The Kodak Moment

This page was originally part of the short-lived “Forgettable Buildings” experiment.

‘To be remembered’ is not typical criteria for constructing a building. Some buildings however — whether for reasons of spectacle, ego or bragging rights — are built to be seen and admired. In some cases that purpose seems to supplant all others.

Think of some well-known structures around the world: the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids at Giza, the Guggenheim in Manhattan (don't get me started about Gehry's monstrosity in Spain), the Empire State Building, the Sydney Opera House. I'd bet that most people can picture the majority of these buildings even if they've never seen them with their own eyes. For whatever reason, they've become icons. Most people probably picture the same postcard image as everyone else.

Such 'memorable' buildings are glorified and elevated to the status of monuments. Inevitably there is a plaque somewhere directing the spectators as to where they should plant their feet and observe the glorious object. How often do we see the interiors of these buildings and really, isn't that what we experience at a more human-scale anyways?

When I think of the many abandoned buildings I've visited, I rarely recall their exteriors. Frequently I'll leave only to remember that I forgot to photograph the exteriors. Everyday buildings don't attempt to be a 'sculpture in a landscape'. They weren't built to be admired as free-form objects, able to ignore their urban context. Most photos of abandoned buildings that I see typically depict the interiors — the details, the artifacts left behind, the way light infiltrates a space.

Maybe we don't accept that non-monumental buildings are worth regarding because we haven't been told that they can be monuments.

The unassuming facade in the first image above is a former office building for Kodak Canada. The designer's hand did not attempt to leave a fingerprint. This is the exact opposite intention of monumental structures. For that reason the building might as well be holding a giant sign that reads 'ignore me.' However, we have far more daily experiences with this type of building than with the Eiffel Tower type.

The depth of experiences I have with everyday mundane buildings far exceeds the memories of visiting any number of 'famous places.' In part this may be due to the way organized tourism compares to exploring a place on your own terms. To create a meaningful connection to a place requires multiple paths for interpretation and experience. Most 'look-at-me' buildings tend to simplify things until they become a literal one-liner.

Having lived in Rome for a number of months, I might be expected to have a closer relationship with its architecture. It's not the buildings themselves (as objects) that I remember — it's the events they facilitated. I remember drinking wine on the steps of the Pantheon. I remember the chaotic paths between our studio and Piazza Navona. It was the common architecture of the city that allowed many unscripted events.

To be fair, some examples I listed at the beginning of this entry did consider the overall urban fabric in their design and were truly more than just monuments for the sake of monument. The danger is that when we consider how the experience of these places is packaged we only see the superficial end-result — a statue to observe at a distance.

To my mind, good architecture allows things to happen in and around it but doesn't require you to take notice of the cause and it certainly doesn't require a 'Kodak Moment' plaque. Such a sign would be far more effective at getting me to leave an area than any 'No Trespassing' sign ever would.