Space has an unimpeachable reality. But if we scan a history of how space has been drawn, either as representation of the world or as architectural proposition, we see just how fluid and varied conceptions of space have been.
Perspectives paradigm is not just a way of seeing or drawing the world, it is a fully complete world view. Not just optical, it is formed by a potent cocktail of religion, mercantilism, geometry and power. It acts not just as visual, representational space but as the site where the politics of space are gestated.
If we scan the history of spatial representation from, say, Neolithic cave paintings through medieval maps, Byzantine paintings, Asian hand-scrolls to Google Maps we see how different world views are codified through representation. We see space itself shifting like a camera pulling focus. Space flattens then deepens, while figures and objects become more embedded then float free from the page. Our point of view lurches and flips till our own coordinates become confused and a vertiginous, sickly dizziness takes hold.
Many of these kinds of space now seem anachronistic, illegible or just plain wrong. For us perspective drawing is the thing that seems real. It depicts an idea of space that seems to coincide with our conception of reality. We know where we are.
Yet, perspective is a system, not a reality. A system first described by Leon Battista Alberti in De pictura (1435).
“First of all, on the surface on which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is to be seen.[i]
Meanwhile, architect Filippo Brunelleschi ‘proved’ the accuracy of linear perspective by setting up a measured perspective painting of the Florentine Baptistry in front of the baptistry itself. With a hole drilled through the back of the painting and mirror placed in front, his experiment allowed the viewer to look through the hole, see the painting reflected by the mirror and observe how the measured perspective merged seamlessly with the reflection of the real world.
Perspective drawing through both Alberti’s ‘open window’ and Brunelleschi’s mirror reflection not only depicts the world but becomes the world. The medium appears as an entirely transparent depiction of the world, and our belief in its accuracy means we forget the prejudices, complexities, and ideologies that representation always contains.
Erwin Panofsky, in his seminal book Perspective as Symbolic Form, argues that linear perspective could only occur when a particular conception of the universe emerged. When a new religious conception of a singular, divine omnipresence meant that the infinite, and so the vanishing point, could be imagined.
To this we might add that it is no surprise that perspective emerged within the mercantile contexts of Renaissance Florence and Venice where the measurement of goods was fundamental to the accumulation of wealth and power.
In other words, perspective brought spiritual divinity and earthy pragmatism together into the same representational space. Perspective’s claim on the real was cemented because it resonated so deeply with how we imagine the world. And its power is not only in how it depicts the world but how it remakes the world it in its own form.
“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us,” John Culkin writes.[ii] This is just as true of architecture. Space – far from natural - is shaped by the tools and processes use to create it. Even before perspectival space is drawn it exerts its power to determine how things are shaped, how they are placed in the world, and how we are figured within space.
Perspective is not only an internal representational mechanism. It projects its ideal geometry outwards into the world. Sometimes with clear force. Soon after its invention perspective was deployed by the military for topographic surveying, for designing fortifications, and calculating projectile trajectories. Perspectives invention of the abstract horizon and its technological relationship to the devices of navigation were intertwined with colonialism. Here, we see how perspective has forced the world to conform to its own logic. It frames not only architectural propositions but creates the underlying structure of the proposition itself. We are not simply the observers of perspectival space, or its creators. We are the subjects of its idea of space.
Seen this way, the vanishing point is the location of all power: an infinitely distant and dense black hole that contains everything that could ever be imagined, the origin point of the world (or the end of the world).