Conference PaperPDF Available

Marianna Charitonidou, “The Travelling Architect;s Eye: Photography and Automobile Vision”, in Marco Pretelli, Rosa Tamborrino, Ines Tolic, eds.,La città globale. La condizione urbana come fenomeno pervasivo/The Global City. The urban condition as a pervasive phenomenon (Turin: AISU, 2020), 684-694.



The paper sheds light on the status of travel-photography, focusing on a close examination of the photographs taken by the architects John Lautner, Alison and Peter Smithson, and Aldo Rossi during their travels by car, with special emphasis on those taken from the automobile. It explores the hypothesis that the view from the car has reshaped our conceptions of space, revolutionising the way we perceive the city, and significantly transforming the relationship between architecture and the city.
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e paper sheds light on the status of travel-photography, focusing on a close examination of the
photographs taken by the architects John Lautner, Alison and Peter Smithson, and Aldo Rossi
during their travels by car, with special emphasis on those taken from the automobile. It explores
the hypothesis that the view from the car has reshaped our conceptions of space, revolutionising
the way we perceive the city, and signicantly transforming the relationship between architecture
and the city.
Automobile; Travel photography; Snapshot aesthetics
e objective of this paper is to investigate the status of the photographs and sketches that
the architects John Lautner, Alison and Peter Smithson, and Aldo Rossi used to make
during their travels by car. Its point of departure is the hypothesis that the view from the
car has established a new epistemology of the urban landscape and the territory at large.
One of the main reasons I have chosen to focus my research on photographs taken from
the car by John Lautner, Alison and Peter Smithson, and Aldo Rossi is the observation
that all of them shared an interest in taking photographs from the car and a conviction
that automobile transport helps the traveller to grasp urban landscapes and territories
in a dierent manner, oering the possibility to approach the landscape dierently and
understand its constituent logics in a novel way. Moreover, they were all attracted to the
banal beauty of urban and suburban infrastructure. Pivotal for understanding what is
at stake in the case of street photography, urban photography and photography from
the car are the exhibitions e Car and the Camera: e Detroit School of Automotive
Photography (Detroit Institute of Arts, 1996), and e Open Road: Photography and
the American Road Trip (Milwaukee Art Museum, 2018). e latter was based on the
interpretation of the photographic road trip as a genre in its own right, tracing pho-
tographic road trips from Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank – whose 1955
travels resulted in e Americans (1958). e exhibition Open city: street photographs
since 1950 (Museum of Modern Art Oxford, 2001 and Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture
The Travelling Architect’s Eye: Photography and Automobile Vision
Garden in Washington, D.C., 2002), but more importantly Lee Friedlander: America
By Car (Whitney Museum of American Art, 2010) are also valuable for this study. e
latter displayed a collection of 192 images taken by Friedlander from his car. Pioneers
in the domain of street photography are Robert Frank and Walker Evans. e former
embarked on a photographic project, in 1955, with the objective «to photograph free-
ly throughout the United States, using the miniature camera exclusively» [Alexander
1986, 13]. Younger photographers who also specialised in street photography are Lee
Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus. Ed Ruschas self-published book Every
Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) is also an important reference regarding the “snap-
shot aesthetics” characterising the act of taking photographs from the car. e common
ground among these photographers was the elaboration of a “snapshot aesthetics” cap-
turing contemporary urban life in its ordinariness and banality.
ere has as yet been no comprehensive research centred on photographs taken by
architects during journeys by car. However, an important study dealing with the in-
uence of the car on the perception of the architecture of the city and the aesthetics
of urban highways is Donald Appleyard, Kevin Lynch, and John Myer’s e View from
the Road (1964). Reyner Banhams seminal book Los Angeles: e Architecture of Four
Ecologies (1971) places the car at the centre, as does Alison Smithson in the much less
known AS in DS: An Eye on the Road (1983). e latter refers to «a new kind of free-
dom oered by the car» [Smithson 1983, 23], as well as to «the new sensibility result-
ing from the moving view of landscape» [Smithson 1983, 47]. In parallel, she insists
on 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 under-
standing of what sort of places we wish to build towards» [Smithson 1983, 23]. Travel,
Space, Architecture (2016), edited by Miodrag Mitrasinovic and Jilly Traganou, ex-
amines the inuence of mobility on architecture in the global era. Traganou observes
that «the valorization of distance, has […] characterised contemporary architectural
discourse» [Traganou 2016, 21], examining the manner in which much of the archi-
tecture theory promoted by renowned practising architects has emerged as a result
of their journeys. Urban historian Christine Boyer, in e City of Collective Memory:
Its Historical Imagery and Architectural Entertainments (1996), has shed light on the
relationship of the act of travelling, in the case of architects, with the simultaneous
perception of «travel narratives, history books, historical painting, and architectural
ruins» [Boyer 1996, 228]. She also interpreted «traveling, visiting museums, studying
maps, gazing upon architecture, and even observing a city’s plan» as optical means
employed by architects in order to organise their «visual memory» [Boyer 1996, 230].
e importance of travel for this organisation is evident in the case of Aldo Rossi, who
took notes in his 47 so-called quaderni azzuri (1968-1986), strongly reminiscent of
travel diaries, both in form and content. On the cover of many of them, he noted the
travels to which each one pertained. e paper intends to address in a systematic way
how the “snapshot aesthetics” of the architects’ act of taking photos from the car re-
veals their core epistemological concerns and is informative regarding the key issues
of their architectural design strategies.
686 
equivalents of cameras
American architect John Lautner, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, practiced primarily
in California, focusing on the design of residential buildings of which the main charac-
teristic, pivotal for my research, is their strategy of enhancement of panoramic views.
One should not forget the signicant connection of John Lautner’s work with the specif-
ic cultural and geographical context of Los Angeles. As Joh Yoder underscores regarding
Lautner, «although popular magazines celebrated his projects during his design prime
in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, architectural periodicals largely ignored his work» [Yoder
2014, 45]. Playboy and other popular magazines, for instance, published Lautner’s pro-
jects when specialised architecture journals did not. Of great importance for my re-
search are Lautner’s own photographs and slides taken during his travels. e fact that
he used to take his own photos gives us the opportunity to closely examine his vision
regarding not only his own buildings, but also the dierent landscapes he encountered
during his many travels. In his archives, tens of thousands of slides can be found, illus-
trating trips throughout the United States, Eastern and Western Europe, Scandinavia,
Mexico, Brazil, Japan, ailand, and Egypt. ese photographs of landscapes can inform
us on the specic vision that his own buildings introduced and vice-versa. Lautner’s
own travel slides constitute a precious resource allowing to suggest an answer to this
question, since they represent a visual record equivalent to the more usual sketchbook
used by many architects to record their study notes. His buildings trigger an ocular-cen-
tric vision which cannot but be related to the pre-eminence of landscape views in his
conceptual edice, as emerges not only in his architecture but also through the views
he captured on camera when confronted with various landscapes. Lautner’s work is
closely connected to the automobile-centred style, called “Googie”, a term introduced
by Douglas Haskell in the February 1952 issue of House and Home magazine in order to
describe Lautner’s 1949 design for Googies coee shop, now demolished.
Lautner’s buildings can be understood as apparatuses that were conceived with the pri-
mal purpose of accommodating views. is understanding of his buildings as equiva-
lents of cameras is informed by the fact that, on many of his sketches and drawings, he
notes the words “eyelidsand eyelashes”. Regarding the primacy of panoramic views
for his buildings, Lautner noted: «Usually in the hills you have a panoramic view that
people are interested in right away, and so most of my things are curved» [Lautner 1986,
15-19]. In these words, it becomes evident that Lautner’s houses operate as cameras.
Lautner’s buildings open to a panoramic view of the landscape all at once. Regarding the
way in which Lautner’s spaces seek to embrace views all at once, the following words are
telling: «When standing on a site I search for its particular and unique expression with
all my senses. e sweep of my eye and what it embraces merge through years of work
and experience with all I have learned and come to know». Regarding his choice to con-
struct Chemospheres glass surfaces that tilt inward at the top, Lautner had also noted: «I
wanted it to work like a penthouse overlooking the Valley. I purposely sloped the glass
in so when you stand up against it you can’t look straight down. You are forced to look
The Travelling Architect’s Eye: Photography and Automobile Vision
at the magnicent view» [Alvensleben 1991, 25]. Lautners photo of Elrod House where
the residence is depicted next to the automobile invites us to reect on an analogy be-
tween the automobile as a dispositif of encountering new landscapes and the residence
as a dispositif of embracing visually the surrounding landscape (Fig. 1).
e automobile appealed to Lautner – in contrast with the architectural critic Reyner
Banham who did not start driving before his 40s and his photo-shots taken during
trips are oen the quick views or snapshots of a moving viewer. Worth mentioning
is the contrast between Banham’s admiration for Los Angeles and Lautner’s scepti-
cism towards the city. Symptomatic of Lautner’s unenthusiastic rst impression of Los
Angeles is his following declaration: «Oh it was depressing: when I rst drove down
Santa Monica Boulevard, it was so ugly I was physically sick for the rst year I was here».
is contrast between the two men’s opinions on the city should be understood in con-
junction with how each of them photographed landscapes during their travels. Banham
was enthusiastic about the drive-centred culture of Los Angeles, as becomes evident not
only in his seminal book Los Angeles: e Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971) but also
in his early article Vehicles of Desire (1955).
688 
ordinary and the “as found”
British architects Alison and Peter Smithson stand amongst the most inuential of
post-war architects. Central to their work was a concern with the ways we identify
ourselves with places in a context of change. ey were, arguably, among the protag-
onists of the New Brutalism, and were also members of e Independent Group art
movement, along with photographer Nigel Henderson and sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi,
and the group of architects known as Team 10. e photographs included by Alison
Smithson in her book entitled AS in DS: An Eye on the Road (1983), which was cut
in the plan-shape of the car (Fig. 2). It was the result of observing the landscape on
journeys from London to Wiltshire in the countryside of South-West England, where
e Upper Lawn Pavilion – Alison and Peter Smithson’s weekend home, also known
as the Solar pavilion – was located. Driving a Citroën DS, they captured impressions
corresponding to what we could call repetitive travel, since they were taken during
their car-drives back and forth from their weekend house (Fig. 3). Interestingly, the
Smithsons acquired several Citroën DS models in succession: rst the less expensive
ID, then the DS 19, and nally the station wagon DS Safari. Besides the photos the-
matised in AS in DS: An Eye on the Road, depicting landscape views of the British
countryside, Alison and Peter Smithson also took many photos during their summer
vacations. e Smithsons also used some photographic series, which are part of their
archives – such as the views taken from the car in regions of Southern France includ-
ing Marseille and Toulouse –, in a rhetorical way in their teaching, publications and
conferences. ese photographs do not function as raw data since they were select-
ed and edited according to the rhetorical objectives of the architects. In this sense,
photos were employed by the architects under study as an analytical tool serving to
inform their designerly attitude.
2:AS in DS: An Eye on the Road 
The Travelling Architect’s Eye: Photography and Automobile Vision
Alison Smithson, in the introduction to AS in DS: An Eye on the Road, 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 re-
cording». ought provoking is the third chapter of the book entitled Aspect 3: e
New Sensibility Resulting from the Moving View of Landscape, which can help us better
grasp how ways of seeing are conceptualised in the new context of mobility due to
car travelling. Characteristically, regarding the role of the car in this mutation, Alison
Smithson notes the following: «Our sensibilities have been aected by our use of our
‘room of wheels’ but also, there comes a new awareness of the responsibilities inher-
ent in our comfortable view of just anywhere. Our idea of quality of space, our will to
bring though quality in all things, these should also be aected by our possession of a
cell of perfected technology» [Smithson 1983, 111]. Changing the Art of Inhabitation:
Mies’ Pieces, Eames’ Dreams, e Smithsons. (1994) and e Space Between: Alison and
Peter Smithson (2017), are illustrated with drawings and photographs mostly by the
Smithsons themselves. ese photographs can help us understand the importance of
capturing the identity of places and of daily life for these architects, who were particu-
larly interested in the notion of “sensibility of place”. e possibility to capture various
impressions from the car while traveling contributed to their endeavour to grasp what
they call “sensibility of place”.
3:AS in DS: An Eye on the Road 
AS in DS: An Eye on the Road 
690 
e third case is focused on the analysis of the photographs from the car by the Pritzker-
winning Milanese architect Aldo Rossi, who had also achieved distinction as a theorist,
artist and pedagogue. Rossis seminal book e Architecture of the City (1982), originally
published as Larchitettura della città (1966), gures among the most inuential books of
contemporary theory of architecture and urban design and has been a major reference
as far as the relationship between architecture and the city is concerned. Rossi start-
ed taking polaroid photographs during his journeys of the late 1970s, nearly a decade
aer noting his rst impressions in his quaderni azzuri. His polaroid photos, which
documented journeys and his whereabouts, include images of boats crossing a river in
Bangkok, a Shaker village in Massachusetts, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and con-
stitute a visual diary of the Italian architect and an important source for understanding
his use of travel-photography in order to organise his “visual memory”. An ensemble
of photographs by Rossi, taken through a car windshield during the 1980s and 1990s
(Fig. 4), is informative regarding the way his travel in various areas of the United States
inuenced his understanding of the city. Among the photos, he took during this period,
one can nd several photos depicting facades of stores he encountered while travelling
by car, such as a Lebanon Supermarket in Massachusetts (Fig. 5).
4:       
  
   
The Travelling Architect’s Eye: Photography and Automobile Vision
e polaroid photographs by Rossi do not only stem from his journeys in the United
States, but also from his travels by car in France, Greece, and Italy, where Rossi took
photos of facades of stores and advertisements he encountered while driving. I could
refer to a photo of a fake palm tree and Ristorante Pizzeria sign along the road taken
somewhere in Italy during the 1980s–1990s, a photo of a parking lot with a young boy
in Dole in France in July 1980, as well as to a photo of the facade of a butcher’s shop
somewhere in France in the 1980s–1990s. Observing Rossi’s above-mentioned photos,
a question that emerges concerns the extent to which Rossi’s perception of advertise-
ments, facades of stores and signs from the car diers from the “pop agony” dened
692 
by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour in Learning from Las Vegas
(1972), as well as the extent to which Rossi’s vision could be interpreted as part of the
same “iconic turn” to which Martino Stierli refers in Las Vegas in the Rearview Mirror:
e City in eory, Photography, and Film in order to describe the specicity of Venturi
and Scott Browns vision. In 1968, Venturi and Scott Brown started teaching a seminar
at the Yale School of Art and Architecture titled “Learning from Las Vegas”, which was
the seed of what, four years later, would become Learning from Las Vegas. In the latter
work, co-authored with Izenour, one can read: «It is signicant that Fremont Street
is more photogenic than the Strip. A single postcard can carry a view of the Golden
Horseshoe, e Mint Hotel, e Golden Nugget, and the Lucky Casino. A single shot
of the Strip is less spectacular; its enormous spaces must be seen as moving sequences»
[Venturi, Scott Brown, Izenour 1977, 35]. e authors of Learning from Las Vegas thus
privileged lm over photography as a means of capturing the signs of Las Vegas. Stierli,
in Las Vegas in the Rearview Mirror, refers to Tom Wolfe’s inuential Las Vegas (What?)
Las Vegas (Can’t hear you! Too noisy) Las Vegas!!!! (1964), and interprets the new recog-
nition of commercial and popular signs during the 1960s and 1970s employing W.J.T.
Mitchell’s denition and analysis of the “iconic turn.
Rosalind Krauss’s understanding of photography in her article entitled Photography’s
Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View and particularly to her claim that «photography is an
imprint or transfer o the real» [Krauss 1986, 110] is useful for interpreting photos taken
from the car by Lautner, the Smithsons and Rossi. Krauss, in e Optical Unconscious,
also refers to Walter Benjamin’s Small History of Photography (1931), where the latter
states that photography «with its devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals the se-
cret», claiming that «it is through photography that we rst discover the existence of this
optical unconscious just as we discover the instinctual unconscious though psychoanal-
ysis» [Benjamin quoted in Krauss 1994, 178]. In Photography in the Service of Surrealism,
Krauss underscores that «what the camera frames, and thereby makes visible, is the au-
tomatic writing of the world: the constant, uninterrupted production of signs» [Krauss
1985, 35]. We could claim that the point of convergence of the architects under study –
John Lautner, the Smithsons and Aldo Rossi – is their desire to savour the uncontrollable
impressions to which one is exposed when travelling by car. eir intention to capture
certain images that are part of these continuous alternating impressions brings to mind
«the constant, uninterrupted production of signs» to which Krauss refers.
Another useful reference for understanding the role of photography in the construction
of a designerly rhetoric is Roland Barthes’ e Rhetoric of the Image (1964), where pho-
tography is described as «a new space-time category, spatial immediacy and temporal
anteriority, the photograph being an illogical conjunction between the here-now and
the there-then» [Barthes 1977, 44], as is Camera Lucida: Reections on Photography.
e “snapshot aesthetics” characterizing the photographs that the architects John
Lautner, Alison and Peter Smithson, and Aldo Rossi used to take while traveling by
The Travelling Architect’s Eye: Photography and Automobile Vision
car demonstrate that the act of capturing contemporary urban life in its ordinariness
and banality was at the very heart of the way they conceived architecture and urban
design. Roland Barthes’s following remarks regarding photography, in e Rhetoric of
the image, is pivotal for interpreting this capacity of the photographs to record reality
in its immediacy, which was the main reason for which these architects gave so much
importance to taking photographs from the car during their journeys: «the photograph
is able to transmit the (literal) information without forming it by means of discontin-
uous signs and rules of transformation», in the sense that «the relationship of signi-
eds to signiers is not one of “transformation” but of “recording”» [Barthes 1977, 44].
Similarly, W. J. T. Mitchell’s claim that «the photograph occupies the same position in
the world of material signs that the “impression” does in the world of mental signs or
“ideas” in empirical epistemology» [Mitchell 1986, 60] could help us better grasp how
the above-mentioned architects employed photography from the car as a tool serving to
organise their visual memories, at a rst place, and transpose their visual impressions
into architectural design strategies, at a second place. is interaction between the cap-
ture of visual impressions through photography from the car and its incorporation in
their designerly methods is of major signicance for understanding what was at stake
in the architectural and urban design thought and practice of John Lautner, Alison and
Peter Smithson, and Aldo Rossi.
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