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The View from the Car and the Architects’ Mobilized Gaze: Reinventing Perception and Representation

The exhibition The View from the Car: Autopia as a New Perceptual Regime that will open at the Baubibliothek of ETH Zürich on September 15th deals with the topic of the automobile, that has reshaped our conceptions of space and our modes of accessing and penetrating the urban and non-urban territories. By doing so, it has been revolutionizing how we perceive the city and contributing significantly to the transformation of the relationship between architecture and the city. Instead of functioning simply as a tool to document visual impressions during travel, the view from the car as a new perceptual regime plays an important role in shaping the architects’ own architectural and urban design strategies. The exhibition is related to the postdoctoral research project entitled The Travelling Architect’s Eye: Photography and Automobile Vision I conducted at the Department of Architecture of ETH Zürich1.


Text: Marianna Charitonidou, 14. September 2021
Credit Line: Venturi, Scott Brown Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives.


The view from the car has established a new episteme of the urban landscape and the territory at large. “Like earlier generations of English intellectuals who taught themselves Italian in order to read Dante in the original, I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original”2 marks Reyner Banham in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. The impact of the automobile on architecture is also centered in Kevin Lynch’s two films View from The Road (1965) and Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles (1972). Both films can help us grasp why architects became increasingly aware of the impact of the car. Former should be interpreted in relation to the research project Perceptual Form of the City (1954-1960), led by Kevin Lynch and György Kepes, that focused on the cities of Boston, Massachusetts, Los Angeles, California, Jersey City and New Jersey. Another important study dealing with the influence of the car on the perception of the city’s architecture and the aesthetics of urban highways is Donald Appleyard, Kevin Lynch, and John Myer’s The View from the Road (1964). Through their explorations with new interpretative drawings such as space motion, orientation and sequence diagrams, the researchers established an ensemble of methods aiming to represent and reflect upon various aspects that characterize car travel such as the “presumed tempo of attention”, “the points of confusion” or “the points of decision”. The main objective of the studies that resulted in the correspondent film was to shape new representational strategies capable of addressing in an efficient way “the new world of vision inherent in our speed of movement [and] […] the highway experience”. Lynch, Appleyard and Myer were convinced that it was necessary “to increase our skill in making predictions of the visual effect of a proposed sequence”3. They also believed that the phenomenon of continuous motion characterising car travel is directly linked to a shift of how the meaning of the visual landscape is communicated.

Alison and Peter Smithson’s automobile vision
Two books that are pivotal to understand the epistemic shift in architecture related to the automobile are the above mentioned Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, which places the car at the centre, and Alison Smithson’s much less known AS in DS: An Eye on the Road. The latter deals with a new kind of freedom and sensibility as a result of the automobile. In its introduction Alison Smithson describes the book as “a Diary of a Passenger’s View of Movement in a Car”. She also notes that “the passenger view from the front seat of a car in the early seventies was worth recording”. AS in DS: An Eye on the Road was an attempt to describe the notions that emerged to address about the impact of the car and automobile vision on architecture and town planning. In chapter three, titled “Aspect 3: The New Resulting from the Moving View of Landscape” Alison Smithson states that the spontaneity concerning the ways in which one can penetrate the territory when travelling by car emerges a new kind of freedom. In contrast to the travel by train, that is pre-determined, during car travelling one is free to choose one’s own trajectory. This freedom of penetrating the territory according to one’s own desire goes hand in hand with the reinvention of how one sees it. This becomes evident in Alison Smithson’s insistence about the necessity to “generate a rethinking of the many basic assumptions related to our ‘inherited’ way of seeing landscape and towns” and to establish “a fresh understanding of what sort of places we wish to build towards”4. The Smithsons were convinced that the act of viewing the urban landscape out of the automobile was one key factor for inventiveness in architecture in their time. Since loving to travel by car, they owned several Citroëns: in chronological order, a Citroën DS 19 with translucent fibreglass roof, a dark silver Citroën DS 19 with round headlights, a white Citroën DS Safari, a silver Citroën CX and a dark bronze Citroën XM.


The impact of Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi
Denise Scott Brown’s photographs are representative of the epistemic shift related to the automobile but John Lautner, Alison and Peter Smithson and Aldo Rossised to take many photographs from the car during their travels. Relating the different photographic approaches with their architectural design methods, one can discern how the practice of taking photographs can function as a means of establishing a new episteme. The vision from the automobile helped those architects to discover new ways of perceiving the urban landscape, and new ways of penetrating it. Architects, in the framework of their endeavour to capture the concreteness of these new ways, use means such as photography, film, mapping methods and diagrams. The intention to capture the automobile vision and to incorporate it within architectural design practice led to their encounter with various methodological questions: Which are the most efficient tools for transferring the vision from the car to design approaches and which is the most convenient way of representing the seriality and sequentiality characterizing this vision? The diagrams that Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour produced in collaboration with their students for Learning from Las Vegas are among the most enlightening endeavours to respond to these questions. The diagrams are expressions of their intention to see urban reality in its concreteness, leaving behind any prejudices concerning the snapshot aesthetics that are associated with the view from the car. Their photographs, films and diagrams were conceived as complementary tools aiming to render explicitly how the quick change of views while driving though a landscape promotes a snapshot aesthetics and connects to memory in a different way based on the superimposition and juxtaposition of visual impressions. In parallel, they challenge the dichotomy between the stimulatory and the documentary value of visual representations. Regarding the interrogation whether photography or film is more relevant for capturing the snapshot aesthetics related to the view from the car, Denise Scott Brown remarked in “Learning from Pop”, an essay originally published in Casabella in 1971: “New analytic techniques must use film and videotape to convey the dynamism of sign architecture and the sequential experience of vast landscapes.”5 Scott Brown believed that only film was compatible with the desire to capture the dynamic development of cities. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown used extensively proto-filmic sequences because they thought that they are efficient for conveying the view from the car, and for capturing “the unmediated juxtaposition of fragments of reality”6.


Photography and the design process
The way architects take photographs or films from the car is related to the way they conceive architectural design processes, in the sense that – in many cases – they use them to confirm or reinforce their design arguments. In parallel, there is often an interest in particular typologies that are related to car culture, such as the parking lots or other building typologies that one encounters while traversing the highways and freeways. In taking photographs of these new typologies and signs the architects do not only document reality without interpretation. The specificity of their technique, as well as the choice of certain typologies and/or signs that they encountered during their car travels is closely related to the way they interpreted architecture as a symbolic mode of communication. Therefore, instead of functioning simply as a tool serving to document the visual impressions during the travel, photography from the car plays an important role in shaping the architects’ own architectural and urban design strategies. Tools coming from the domain of semiotics and semiology, which both refer to the “logos” of the signs, were activated by architects to grasp this new reality and to make sense of it.


The Exhibition
These reflections are at the centre of the exhibition The View from the Car: Autopia as a New Perceptual Regime I have been curating. The exhibition includes an online appearance, an online archive and a real space exhibition that will be shown from September 15th to the 15th of October at the Baubibliothek of ETH Zürich. The aim is to state the impact of the car on the way we perceive architecture and the city. The view from the car changed architecture fundamentally. Despite the fact that the visions around the automobile have been pivotal for western culture, especially during the modernist and postmodernist era, nowadays its role is questioned or at least transformed within the context of a sustainable future. This makes the questions addressed through the exhibition even more topical, given that the current situation could be characterized as a turning point regarding our perception of the car. Through the visual juxtaposition of photographs, taken throughout the twentieth century from the car while travelling or in relation to the car, the exhibition provides an overview of the role of car-based photography in the reinvention of architectural and urban design strategies. Through the display of photographs taken by architects such as Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, Alison and Peter Smithson, Sigfried Giedion or Heinrich Helfenstein as well as diagrams and drawings assembled from various collections, the exhibition presents how the perception of urban and non-urban landscapes from the car triggered new representational regimes. Nowadays, we are situated within a context that corresponds to a shift regarding what we could call automobile vision. Within this context the relationship between the automobile and architecture is topical. The exhibition aims to establish a cross-cultural and transdisciplinary dialogue regarding the epistemological mutations related to the new perceptual and representational regimes that emerged in our experience of urban and non-urban landscapes. Its objective is to convey visually the effect that the view from the car had on architectural and urban design methods.

Opening event: Tomorrow, September 15th at 5pm at the Baubibliothek ETH Zurich


1 Two articles I published in relation to this project are the following: Marianna Charitonidou, "Autopia as new perceptual regime: mobilized gaze and architectural design", City, Territory and Architecture 8(5) (2021). on:; Marianna Charitonidou, "E-Road Network and Urbanization: A Reinterpretation of the Trans-European Petroleumscape", Urban, Planning and Transport Research 9 (1) (2021): 408-425. on:  
2 Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), forward by Joe Day, introduction by Anthony Vidler (Berkeley, California; London: University of California Press, 2009), 5.
3 Donald Appleyard, Kevin Lynch, John Myer, The View from the Road (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1964), 63.
4 Ibid., 23.
5 Denise Scott Brown, “Learning from Pop”, in Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, The View from the Campidoglio. Selected Essays 1953-1984 (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 28-31. Originally published in Casabella, nos 359–360 (1971): 15-23.
6 Martino Stierli, Las Vegas in the Rearview Mirror: The City in Theory, Photography, and Film (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2013), 42.
This work was supported by ETH Career Seed Grant SEED-18 20-1


> On the work of Robert Venturi und Denise Scott Brown.

> On the topic of architectural relations between Switzerland and the USA.

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