Plans and Aerial Photography: Reforming or Replacing Modernism?

This article was originally published in Horizonte 12, the student journal of the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, released in May 2018.

In 1965, a reasonable, if slightly paranoid, question rang out through San Francisco’s counter-cultural community of environmentalists, LSD experimenters, and hippies: “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” Printed on buttons, the question was posed by Stewart Brand in response to the human exploration of space. Meant to pressure NASA into releasing images taken on recent space missions, this quest was evidence of the growing need in the 1960s to see the world from a different point of view. The children of the post-war era had seen Sputnik arching above, photos from U-2 flights, and were developing a profound sense that, despite Cold War divisions of the world into political spheres of influence, the Earth was one. Cities had been demolished in the name of rationalized urban planning, favored by an ascendant and dominant capitalist bureaucracy, and Modernism was already suspect due to its reliance on a machine metaphor for functionalism even after a war that featured mechanized mass destruction rather than mass production. By the late ‘60s, there were two very different challenges to Modernism emerging in publications, each using a different means of conveying architectural information from above: the aerial photograph and the plan.

Once released, the image of Earth as seen from space adorned the cover of the first issue of the Whole Earth Catalog, a resource guide for a growing community of builders, activists, and back-to-the-landers who actively sought to challenge the automated and inflexible outcomes of Modernist orthodoxy, which they saw to be the cause of society’s ills.1 In sections with names like “Nomadics” and “Industry and Craft” the Whole Earth Catalog proposed a decentralized way of life. On the one hand, it was a mail-order catalog promoting all the necessities— instructional guides, farming tools, composting bins—for living off the grid. On the other, it theorized, through a handful of texts, an information theory-based method for bringing the world into balance.2 Throughout, architecture occupies an important place among the various skills and literatures needed for a rapid physical manifestation of this new utopian lifestyle.

A profile of Buckminster Fuller and excerpts from his books kick off the Catalog, later followed by listings for books by Frei Otto, Archigram, for the Inflatables Cookbook, and other examples of DIY construction. These all propose a dematerialized architecture, where buildings are freed from semiotics and solidity in order to serve as extensions of the human organism: second skins, protective membranes, skeletal systems, shells, and even body suits. That is to say, a rehabilitation of Modernist functionalism, this time based on a biological metaphor rather than a mechanical one.

This metaphor was put forward most strongly in the Whole Earth Catalog through visual means; aerial photographs served as the statements of this thesis. First, the cover, an image of the whole earth as seen from space, immediately conjured the Gaia hypothesis, the notion that the earth was a single organism, of which humans are merely cells. Then, on page six, aerial photographs—of river deltas, settlements, and topography—were juxtaposed with photographs of the human body—arm veins, hip bones, the surface of the skin.3 Altogether, it amounts to a powerful statement on analogous functions between organisms, the earth’s surface, and architecture.

Spread from the Whole Earth Catalog

Other publications from this time period picked up on this criticism of Modernism through a similar comparative play of images, not least the catalog for Architecture Without Architects, the 1964 MoMA exhibition curated by Bernard Rudofsky.4 Both the catalog and the exhibition attempted to define a glossary of urban formal typologies by grouping images of settlements from around the world into categories based on function—town structures, nomadic architecture, architecture by subtraction, storage fortresses, etc. Rudofsky repeatedly turned to aerial images to convey the full complexity of the built structures in question. Though geographical locations are noted, the survey builds a powerful argument in the pattern of Modernist internationalism—an argument based on functional similarities rather than cultural differences.

In fact, the juxtaposition of images from various cultures into a non-hierarchical and simultaneous display was most famously deployed in the 1955 travelling exhibition The Family of Man, which invited the viewer to compare images depicting how different cultures deal with aspects of life including work, dancing, marriage and death, with the viewer ideally concluding that humans are more similar than different.5 In his book The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties, Fred Turner terms this technique of using simultaneous visual inputs to advance the thesis of “the democratic surround.”6 The Architecture Without Architects exhibition catalog and the Whole Earth Catalog both use printed approximations of the surround to show that buildings and urban accretions are much like coral reefs—human exoskeletons serving the function of protection and definition of an individual’s space for growth. In these surrounds, aerial photographs do much of the heavy lifting.7

Spread from the Family of Man Spread from Architecture Without Architects

In the late 1960s there surfaced yet another effort to recuperate Modernism from its machine metaphor, but rather than relying on science and ecology, it relied on history and humanism; and rather than making an argument through aerial imagery, it put forward its theses through that clearest marker of architectural purity, that Modernist specialty, the plan.

In 1968, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, professor at the Pratt Institute and wife of László Moholy-Nagy, released Matrix of Man: An Illustrated History of Urban Environment, which purported to document the mutations of urban morphology from ancient times to the present day. (The title seems to have been chosen to position the book as an architecture-focused extension of The Family of Man.) The volume’s organizing schema groups the plans of various cities into formal typologies: geomorphic, concentric, orthogonal-connective, orthogonal-modular, and clustered. For example, she cites the Nahalal kibbutz, Vienna, and the Hittite Cincirli citadel as concentric cities, and Ostia, Zurich, and Cleveland as orthogonal-connective cities.

Despite the echoing of Architecture Without Architects’ formal approach, and the use of “environment” in the title of the book, Moholy-Nagy’s introduction begins with a broadside of invective against the architects and urbanists featured in the Whole Earth Catalog, with Buckminster Fuller, Archigram, and Christopher Alexander singled out for scorn. Following a block quote from Buckminster Fuller’s “Considerations for a Curriculum” she writes, “Such an idea might produce geodesic domes; it will never produce cities.”8 She then captions a comparison of network diagrams—systems theory has indeed arrived in architectural discourse—by sarcastically calling out their formal similarity: “Three sets of similar symbols represent problem solutions relating to totally dissimilar levels of human experience. Set (a) exemplifies the origin of spermatazoa and ovum; set (b) demonstrates Christopher Alexander’s momentous discovery that ‘a city is not a tree’; and set (c) is Constantine Doxiades’ attempt to hide an age-old platitude behind a spurious scientific facade.”9 Most damningly, she balks at an image of Archigram’s Plug-in City, noting how “The similarity between fascist systems—which subject each individual to the brutalizing regimentation of centralized dictatorship—and a computer-controlled environment system makes Orwell’s 1984 look positively humanistic.”10 In these three examples, Moholy-Nagy critiques the absence of the mark of the individual in these diagrams and designs; indeed, one could posit that she is searching for the hand of the designer.

Spread from Whole Earth Catalog

Elsewhere in the introduction, Moholy-Nagy states that the dictates of science are no substitute for the human genius. “This is a book about faith in the historical city,” she writes. “Although towns are inanimate, they assume the characteristics of their creators. Men create and destroy values with equal intensity.”11 Throughout, Moholy-Nagy imputes the will of designers, though many cannot be named, for the shape and texture of cities from all time periods. Ancient palace and temple compounds are called out for their internal axial relationships, early ground-up cities are lauded for their rationality, and even geomorphic cities are justified according to the will of the people who lived there. They are not the ad hoc agglomerations that you might find in Architecture Without Architects, which is colored by a detached, “objective,” approach. Unlike Rudofsky, who pulled structures from Africa, Asia, and South America, Moholy-Nagy does not venture far out of the Mediterranean basin and Mesopotamia, preferring examples of classical historicism to the global reach of Architecture Without Architects. She abstracts these examples further from their earthy context by portraying them in plan with their sites represented by the white of the page, subsumed into the flow of a timeline rather than that of space or function.

Matrix of Man is indeed a book of plans: of 299 illustrations in the book, just 13 are aerial photographs while 203 are of plans (Moholy-Nagy generally does not cite their creators). When she does use aerial photographs to illustrate her points, the purpose is generally to call out bad examples of urban design in the captions, undermining the usual link between illustration and explanation. Below an aerial photograph of Letchworth Garden, she writes, “Letchworth Garden City, planned by Parker and Unwin (1903) covered 4,500 acres for a planned population of 32,000, or which 1,500 acres were to be built up and 3,000 acres retained as permanent greenbelt. After World War II, the town had only 15,000 inhabitants.”12 Indeed, the plan contains the hope of the designer and the indeteminacy inherent in not yet being realized; by contrast the aerial photograph portrays what already exists and this is often disappointing.

Spread from Matrix of Man

Another of these remarkably frank captions showcases Moholy-Nagy’s unease with postwar tendencies in Modernism. Below an image of La Chaux-de-Fonds, the small, clockmaking Swiss town where Le Corbusier was raised, she speculates, “Perhaps it was relentless linearity and drabness of its streets that inspired in him the hatred of the closed communications network that determines urban existence. Though Le Corbusier travelled over the world and his notebooks show a superb awareness of historical continuity, he never experienced the street as the riverbed of human existence.”13 She then goes on to critique the urban planning efforts of her late husband’s Bauhaus-affiliates, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Ludwig Hilbersheimer.14

There is something odd about this reversal against the work of László Moholy-Nagy’s cohort, yet another gap between the position of Matrix of Man and the positions adopted by Architecture Without Architects and the Whole Earth Catalog: Sibyl Moholy-Nagy is also rejecting the mediatic strategy that the Bauhaus diaspora brought with them to the US—the surround. The success of this mediatic strategy was part of the influence exerted by figures like Herbert Bayer and László Moholy-Nagy on Edward Steichen and other figures of the American cultural industry and thus on the design for the Family of Man.15 The simultaneous relay of disparate imagery creates room for the viewer to choose the direction of attention in opposition to the strictly linear flow of information Moholy-Nagy glorifies in her description of the deficiencies of La Chaux-de-Fonds with its lack of a “closed network” and a “riverbed of human existence.” This open nature of the surround as a media form is one that was used to great effect in 1959 to spotlight authoritarian tendencies in the Soviet regime by the Eameses. Moholy-Nagy’s rejection of this form in adopting subsequent plan illustrations and linear flows is all the more surprising when one looks at her first book, Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture (1957), with its juxtaposed imagery of various types of vernacular dwellings, seemingly riffing on the format of the catalog for Family of Man and anticipating that of Architecture Without Architects.

Spread from Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture

At the same time she raises up the genius of ancient city-builders or nineteenth-century planners, she tears down the Modernist authors as well as the hubristic scientist. “Twentieth-century man is drunk with achievements in one single field of human endeavor: science. Full of self-adoration because he has created a technological-industrial discipline without precedent, he thinks he has severed his ties with historical continuity. In the manner of an adolescent, blissfully ignorant of the fact that the first intimations of adulthood are generic rather than individual, scientific man fancies himself his own beginning.”16 The plan is one of the few visual means that can handle this oscillation between description and design: it itself is authored, and is elastic enough to reveal intentionality where there is none, while also retreating to the objectivity of authorlessness by purporting to accurately represent what exists on site. But this accuracy the plan delivers is an abstraction: no one can ever perceive a structure isometrically, in projection without perspective. The plan could represent the timeless tradition of history, while also inviting the viewer to impute rationality and consistency as the work of a single mind.

There were other theorists putting forward similar ideas at the time. Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, for example, was another work powerfully undoing the work of Modernism. Initially released as an excerpt in Perspecta 9/10 in 1965, and then as a book in 1966, it makes heavy use of plans to illustrate its argument: of 350 images, 78 are plans and only three are aerial photographs. Venturi’s book invites the contradictions inherent in the plan as a means of conveying information. Together, books like Complexity and Contradiction and Matrix of Man ignited the postmodern strain of historical revisionism that marked the ’70s and ’80s.

Spread from Complexity and Contradiction

And so, once again, we can characterize two different challenges to Modernism mobilizing two different strategies for visualizing architectural information: a counter-cultural and scientific strain of media which adopted the aerial photograph often replicating the surround on paper, and a historicizing and humanist revolt against the hegemonies of both Modernism and science using, somewhat ironically, that quintessential Modernist form, the plan. But really, what is so different in the disposition of the aerial photograph and the plan that they would lend themselves to such a neat split in architectural and urban discourse?

Both begin with an initial framing of a territory, but all that follows is different.The aerial photograph imposed a grid, either of emulsion grains or pixels, and then flattens terrain into a non-hierarchical matrix of color values. The plan, by contrast, necessitates authorship and decision-making at every step in its creation. To paraphrase Gregory Bateson, a territory is composed of continuous gradients but in order to map it, a mind must decide where the boundaries between different conditions lie, and at that boundary, it must draw a line.17 A photograph is a raster image where a plan is a vector image; one defines a field where the other defines directions of movement. A photograph is theoretically objective, the framing of it the only act of authorship possible in its creation. A plan is elastic, can stretch reality and can even lie. An aerial photograph shows what is, a plan what can be.

Spread from Matrix of Man

Writing from fifty years later, it is easy to fill in the trajectories of these two media forms as applied to the spatial disciplines. Historicist Postmodernism with its attendant reliance on the plan succeeded in replacing Modernism as the style of corporate globalism, becoming the ultimate face of triumphant capitalism during the Reagan years and ricocheting even today in the quasi-historical mirrored-glass monsters that pepper the globe from Moscow to Dar es Salaam, Istanbul to Taipei.

The aerial photograph quickly became digital: Kevin Kelly, one of the major forces behind the Whole Earth Catalog, started Wired magazine while Silicon Valley pioneers such as Steve Jobs would cite the Catalog’s mantra, “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”18 Aerial photographs are now accessible in the pockets of a large portion of the world’s population via Google and Apple Maps, and have gained the ability to lie just as well as plans.

The aerial photograph lent itself to use by the ’60s counter-culture and “scientific” architects as it could mark an expanse for exploration, for deployment of nomadic DIY structures and geodesic domes. It also could show that what already existed was enough, that the world was already whole, and that humans simply needed to make peace with it.19 The plan lent itself to a rising history-driven Postmodernism as it could represent rationality and intention, and could also represent futures full of complexity and contradiction. Because what authors like Sibyl Moholy-Nagy and Robert Venturi disliked above all else was the present they found themselves in.

Thanks to Samuel Medina for his valuable advice on this essay, and to Keller Easterling for inspiring my interest in these subjects.
1. This image was taken by the unmanned satellite ATS-3 on November 10, 1967.
2. These works include the General Systems Yearbook, Christopher Alexander's Notes on the Synthesis of Form, D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form, and Norbert Weiner's The Human Use of Human Beings, among others.
3. Whole Earth Catalog. Menlo Park, Calif: Portola Institute, 1968. Page 6. This page compares The World From Above (1966) by Hanns Reich and Surface Anatomy (1965) by Joseph Royce.
4. Architecture Without Architects was in fact featured in later issues of the Whole Earth Catalog under the section “Shelter and Land Use.”
5. To emphasize the point, the exhibition and catalog are accompanied by a poem. A representative excerpt: “People! flung wide and far, born into toil, struggle, blood and dreams, among lovers, eaters, drinkers, workers, loafers, fighters, players, gamblers. Here are ironworkers, bridgemen, musicians, sandhogs, miners, builders of huts and skyscrapers, jungle hunters, landlords and the landless, the loved and the unloved, the lonely and abandoned, the brutal and the compassionate—one big family hugging close to the ball of Earth for its life and being.” Carl Sandburg. Prologue. The Family of Man. Edward Steichen, ed. New York, NY: the Museum of Modern Art, 1955. Page 2.
6. Turner defines surrounds as “multi-image, multi-sound-source media environments.” Fred Turner. The Democratic Surround: Multimedia & American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013. Page 3.
7. Another Rudofsky exhibition at MoMA, Are Clothes Modern? (1944), critiques the non-shelter (semiotic, social) functions of clothing and shows that designed extensions of the human body had long been on his mind.
8. Sibyl Moholy-Nagy. Matrix of Man: An Illustrated History of the Urban Environment. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1968. Page 13.
9. Ibid., page 14.
10. Ibid., page 15.
11. Ibid., page 11.
12. Ibid., page 255.
13. Ibid., page 274.
14. Ibid., pages 277-278.
15. For more on the connections between the Bauhaus diaspora and exhibition design at the Museum of Modern Art, see “The New Language of Vision” in Fred Turner’s The Democratic Surround (pages 77-114).
16. Matrix of Man, page 12.
17. See “Form, Substance and Difference” in Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1972. Pages 318-328.
18. This aphorism was printed on the back cover of the 1974 issue of the Whole Earth Catalog. Steve Jobs quoted it in his address at the 2005 commencement ceremony at Stanford.
19. The back cover of The Last Whole Earth Catalog (1971) states above another image of the earth, “We can’t put it together. It is together.”


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