What is Visual Culture?

I consider this to be an ambiguous term which represents either historically or contemporary, the trends of a society in a visual way.  As suggested within the Exploring Visual Culture book:  “The idea of culture has a complex history, and debates about its meaning have been linked inextricably with the parallel concept of ‘civilisation’ …“.  Political, economic and social changes within communities and countries can be reflected in the visual culture that is left behind.

By Luke Jerram, Deadly Glass

A good example of this is when scientists announced the reconstruction of the genome of the Black Death, one of the most notorious diseases in history.  The medieval bacteria that wiped out half the population of Europe prompted hundreds of artists, when the disease was at its peak to show a life of well-being, and afterwards to chronicle the horror.

Although it has been hundreds of years since a serious outbreak of the disease, it has continually been represented throughout the ages, and even in contemporary times it remains a source of artistic inspiration, acting as a reminder of the fragility of the human species against unseen bacteria?

According to the Exploring Visual Culture text “The term ‘culture’ only began to appear in the English language in the late 18th century and came into use alongside a number of other ideas, i.e.,  ‘industry’, ‘democracy’, ‘class and art’, which are still fundamental to how society is understood.  Within Britain the idea of culture arose partly in response to the impact of the Industrial Revolution…“.  Although the Industrial Revolution created wealth and greater opportunity for stable employment, it also attracted very large populations to areas where the industries were situated.  Hitherto creating problematic living conditions requiring solutions to be found along the way to combat them.  Meanwhile contemporary artists observe, document and reflect back what is going on in the world around them, using every means at their disposal.

After serious contemplation I have decided to reflect on Architecture & Visual Culture.  I find this area especially intriguing as a universal necessity.  As stated in Exploring Visual Culture “Works of architecture frame our lives;  we inhabit them;  they define our movement through cities;  they moralize and discipline, or attempt to“.

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959), Fallingwater, Kaufmann House,
Bear Run, Pennsylvania, 1936

Industrialization & Architecture, by using new materials the purpose and function of a building could be transformed to reflect a designers’ imagination,  allowing a building the gift of pleasant aesthetics as well as meeting the needs of many topographical, environmental and social problems.  However, industrialization is also the dominating factor with regard to sudden surges of immigration, creating new social problems because of insufficient housing stocks.  This means that the population of a specific area can be problematic (Mumbai Slums:  1 sq mile = 1 million people) and this should be a matter of great importance, rather than the global community prioritising Olympic Stadiums over a basic human need for hygienic living conditions.

Photograph by Jonas Bendiksen

A slum in Mexico city with approximately 4 million people
Source: National Geographic

However, as you can see from the satellite image above, which is the largest slum on the planet, there is a method in the madness.  These areas are the pinnacle of innovation in an ever-increasing global population, without the 7-year training required to be an architect.  They live within an ordered chaos, created by recycling unwanted materials.

As people continue to migrate away from rural areas and into cities, cities that are growing to devour the land around it, the numbers of people living in slums, shanty towns and ‘informal settlements’ are sky-rocketing.  Currently, there are 200,000 of these communities across the world (according to the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing) most of them in and around cities, and that number is growing exponentially.  Even before the economic crisis of 2008, about one-third of all city dwellers live in slums, slums which will grow in size by 1 million more people within the next twenty years.”  Daniel Tovrov  http://www.ibtimes.com/5-biggest-slums-world-381338

Purpose of a Building:  Now & Then,  Cultural differences in building materials have been de-fragmented over the years due to cost-effective globalization of the building trade.  For example, now-a-days it is not uncommon to find an English Country Home in America.  Considering the knowledge, materials and technology we have at our disposal it is a relatively simple task to create surroundings reflective of a cultural identity anywhere in the world.  Much of Western society has been influenced by the superior skills of the Romans with regard to Urbanization.  Massive buildings created to last for centuries, built to an exceptionally high standard?  And yet these were not created for everyone at any point in history.  The most impressive buildings were reserved for Royalty, Government, Art Galleries & Museums or Places of Worship.  After investigating the slums of the world, and taking the rise in global population into account it would not be economically viable to maintain an exceptionally high standard of social housing in all the places that need it most.

Being a Paisley Buddie myself I find this interesting.

In the 19th century industrialisation advanced so rapidly that the provision of new housing failed to keep up. The population rose as immigrants arrived to work in the town’s booming textile industry, and the town became overcrowded. The available housing was gathered close to the town centre factories and living conditions were poor for much of the population. This photograph shows slum buildings clustered close to the abbey. To escape the squalor, the manufacturing classes built themselves villas on the outer edges of town, such as at Castlehead and Renfrew Road.

I spent the first few years of my life in one of these temporary flats in the 1970’s.  Today many people are still shocked and surprised when I tell them we had a shared toilet in landing outside our flat.  We did not have a bathroom, and were bathed in a Belfast Sink (which was great when there was a St Mirren match on, or on Guy Fawkes as the window overlooked Love Street).  Blythswood Drive itself has been refurbished since then, now with toilets.  But the quality of the temporary flats still out-does the new-builds.

To re-iterate a previous statement from Exploring Visual Culture “Works of architecture frame our lives;  we inhabit them;  they define our movement through cities;  they moralize and discipline, or attempt to.”  The purpose of a building has not changed.  However, our knowledge about the social problems that can be created due to overcrowding and lack of amenities has.

In conclusion, the knowledge attained from the past shows there is an increased risk of disease in densely populated areas if there is a lack of sanitation, that potentially can become a global pandemic.  Hence it is a global incentive to ensure that affordable housing is created for those in densely populated areas.  This is Visual Culture at it’s best, a single image can provoke emotions strong enough to inspire change, hopefully for the better.  Obviously the solution for those more affluent would be to expand into outer areas.  As seen in the article about Paisley, this is not an entirely new concept, but thanks to technological advancement and innovation, where new buildings can be created is.  This poses an interesting challenge for contemporary design and architecture.

Tafline Laylin: Inhabitat

The image above represents a building made solely from recycled materials.  Could this be the future?  Obviously there has been a lot of thought put into the design, and it shows that with a limited budget and element  of expertise recycling can provide a higher standard of housing than that of the slums discussed previously.  The re-use of unwanted objects is also not a new concept to contemporary artists, but has evolved on a grander scale and provides innovation and inspiration for an uncertain population growing in a capitalised global future.

All photos are linked to further information.

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