ESR 4 – Filippo Cattapan

The Forms of Architectural Imagery

Research Objectives

Key objective of the research is to analyse the role of pictures in constructing and transmitting disciplinary knowledge within the field of architecture. Indeed, pictures have constituted a crucial tool in both architectural practice and theory since the first diffusion of the technical means allowing for their reproduction and until their current widespread proliferation on the social networks. By way of their multiple kinds of associations and compositions – in books, magazines and competition panels, but also in lectures, exhibitions and videos – they have substantially influenced the production and circulation of aesthetic values as well as the constitution of disciplinary communities. Despite that, their actual modes of operation are still substantially disregarded, mainly because of their visual nature, tacit by definition, which is often considered as ancillary to others, more explicit mediums. The research wants to thoroughly investigate the mutual kind of transfer which occur between the imageries resulting from these constellations of pictures and the related architectural outcomes.

Project Description

The research is currently addressing a set of precise case studies in which pictures appeared to have played a crucial role for the discipline. Each of them refers to a specific temporal and geographical transfer of knowledge: (1) Fischer von Erlach, from Rome to Wien between late 17th and early 18th century, (2) Robert Adam and John Soane, from Rome to London between late 18th and early 19th century, (3) Colin Rowe, Aldo Rossi and Oswald Mathias Ungers, between Europe and the US in the second half of the last century. The case studies are considered within their wide cultural contexts, in order to thoroughly understand the different horizons in which the related architects, pictures and architectures were acting. Furthermore, specific objects of study are closely analysed according to a comparative attitude, e.g., respectively, the Entwurff Einer Historischen Architectur and the Karlskirche by Fischer von Erlach, the house museum at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields and the Bank of England by Soane, the Contrasts by Pugin and Collage City by Rowe. The subterranean relationship between these objects appears to be at least twofold: on one side, it is based on the use of pictures as references, by way of analogical processes of copy and of adaptation, on the other, it emerges as a structural influence in relation to the physical assembly of the architectural components, which tends to mould itself according to the same technical modalities of the pictorial compositions. In the identified case studies, varied forms of assemblage – from books to collections and museums – are considered as effective operative tools, which directly influence architectural production, and which work as a fundamental medium in the transnational and transcontinental transmission of disciplinary knowledge. This micro-historical kind of approach is eventually aimed at identifying specific aspects and common affinities, from which to develop an overall reflection on this “visual” or “pictorial” attitude towards the discipline.

Tasks and Methodology

The methodological aspect of the research is crucial in order to precisely address the subterranean nature of these specific kind of tacit knowledge. Aside traditional literature review and archival surveys, both fundamental to relate with the single case studies, further analytical practices from outer fields have been examined and applied to the project. More specifically, a set of methodologies coming from the German and Italian tradition of art historiography – and in particular from iconographical and iconological studies – play a double essential role within the research: on one side, they are directly applied to the objects to analyse, on the other, they are considered by themselves as objects of the research, because they have been substantially influenced by the visual mentality diffused in the 16th and 17th centuries, but also because in turn they have crucially influenced the methodologies employed in architecture starting from the first half of the last century and more decisively in the aftermath of the Second World War. The overlapping of the two disciplines is a core issue of the research, which questions the precise modalities of their mutual exchange. The evidences collected from the analysis of the case studies are eventually addressed from a variety of complementary points of view: the ones of rhetoric, both in classical and in semiotic terms, but also of media studies, sociology and neuro sciences, in order to offer a thorough account of the interplay which take place between all these stratified and superimposed levels of knowledge transfer.


The project involves a practice-based secondment at one fine day architekten in Düsseldorf and a curatorial secondment at the Flanders Architecture Institute VAi in Antwerp. The first one, currently ongoing, is mainly devoted to the production of an inquiry into the pictures employed by the office as references in both design practice and academic activity. Such pictures are identified by way of surveying the Referenzen folders in the office server and then assembled in a series of comparative panels. Together with a short critical essay, the panels will be collected and published in the form of an experimental “fanzine”, which will be presented and exhibited at the Politecnico di Milano during the forthcoming intermediate meeting of the network, in spring 2021. The following secondment in Antwerp will be the occasion for reflecting on the role of architectural institutions in promoting certain specific visual imageries instead of others, through their collections, exhibitions and activities.

Dissemination and Communication

The final outcome of the research will be a PhD dissertation, which will be presented and discussed at the Bergische Universität Wuppertal and which will be ideally developed in the subsequent publication of a book. During the research, many side activities will be parallelly pursued in order to disseminate and communicate the contents of the study: texts and articles for books and journals, academic lectures and seminars, presentations and exhibitions organised within the TACK network and other doctoral schools.

More questions? Send Filippo an email.