When ekphrasis concerns itself with architecture the built form is usually the object – it is described. My search threw up examples ranging from a C4th description of the Hagia Sophia to poems responding to Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial by Yusef Komunyakaa, Jeffrey Harrison and Alberto Rios. The reader is invited to reconsider the architecture through the writer’s response.
I’ve been digging around researching the essay on post-apartheid museums, and came across the idea of ekphrasis. In its Greek origins it literally means ‘speak out’; it means representing a work of art through another medium. It’s usually used for a written description of the object piece .
(photograph: Hiroshi Watanabe)
Of course, the extent to which architecture can be part of ekphrasis in this way depends on when it is seen as an art, and when it is described as a subject rather than being a setting… Architecture is so much a part of our inhabited world that it makes little sense to consider every description or drawing of a building, even an architectural masterpiece, to be ekphrasis: the label is only truly appropriate when we are asked to respond to the subject as a work of art. Then again, this seems so abstract and culturally elitist that I’m inclined to dismiss it and conclude that whenever a made place is represented through art it is to some extent ekphrastic.
And then there is the idea with which I’ve fallen a little in love: that of notional ekphrasis. John Hollander developed the term: it is art which describes thoughts, dreams, imaginings which have no form. It can also refer to art which describes how another work of art came to being, explores an unfinished or ongoing work of art, or speaks of an imaginary work of art as though it existed in reality. (Frustratingly, I can’t access Hollander’s key texts, but I intend to hunt them down.)
This, in terms of the architectural discipline, is powerful. Most architecture is dreaming before ever it exists; it is ideas shown through other forms; it is notional ekphrasis. Buildings described through drawings, writings, models before ever they exist. Speculative, creative, make-believe.
(Maya Lin: Vietnam Veterans Memorial submission)
I arrived at ekphrasis via the anthropological idea of collective memory. In the case of the apartheid museum the architecture itself is ekphrastic – not the object, but the subject-piece. It edits and re-presents the narrative. In these cases the architecture becomes the text, the retelling of the story, representation of a past made up of photographs, films, words, art.