The architecture of the image

Cyrus Peñarroyo's work explores ideas about collective experience and the material culture of images.

Cyrus Peñarroyo of EXTENTS is a 2019 League Prize winner.

Last spring, a giant version of an old-fashioned camera appeared at a gallery in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The work of Cyrus Peñarroyo and McLain Clutter, founders of EXTENTS and faculty members at the University of Michigan, the installation was at once a functional piece of photographic equipment and an exhibition space.

Peñarroyo spoke to the Architectural League’s Katie Rotman and Sarah Wesseler about the Image Matters project and its relationship to his broader body of work.


Katie Rotman: Can you walk us through Image Matters, starting with the genesis of the idea?

Cyrus Peñarroyo: At the time when the project began, I was teaching a thesis section at Michigan that examined the influence of contemporary image culture on architectural production. Images are everywhere—we view them on our screens, they move through cable as data, we hold them in our brains. And in all of those cases, one might think that images lack materiality.

Our argument in that project was that, actually, they have significant material consequences. We were really interested in investigating the materiality of images in order to vivify their role in framing collective experience.

Sarah Wesseler: Can you explain a bit more about the idea of framing collective experiences?

Peñarroyo: We’re really committed to architecture as a medium of public life and progressive culture. In our work, we try to cultivate other ways of being in the world. Since media technologies shape collective ideals, and images are objects of media, it seemed like working with images and their materiality could be an opportunity to usher in novel forms of experience and existence.

Wesseler: Is it fair to say, then, that one of the starting points for the project is the notion that when groups of people look at the same images, it can start to introduce new collective ideas or experiences?

Peñarroyo: Yeah. But we oftentimes forget that there is real, physical matter that enables the reading of these images—fiber optic cable, for instance, or even our brains. So with this project we’re trying to tease out what material traces might be present in images, and how they might suggest alternative material cultures.

Thinking about these issues, we eventually landed on the tintype as one example of a moment in the history of image-making when images really had a heightened material presence. They were literally printed on heavy sheets of metal, and they had weight to them, thickness. The visual qualities of the image were wrapped up in the material qualities of the printing process.

Tintype photograph from the 1890s. Credit: Public domain

We wondered what would it be like to work through the materiality of images using the tintype process, but to update that process with computation and digital technology, and by developing images at an architectural scale.

That’s really where it began. That led to the design and fabrication of this large operable camera that we called the Conditions Room, which was equal part camera, darkroom, and, eventually, exhibition space.

Looking back at the project, I think we set the space up that way because we recognize that in today’s image economy, we’re all equal part creators, manipulators, and viewers—we’re all doing that work.

It took a while to learn the tintype developing process, because neither of us had a proper photography background. We taught ourselves how to make small prints, and when we started to scale up, we had to adjust the chemistry to work at a larger scale. There was a lot of experimentation involved in figuring out the right mixtures of chemicals.


Wesseler: The project was displayed in a gallery at the University of Michigan. What were the reactions to the project from visitors and from your peers? How did they inform your thinking about the project?

Peñarroyo: The project was directed toward several different audiences—the gallery visitor off the street who’s just there to casually check out the exhibition and my colleagues in the architecture department, among others. I think these audiences might have had some familiarity with tintypes. But what’s interesting about these plates is that they were three-dimensionally reconstructed to look exactly like the details of the camera they were exhibited on, but with different material textures printed onto them, which produced visual dissonance.

Watching people at the exhibition, there was a moment when they began to recognize the layers of information being presented to them—like, “Here’s a replica of this detail, but also, here are these familiar material textures that are printed onto a sheet of metal.” Cognitively, you’re probably drawing connections between what you’re looking at and what that reminds you of.

In talking with my colleagues, recent conversations in architecture have been about the digital not as a technique or a tool, but as a context. With this project, it’s interesting to think about conditions where the camera is both an apparatus and a space that you inhabit, as the backdrop to an activity or experience.

Image courtesy of EXTENTS

In terms of feedback from the broader architecture community, we’ve been fortunate to receive recognition from ACSA [Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture], and from ACADIA, which I thought was interesting. ACADIA is a conference about advancement in computation and digital technology, whereas we were experimenting with antiquated technology, and finding ways to update it. It makes me think that if we received recognition from them, maybe the project is getting people to think about technology and image-making in a more critical manner.

Katie Rotman: Does your work always involve public engagement?

Peñarroyo: I would say so. In some cases that may not be the motivating factor, but McLain and I do believe that architecture should try to engage the public in meaningful ways, or even create new publics. We hope the work makes people think about occupation, interaction, material cultures, and all of the ways the built environment impacts those concerns.

For their Lossy/Lossless project, Peñarroyo and Clutter created an installation reflecting on the past and future of the rapidly gentrifying Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. A mix of physical objects (including a data center floor system) and printed images, some intentionally pixelated, blurred the lines between physical and digital realities. Image courtesy of EXTENTS

Rotman: You’ve collaborated with architects, artists, and designers. Are you interested in working with other types of contributors?

Peñarroyo: McLain and I designed EXTENTS as a platform for collaborating with others. The practice allows us to work alone; it allows us to work with each other; but it also allows us to open up the practice to others in and outside of the discipline.

Right now I’m working on a project dealing with internet access in Detroit. It’s a mapping-based research and design project looking at how a large portion of Detroit’s population is unable to access the internet, and how that lack of access affects one’s ability to virtually belong in different ways.


Through that project, I’ve been working with a number of community organizations focused on digital inclusion in the city—not necessarily arts or architecture organizations. One is a group of teenagers in our architecture preparatory program, ArcPrep; I’ve been asking them about their use of technology and how it’s informing the way they learn, and how they feel like they belong. I’ve also been in conversation with a nonprofit organization called the Detroit Community Technology Project, and with representatives from the City of Detroit Mayor’s Office.

And then McLain and I, alongside a few other faculty colleagues, are also working on a project in Cleveland with LAND studio and the neighborhood of Slavic Village. It’s a storefront installation that would allow members of the community to radically reimagine their neighborhood through the use of an augmented reality app we’re developing.

Basically, our goal is to give them tools for imagination that they may not otherwise have access to. Oftentimes, changing your neighborhood requires access to capital, which not everyone has. So we’re trying to bridge this gap by giving less-privileged members of the community tools that could allow them to see their neighborhood differently, and hopefully feel excited and passionate about what they can contribute to its future.


Interview edited and condensed.