Architectures of Inattention
Mark Wigley

In this essay, Mark Wigley considers the place of architecture in the new economy of attention. With one eye on the historical past and the other on the technological future, he analyses both the discourses about and those produced by architecture, looking for continuities and discontinuities over time. He also questions what it means to pay attention to architecture. A professor at several universities, such as Princeton and Columbia in the USA, Wigley is an architect, historian, theorist and critic, and has curated several landmark exhibitions, such as at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example.

What does it mean to pay attention to architecture today? What is architecture in the world-swallowing attention economy where the firing of every neuron is registered in real time and monetized in a vast micro-extractive system? What is architecture when humans are but a continuous source and recipient of data, constantly observed by machine intelligence that sees patterns in seemingly accidental complexity and produces patterns whenever that might leverage financial advantage, which is always? What is architecture when the brain has become the new factory floor, even during sleep, and when work has become a kind of sleepwalking? And is this different from earlier times? Is the very idea that we live in a new world of hyper-commodified attention just part of an older, even ancient, lethal grip on our species? To pay attention to the way we pay attention to architecture now, don’t we need to think about how ‘we’ did so before? How about a little longer history, now that history has become the daily, even second-by-second, history of clicks, searches, posts, purchases, likes and dislikes? Some history then, not in the search of authentic realities from which we have become distracted. On the contrary, a history of the present, a history of designed inattention.

Most obviously, to pay attention to architecture is to look at a building. Not a passing glance but letting it fully take over all attention, even if just for a moment. To look at a building is never simple, normal, or innocent. One has to interrupt the unconscious rhythms of everyday life, slow down, hesitate, stop thinking of anything else and tune the senses into a large seemingly static object – attending to some of its particular qualities: visual qualities of shape, texture, color, light, shadow, reflection, pattern, sequence, rhythm, spacing, scale…; haptic qualities of touch, softness, temperature, humidity, smell, movement, air flow, vibration…; acoustic qualities of reverberation, creaking, wind, muffling, silence…; senses of organic life, decay, organization, inscriptions… and so on. There is no limit to what can be attended to in a building, or ways of attending. Anything perceptible can be engaged, whether a few things or many, in any combination or sequence, for a few seconds or a few hours, intermittently or continuously. Just as a building is composed of countless hidden construction elements, its palpable effect is composed of countless sensations. Assembled materials make buildings that assemble sensations. Architects construct the possibility of consciously tuning into these sensations. Yet to pay attention to architecture is not just to experience sensations, but to attend to them, to watch oneself watching, feel oneself feeling, and hear oneself hearing. Paying attention is an action, a form of self-reflective work.

"Architects need to offer a kind of hospitality to the eye long before they offer hospitality to the rest of the body."


Andrea Mantegna, Camera degli Sposi [Bridal Chamber], 1474 (detail: central oculus) © Photo: Scala, Florence / Courtesy of the Ministero dei Beni e della Attività Culturali e del Turismo / Ducal Palace, Mantua


Discourse about architecture, for there is no architecture without discourse – whether by architects, occupants, visitors, communities, song writers, poets, novelists, bloggers, politicians, historians, theorists, or critics – is filled with descriptions of sets of sensory qualities of buildings. There is a language of bodily sensation even when, which is usual, the discourse is about photographs of buildings, films, virtual reality, models, or drawings. If the most obvious way to pay attention to architecture is simply to look at buildings, no architectural discourse is simply visual, or the visual is somehow thought to be suspended within other senses and shaped by them.

The treatise by Vitruvius that first formalized Western architectural discourse, for example, written around 25 BC in the time of Augustus Caesar, centered architectural experience on the visual recognition of proportion. This meant everything perceptibly at the correct angle, in its right dimension, in its proper place, and each part fitting into a greater whole. Yet this canonic text that organized the architectural discipline for centuries also discussed smell, taste, temperature, humidity, hardness, smoothness, and liquidity. Indeed, it argued that sight itself is bodily, even laborious, and is affected by the effort demanded by what it sees: ‘the eye is compelled to make a longer journey where it encounters more numerous and more frequent stimuli.’1 Architects need to offer a kind of hospitality to the eye long before they offer hospitality to the rest of the body. This eye can even be refreshed and sharpened when the body absorbs the fresh air produced by the plants architects should position between porticos, alongside walkways and in courtyards: ‘the subtle and light air from green plants flows in as the body exercises and clears the vision, carrying off the dense moisture from the eyes and leaving the sight fine and the image sharp.’2 Architecture is never simply something to look at, or to look out through – as in the gaze framed by classical devices such as a doorway, window, court or colonnade. Architecture is a way of seeing, a technology of attention.

Architecture has to actively reshape vision because vision itself is not to be trusted: ‘the mind is quite frequently deceived by visual judgements.’3 Just the effort of looking at something higher in a building is fatiguing to the eye which will tiredly imagine that the top of a building is even further away than it is.4 Not only is vision different from lower and higher positions, at a distance and close up, or outside and inside, but it can create false impressions that buildings have to correct. Curved surfaces are needed to produce the all-important effect of straight horizontal and vertical lines. Columns and floors have to bulge in the middle because they appear concave when straight. Columns need to lean inwards to seem square and the ones at the corners fattened because the extra air around them makes them seem more slender. Facades have to incline to appear vertical. Deviations are needed to produce the effect of the normal. The very word ‘normal’ is derived from the norma, the builder’s square in ancient Rome. Yet the builder has to make the structure out of non-square angles to produce the effect of squareness. Architects assemble distortions in the name of the truth.5 It is not the object that is beautiful but its sensuous effect on the mind. The experience of visual harmony requires an intimate collaboration between building and eye that satisfies the mind.

Each shift in architectural discourse, including the endless debates and interpretations of Vitruvius, pays attention to buildings differently, focusing on different qualities. These sets alone already define positions in ongoing conversations that cross generations and territories. The same building is seen differently by different groups and a group can see it differently over time as its thinking changes. A surprisingly complete history of architecture can be made just by documenting the particular sensations that are privileged in each place and time. The members of a group reveal themselves as such by attending to the same sensations. Yet the inhabitants of the same building, street, or neighborhood are not necessarily a group since they don’t necessarily see the same things in the built environment they share. Each is affected by what the others around them see but what they see is more likely to be similar to where they have come from, where they imagine they are going, the social media channels they feed and are fed by, or a book they have read. In an important sense, two people in a room are usually occupying different rooms, and each of them might be occupying more than one room at the same time, switching senses depending on their mood, a recent phone call, a good coffee, a change of music, and so on. There is, to say the least, nothing straightforward about architectural sensations.


1. Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, trans. Ingrid D. Rowland, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 59.
2. Ibid., p. 71.
3. Ibid., p. 78.
4. ‘For when the eye’s glance is directed higher and higher, it penetrates the density of the air with greater difficulty; therefore it falls away, drained by the extent and force of the altitude, and reports back an uncertain assessment of dimension to the senses. For which reason an increment must always be added on to the elements of the proportional system.’ Ibid., p. 52.
5. ‘Thus either from the impact of images on our vision or by action of rays shed forth from our eyes, as the physicists would have it, for either reason it seems to be the case that the glance of our eyes may make false judgments. Therefore, if things that are true appear false, and many things are taken to be other than they are by our eyes, I think there should be no doubt that it is proper to make additions and subtractions according to the natures and requirements of sites.’ Ibid., p. 78.