Masterpieces are a function of value: the ways in which it is assigned, exchanged, and agreed upon. In architecture, irrespective of the source that generates it, value is inherently dependent on pictures –their production and distribution– for it is pictures that funnel the discipline’s attention, shape its body of knowledge, and set the ingredients of debate, making visible the buildings and projects that ultimately weave an audience large enough to concur on the status of a masterpiece. As the currency of attention, the distribution and scope of pictures depends for its part on media, a key factor of the image economy that determines the allocation of value in each moment in history.
If new materials and building technologies have historically bred new masterpieces, the same could be said of new media. With the printing press, the treatise, the photograph, or the magazine, the image economy of architecture was profoundly restructured, and new mechanisms of value attribution were established in relation to a new media environment prone to certain types of reproductions and exchange dynamics.
As the last technology in this series and the dominant channel for the dissemination of contemporary architecture, the internet comes with its own picture economy. Unlike print media, characterized by a low reuse rate of content due to its physical nature, the net invests information with the capacity to reproduce ad infinitum, to reach everywhere instantly, and to associate in unpredictable ways. In an environment defined by immediacy and excess, the works that sustain themselves on the collective imagination are those that engender a multitude of promiscuous reproductions. As David Joselit puts it, on the internet “it is saturation through mass circulation –the status of being everywhere at once rather than belonging to a single place– that now produces value for and through images.”(1) Therefore, the value of the pictures that circulate in this medium is inherently bound to its ‘processability’,(2) that is, to its ability to be used and transformed into the genetic code of new creations.
Adaptability, dispersion, and catchiness hence become the main properties of a network aesthetics in which relational originality has substituted the modernist impulse for unprecedented novelty.(3) In this context, architectural masterpieces are not created, but distilled from populations of images that adopt and adapt certain tropes and iconic design moves.
A case in point would be the square openings that scatter on the façades of multiple buildings and projects all over the world. This design trope does not discriminate between scales, places, budgets, or programs, and stamps the resulting pictures with a distinctive contemporary mark. If we were to distill a prominent work from the corresponding iconic network, the one that most immediately comes to our mind –not to be confounded with ‘the original’– would be SANAA’s Zollverein School of Management and Design in Essen. A true masterpiece of the age of the internet, agreed upon adaptation and reuse, instead of reference. A work that will live on the discipline’s imagination as long as its expressive abstraction catches the attention of a myriad architects that weave their inspiration through the net.
1. David Joselit, After Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), p. 16.
2. William J. Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), p. 51.
3. Ana Miljacki, Under the Influence (Cambridge, MA: SA+P Press, 2013), p. 8.
Lluís J. Liñán studied architecture in Valencia, Vienna, and Madrid, and got his PhD in Architectural Design at Madrid ETSAM. He is Guest Lecturer at Umeå University School of Architecture, and part of rellam. From 2017 to 2020, he taught in the Master in Advanced Architectural Design at Madrid ETSAM and, from 2015 to 2017, he was Wortham Fellow at Rice University in Houston. His work addresses the links between web media and architectural design, has been published in journals such as Bracket and JAE, has exhibited twice at the Venice Architecture Biennale, was awarded with the Bauwelt Preis 2019, and can be checked at rellam.org.