“Zigzag, white, no life”: a Martian’s View of Architecture

There’s a great poem by Craig Raine, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, where the alien narrator describes the strange goings-on of humans to friends and family back on Mars. It kicked off a genre of poetry that used unlikely figurative language to make the world seem strange. A tool to look at things askance.

Which made me think – what if a Martian did a Google Image search for the word “architecture”? What would they understand architecture to be? Firstly, here’s the results:

Architecture Definition by Google Images

Screenshot of Google.co.uk Images search for “architecture” on 4/06/15

Our Martian might (quite reasonably) understand architecture in this way:

Architecture is white buildings with lots of zigs and zags, ribs and curves. Architecture doesn’t involve humans. Architecture is the exteriors of buildings. The sun always shines on architecture.

Interestingly, school architecture gets a pretty similar treatment.

If you dig beneath the surface of why this is happening, things get more interesting. Google results are recursive i.e. the algorithm gives some weight to what people performing earlier searches for the same terms seem to have been happy to find. That is Google’s business model: being the most useful information provider where ‘most useful’ is partly determined by what previous users’ searching behaviour suggests was useful to them.

That’s why, rather than presenting some external reality of architecture, Google’s results are socially constructive of a Google-shaped reality. That’s why school comes out as this, why the results for shopping are as shocking as they are and why a search for human is fairly depressing in its ignorance of all the other flavours humans come in.

Clearly Google Images doesn’t provide definitions of the world but what people want from certain kinds of definitions of the world. And that poses a series of more interesting questions:

  1. why are people happy getting images of architecture that only show the outside of buildings when most of the time they’re on the inside?
  2. if I’m right about the recursivity of google’s search results and people’s acceptance of certain definitions of architecture, to what extent do similar conceptions feed forward into shaping how architectural design is borne out with a bias towards an asocial conception of buildings? That is, there appears to be a market for the kind of understandings of architecture based on the images above – does this contribute to shaping how we then see architecture? to how we think desirable buildings should look? to how we build?
  3. in terms of “standing out”, it’s likely that images of a wacky building more clearly convey an impression of architecture-ness, we forget the architecturality of the everyday and of interiors. This is the problem of people trying to engage interest in vernacular architecture or the use of internal space I suppose. But to what extent might this play into design? Does the promotion of the new-and-wacky lead inevitably to a downplaying of the value of the historical, a rejection of the importance of internal spaces?
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