my students to read Roland Barthes’ Myth Today and to then select an important image from the history of architecture and to recode its “mythic” content based upon a select manipulation of that image. This student, Kylash Chintalapalli, dealt with the inherent nationalism of the original image. By removing both the Washington Monument and the family descending into the Vietnam Memorial, he highlighted the sense of loss and mourning of the soldier.

The assignment was inspired by Rachel Schreiber’s work with students at the Maryland Institute College of Art (1999-2007), where she asked them to transform the meaning of important images from the history of photography. I include a more extensive description of my architecture history/theory assignment below:

“Architecture, the Photographic Image, and Myth”

In his essay “Myth Today,” the French critic and theorist Roland Barthes described a type of symbolic communication method that he called “myth.” Myth, according to Barthes, relies on familiar, pre-conceived, and often clichéd imagery to communicate hegemonic social and political concepts. Myth relies on the supposed truthfulness of certain forms of communication — photographic images, journalism, cinema verite–to capture things “as they are.”  Myth relies on repetition to empower its own system of meaning. Myth, according to Barthes, is a depoliticized form of speech, an uncritical reflection of everyday practices and norms.  

The history of architecture is full of mythic photographic images—Corbusier’s placement of glasses and a hat on a table on the roof of the Villa Savoye; Mies staring at the frame of the Farnsworth House; Frank Lloyd Wright surrounded by adoring interns; Frank Lloyd Wright witnessing the indestructible columns of the Johnson Wax Headquarters; the implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project.  These images often are, or were, used to communicate the ideas of modern architecture; through subsequent use and repetition many have become myth. 

The Assignment: 

The assignment consists of three inter-related parts: Select a photograph from architectural history for analysis and manipulation that contains “mythic” content (in the Barthesian sense). In the first part of the assignment you are asked to discuss the mythic quality of the photograph, using both direct observations and some research about how the photograph has been used to communicate ideas. 

In the second part of the assignment you are asked to manipulate your selected photographic image, either by digital or mechanical technique or by re-staging the scene, in a way that transforms the meaning of the photograph. In the third part, you are asked to discuss the changes you made, and why they transform our fundamental understanding of the image’s meaning.

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