‘It is not the voice that commands the story but the ear.’ – With this quote from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Emma Cheatle and Catalina Mejia Moreno introduced their symposium The Visual & the Verbal at the University of Brighton on 17 June 2015. With a wide array of invited speakers, among them keynotes Jonathan Hill (The Bartlett, UCL, London) and Julieanna Preston (College of Creative Arts, Massey University, New Zealand), the symposium set out to explore the manifold relationships between the visual and the verbal in architectural cultures today and in the past. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the symposium as a whole, and its main contribution to the growing interest in word-image relationships was its insistence, both by organisers as well as most of the speakers, to use the term ‘voice’ in addition to, or rather than, ‘text’ and ‘image’. The very idea that both text and image have a voice that is, or is not, listened to, opens up a multitude of further questions about the visual and the verbal, and the printed and the built, of course. Emma Cheatle opened the day by maintaining that the voice, even though invisible, creates a gap, or a space, in which accidental new objects can emerge. In this sense, the voice emphasises perhaps the dialogue created between any reader/viewer/listener and the idea that this dialogue is productive of something new. Ben Sweeting, in this talk ‘Listening to Drawings’ emphasised exactly this point when employing the term ‘conversation’ as a trigger to explore the relationship between drawing and talking. Taking its meaning as ‘to live with, to turn around’, he argued that ‘we need to start seeing the things we make as things to listen to’, both in architectural education and beyond. Catalina Mejia Moreno pointed out that ‘words can “cite” but never “sight” their objects’, underlining the inherent relationship between the verbal and the visual, between writing and drawing, reading and looking. Following onto this, Jonathan Hill also maintained that ‘sometimes a building is not the best way to explore architectural ideas’, drawing on his own wide-ranging sources in exploring the materiality – and immateriality – of architecture. He brought up the idea that London’s Soane Museum could be regarded as a built version of Tristram Shandy, the 18th-century novel by Laurence Stern, possibly pointing to the fact that both the museum and the novel build upon a multitude of associations by assembling fragments, architectural and literary respectively, in new constellations. Leading on from this, two talks referred more directly to the spoken voice: Sophie Read explored, partly performing herself, John Soane’s lectures as ‘architectural acts’ in which he relied not only on his own voice but also on that of the many drawings he was showing to his audience. Tom Wilkinson then discussed Walter Benjamin’s radio talks highlighting that the voice was the earliest medium for broadcasting art history. In the radio, he maintained, ‘voices where detached and broadcast out of place’, yet often, the broadcasts were accompanied by printed and illustrated material. This was meant to be read in parallel with, or possibly in preparation for, listening to the radio talks.
Linking to this immaterial relationship between words and images (via the voice, transmitted by radio signal), my own paper focused on the ways in which the 19th-century illustrated press, as a new medium, forged a dialogue between reader and author that was both verbal and visual, where hearing, speaking, looking and drawing became all inherently and inseparably linked. There is no space here to mention all other speakers present on this full and immensely inspiring day (see full programme on the symposium website here), but it remains to thank the organisers and to hope that there will indeed be a continuation, as has been suggested, of such interdisciplinary explorations of the built, the verbal and the visual.