Architects tell stories. They do it in their buildings as they configure sequences and destinations; they do it in their precise documentation of details; they do it in their writing; they do it in their presentations; but above all else, they do it with imagery. Buildings, being the predominant product of practice, are often relied upon for these communications, but sometimes, those stoic structures are not so chatty. And so, where the narrative limit of physical space ends, the Discursive Image begins, communicating socio-spatial ideas that are untellable through more familiar visual or tactile media.

Discursive Images are produced by architects to convey observations and to project aspirations – they are reflections on the field and society at large. Historically, Discursive Images have occurred with the greatest frequency at major moments of change. The dawns of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, The Industrial Revolution and the Age of Mass Production have all been catalysts for architects to step outside of a culture of building and instead produce imagery that attempts to respond, in some way, to these major inflection points. Along this lineage we can draw connections all the way from the rise of perspectival drawing in Fra Carnevalle’s Italy to emergent zoning codes of Hugh Ferriss’s New York and
then to utopian speculations in the sky of Kisho Kurokawa’s Japan.

Discursive Images share one essential ingredient: authored invention. They are imaginary, amplifications of current conditions but also far beyond, they often depict idealized visions of a built environment or a generally new attitude towards modes of living. They are discursive because they are meant to spark conversation, or better yet, controversy. The value of a Discursive Image can be measured against the quantity of discourse it produces, the more the better. Some Discursive Images have been so potent that they are still debated today, hundreds of years after their conception. But as we look forward, given the current climate, is not the prominent presence of the author a tremendous flaw in this tradition. Discursive Images are put forth from the eyes of the beholder with one key assumption, which is that a
receptive audience awaits. What do we do when the discourse dries up? In other words what happens when there is no longer an appetite for biased opinions that are not directly aligned with one’s own? This is life in the post-truth era.

In this sense, the highly stylized representations that we have seen in previous Discursive Imagery seem out of step with current times. Inventive drawings and even crafted collages seem to err too far into individualistic idealizations that are more about the author than the audience. That is not to say that the represented ideas are wrong, but rather, that no one will care to listen. Both contemporary artists and architects have recognized this and have found that today, the use of photography and video are often more powerful than anything one can create from scratch. Thus, like never before, montage is the rising mode of the Discursive Image. This medium, rather than lingering on the imaginary, activates latent conditions that currently exist, demanding a difficult confrontation with reality.

The trouble is, even in these examples, the discursive montage remains curated, and therefore, authored. In the year 2050, as the world continues to bifurcate into uncompromising polarities the author of the Discursive Image will have to go further incognito if they wish to have any impact at all.

In the year 2050, the architect must take up the post of the documentarian. On top of traditional architectural documentation, discursive images will also strive to document real world conditions rather than project forward. Discursive Images will be images of the built environment in its current state. They will not be accompanied by arguments, theories, or histories. They will simply be shown, or posted, on platforms that are as horizontal in their organization as possible. The sequential narrative of the montage will be replaced by one-offs. In the year 2050, the Discursive Image must be a smattering of non-sequiturs in order to captivate anyone’s attention at all. If the message of the Discursive Image is singular and strong, it will fail. The Discursive Image of the future will be completely open to interpretation as no audience will want to be told what to think or hope for; its subject matter will be people, buildings, people occupying buildings and people making buildings.

— Diandra Rendradjaja & Isaac Pollan, 2021