Text by Alejandro Hernández Gálvez

Peter Eisenman once defined vision as “a way of organizing space and its elements.” Architecture, Eisenman described in that same text[1], has been conditioned – at least since the invention of perspective – to a certain way of understanding gaze: the subject, central and motionless, arranges the space. As Michel Foucault’s description of Las Meninas by Velázquez in the introduction of The Order of Things, the observer/occupant of architecture as such, is a part of in various ways: on the one hand because of the subject it tackles, and on the other, by someone being obliged and constrained. “Traditional architecture – wrote Eisenman – is structured in such a way that any position that the subject occupies, provides the means to understand that position in relation to a particular spatial typology that displays architecture as a screen to look at.” Eisenman then proposes the idea of architecture being capable of looking back.


In his essay The Gaze in an Expanded Field, Norman Bryson also talks of this look back, explaining it through an anecdote by Lacan: he is out at sea with some fishermen from Brittany, one of them points to a floating can of sardines and asks: “You see that can? Do you see it? Well, it doesn’t see you!” Bryson explains that this idea disturbs Lacan because he senses it is not entirely true. “The world of inanimate objects to some extent always looks back on the perceiver”. How is that possible? When I look, – adds Bryson – what I see is not simply light but intelligible form (…) Oliver Sacks says something similar in his famous book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: to not be able to recognize what one sees, to not be able to name it, is, ultimately, not seeing. You see it, but you also think it – wrote Junichiro Tanizaki.

08 07

What we see is intertwined in a network of meanings, says Bryson, explaining Lacan. “For human beings collectively to orchestrate their visual experience together it is required that each submit his or her retinal experience to the socially agreed description(s) of an intelligible world.” He goes even further: “Vision is socialized, and thereafter deviation from this social construction of visual reality can be measured and named, variously, as hallucination, misrecognition, or visual disturbance”.


The idea of Eisenman’s architecture that looks back does not completely concur with what Bryson describes: a framework of meanings of which only vision, as an optical phenomenon, is a part of. Eisenman writes: “the idea of a ‘returned gaze’ begins by displacing the anthropocentric subject. The returned gaze does not require the object to become the subject. The returned gaze has to do with the possibility of separating the subject from the rationalization of the space. In other words, to allow the subject to have another look at the space where he is indeed, ‘returning the gaze.’ A potential first step towards conceptualizing this ‘other’ space would be to separate what we see from what we know –separate the eye from the mind.”  


In Sacks’ aforementioned book, where the doctor runs tests on Dr. P, the musician who suffers from visual agnosia – the inability to recognize what we see and therefore, in Sacks’ terms, to see properly – he asks him to describe the objects shown. “A convoluted red form with a linear green attachment,” is his description of a rose. “A continuous surface, infolded on itself. It appears to have five outpouchings, if this is the word,” is how he describes a glove.


How would you describe, let’s say, a white box floating on top of columns, crossed by a large window, as a ramp takes us from the ground to the deck that serves as a terrace? That is how Le Corbusier himself describes Villa Savoye, vil sa’vua, ça voit: that which he sees. Does he see, is he returning the gaze? According to Beatriz Colomina, that house is described “in terms of how it frames the landscape and the effects that frame has on the perception of the house by the visitor in motion.” For Le Corbusier, who used to draw large, bodiless eyes floating on top of his buildings, and wrote: “I see therefore I am,” the house is not – again in Beatriz Colomina’s words – more than “a series of choreographed views by the visitor.” Note once again: not inhabitant, visitor and, in a way visionary as well. “The traditional subject – adds Colomina – can only have one visitor, and as such, a temporary part of a vision mechanism. The humanist subject has been displaced.” Eisenman’s interest in Le Corbusier’s architecture comes to no surprise then: the builder of mechanisms made to observe not to be lived in; of villas that return our gaze, like Villa Savoye, ça voit.

[1] Peter Eisenman, Visions Unfolding: Architecture in the Age of Electronic Media.


Alejandro Hernández is an architect, architecture critic and curator. He collaborates in Reforma newspaper and various magazines like Arquine and Letras Libres, among others. His most recent publication is entitled 100x100: a hundred architects of the 20th century in Mexico (100×100: cien arquitectos del siglo XX en México) published jointly with Fernanda Casas. He won first place in the competition for the building of CENTRO (Centro, Diseño, Cine y Televisión) in 2003.  He co curated the exhibition “Mexico City Dialogues” (NY) and has participated in the architecture biennales of Sao Paulo, Rotterdam, Venice and the Canary Islands.


Related articles: