If the drawings, models and other images that architects make form a language, then they live as other languages do in a world of grammar and meaning, capable of communicating everything from scientific specificities to poetic pluralities. They are also capable of describing, wishing, promising and outright lying. In the case of our problematic perspective which represents a possible world as if real, it’s worth asking if it is a performative or a seduction.
A performative is a kind of utterance, such as an oath or a promise, which does what it says. To say “I pledge allegiance...” is to pledge allegiance; to say “I promise” is likewise to promise. Of course, that’s where the action ends; the fulfillment of the promise itself is unfortunately outside of the boundaries of language. For example, I once promised to help others and be a sister to every other Girl Scout, I’m not sure I can claim to have done what I promised. But some performatives can be assessed for completion. If I promise to bring the beer to band practice, but fail to do so my future performatives may become suspect. The promise remains, in memory, as does its power to shape future behavior.
Now, a seduction is not technically a category of utterance, at least according to my sources, but it makes a useful rhetorical contrast for my purposes here. It may not always be clear in the moment whether something is an oath or a seduction--such confusion is the source of endless plotlines in film and music: think Meatloaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Light-- and one is rightly suspicious of the language, or image, that seems too glib, too good, too slick. In the CADmosphere the sky is always blue and the people translucent. Paul Patnode of the Environmental Simulation Center, with whom I shared a panel at the SIGGRAPH convention in New Orleans in August, distinguished between digital animations and digital simulations to the same end, suggesting that an animation is a seduction while a simulation is a performative. The animation, while in the guise of presenting a possible world, has discarded the responsibility of representing essential parts of reality. But a simulation becomes a kind of promise: this proposal will change the world thus. In this case all those elements of the world as it is are represented faithfully and the consequence of the new, not yet real, work changes the resonance of the possible like a note added to a chord.
When we represent a possible world we become responsible for everything in that world, inclusive of the kids, their balloons and the Mercedes, as constituents in the vision of what could be. The sharing of images of what could be, the essence of by-now familiar visual preference surveys, is the first step in motivating us to change. Change, as I’ve written about previously, is scariest as an abstraction. It becomes both doable and desirable when we can all envision how things might be. As architects take up the challenge—which they must do—to open the window to the view to better, sustainable worlds they need to reflect quite seriously on the difference between a performative and a seduction.