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Writing on the Image: Architecture, the City and the Politics of Representation

Writing on the Image: Architecture, the City and the Politics of Representation
Mark Dorrian

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From an examination of the politically-laden spectacle of George IV's visit to Edinburgh in 1822 (as stage-managed by the celebrated novelist Sir Walter Scott), to an analyses of Google Earth's role in the construction of a new kind of political map (one that is no longer primarily structured by boundary lines and coloured territories, but instead through a politics of image resolution), the remarkable essays in this book present innovative ways of understanding visual phenomena in historical and contemporary culture. Writing on the Image brings together a series of Mark Dorrian's celebrated critical writings, developed over the last twelve years. Focusing on issues of elevated vision, spectacle, atmosphere and the limits of aesthetic experience, Dorrian explores the ideological effects of images, in their specific contexts, and the politics of representation. Seamlessly drawing together sources from architecture, art, literature, history, geography and film, the essays gathered here exemplify Mark Dorrian's pioneering 'post-disciplinary' approach to visual culture.Featuring a Foreword by Professor Paul Carter, and an Afterword by Dr Ella Chmielewska, Writing on the Image begins with a sequence of four historically-oriented chapters that lead onto the second half of the book, which deals with key events in architectural, urban and visual culture over the past decade.

Whether it be an eighteenth-century engraving that depicts a magnified drop of tap water as an alien planet swarming with monstrous creatures; an artwork showing a car with the silhouette of a building mounted on its roof; the covering up of a tapestry in the UN before a televised news conference; or a large-scale satellite image that is affixed to the basement floor of a public building, vertiginously dissolving its solidity, Dorrian finds each artefact or event he examines to be eloquent in its ability to problematise a larger set of relations beyond itself.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Paul Carter


Chapter 1
The King in the City: On the Iconology of George IV in Edinburgh

Chapter 2 
Cityscape with Ferris Wheel: Chicago 1893

Chapter 3  
Falling Upon Warsaw: The Shadow of Stalin’s ‘Palace of Culture’

Chapter 4   
Adventures on the Vertical: From the New Vision to Powers of Ten

Chapter 5   
‘The Way the World Sees London’: Thoughts on a Millennial Urban Spectacle

Chapter 6   
The Aerial Image: Transparency, Vertigo and Miniaturisation

Chapter 7   
Clouds of Architecture

Chapter 8  
Utopia on Ice: The Sunny Mountain Ski Dome as an Allegory of the Future

Chapter 9  
On Google Earth

Chapter 10   
Transcoded Indexicality

Chapter 11   
Voice, Monstrosity and Flaying: Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas as a Silent Sound Work

Chapter 12   
Architecture and A-disciplinarity?

Afterword by Ella Chmielewska

Author Info

Mark Dorrian is the Forbes Chair in Architecture at Edinburgh College of Art. Previously, he was at Newcastle University, where he was responsible for the creation of new research led postgraduate programmes in architecture and related disciplines. With Adrian Hawker he is co-director of the art, architecture and urbanism atelier Metis.


'Mark Dorrian takes in the surroundings that humans are making for themselves today with the keen and original sensitivity of a time-traveler new to the planet, who sees what others fail to see. Again and again in these remarkable analyses of territory and its uses, and of architecture and its transformations, Dorrian stretches our understanding, as he uncovers overlooked aspects of everyday life in the global scene. Writing on the Image unpacks surprising relations between technology and consciousness, between power interests and people. These essays are fresh, richly argued and combative – the effect is at once exciting and sobering.'
Marina Warner, Professor of English and Creative Writing, Birkbeck College, University of London

'With the eye of an architect, the pen of a poet, and the toolkit of a skilled critical urbanist, Dorrian brilliantly ranges over the terrain of a fully historified modernity and its representations - from enlightenment Edinburgh, eastwards and westwards, to the Googleplex and beyond. Out there on the high frontier of the spectacle.' 
Iain Boal, UC Berkeley / Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities

'In the spirit of the Adornian ‘constellation’, Dorrian here provides cultural readings that reveal as much about the ideology and social conventions materialised in urban artefacts and spectacle as about the more particular and fortuitous influences that have gone into their making and reception.  Reflecting the author’s special interests in elevated vision, cloud architecture and atmospheric politics, these essays are highly informative of the ways in which culture, both in the past and currently, animates its objects. Writing the Image offers uniquely valuable insights on the politics of representation in the city.' 
Kate Soper, Professor Emerita of Philosophy, London Metropolitan University

'This book of essays, written by one of our best contemporary critics, has a deeply persuasive and pleasurable splendour. The subtle weave and informed precision of its writing and thinking binds us to its subject matter – the 'unruliness of things' and the dilemmas of representation.'
Catherine Ingraham, Professor of Architectural History and Theory, Pratt Institute, NYC

'Writing on the Image is a collection of twelve beautifully written essays … [Dorrian’s] work demonstrates how particular cultural artefacts drive focussed criticism that needs to draw upon expansive investigation and understanding.  His essays challenge orthodoxies of architectural thought, demonstrating in manifold ways the involvement of the architectural object in complex relays of broader cultural, political and technical forces…'
The Journal of Architecture

'The essays [in Writing On The Image] are beautifully written, each a rich education … Short essays such as those found in this journal are 1,500 word abstracts to a discussion perhaps not yet written, perhaps fully-formed; they merely signal a wider, more complex discourse.  Mark Dorrian’s Writing On The Image is that discourse.  Each case study is embedded in a description of a world exposed to enormous historical and ethical and political forces.  His subjects, from Diller & Scofidio’s Blur to the images of ‘weapons of mass-destruction’ sites that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, are canaries reacting to the air in the mineshaft.' 
Stephanie White, On Site Review

'Writing on the Image is something of a model of the value of architectural theory, assailed as it is today by robot manufacture, religiose neo-vitalists and the eternal return of participatory design. These writings are exemplary in avoiding claims to some fundamental understanding of architecture visible beneath its technical determinations or historical roles. Dorrian’s essays are about representations of socio-political circumstances and about how representation itself is staged spatially. His work is thus grounded in history, yet the objectivity that Dorrian exercises in these analyses is not one of temporal distance, but, rather, a kind of topography that can range across physical sites and discourses found in the historical sediment … Dorrian’s is not the kind of writing that could be done without training and a deep engagement in architecture. At the same time, it is written for an audience across the humanities, without assuming knowledge of architecture or any particular interest in the issues of the profession. It is ... architectural theory, not as a pre-existing authority exercised over architectural problems, but as a kind of thinking that comes to the fore in tactically chosen encounters in a wider cultural history and politics … This is a work in which architecture is not the object for consideration in and of itself, but rather a lens through which to apprehend a broader set of relations.’
John Macarthur, Architectural Theory Review


“In the world of nuclear physics Enrico Fermi was recognized by his peers as being equally gifted as an experimentalist and as a theoretician. Dorrian is that rara avis, Fermi's equivalent in the world of architecture … Reading through these scintillating essays, I often heard echoes of the dialectics and the voice of the renegade American critic Kenneth Burke. I am certain he would have recognized Dorrian's writing as an exemplary case of homo scribens at full stretch, in the sense intended by Burke, I believe, when he summarized the capacity of our species - the 'human constitution' - in a typically wry inventory: 'the symbol-using animal, inventor of the negative, separated by instruments of its own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, and rotten with perfection.’” Radical Philosophy

Writing on the Image is a sort of anti-picture book where the language is at once complex, poetic and explanatory, catching at the history and reception of images … The objects of history and the contemporary world are interpreted critically and with wonderfully wilful play in the swinging analysis of each essay as connections are made and elaborated upon … Dorrian’s writing is richly engaging throughout, with unexpected revelations and insights across its negotiations between spectacle and detail, providing opportune evidence of a quietly political and benign criticality.” – Interstices: Journal of Architecture and Related Arts

Bibliographic Info

Imprint: I.B.Tauris
Publisher: I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd.
Series: International Library of Visual Culture

ISBN: 9781784530389
Publication Date: 29 Jul 2015
Number of Pages: 288
Height: 216
Width: 138
Illustrations: 45 bw integrated

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