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Boston Society of Architects

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On the face of it

Building façades can serve as powerful canvases that communicate the story of a place

Face Flickr Aurelie Loiselet JR Women Are Heros

Women Are Heroes by JR

Photo by Aurélie Loiselet on Flickr

The term “facial recognition” has a new modern connotation around privacy and technology—issues we would never have imagined in our long-lost analog world. At our core, however, humans are visual animals, and our faces are more of a social communication tool than an emotional-status indicator.

Alan J. Fridlund, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, conducts innovative research on the meaning of facial expressions. He says that faces “act as social tools in behavioral negotiation and faces are not about us, but about where we want a social interaction to go.” The face we show the world is an indicator of intent that may change a thousand times a day. We are drawn to faces in a primal way, as reflections of ourselves and the ultimate nonverbal communication tool.

Street art by Vhils.
Photo by Pedro Botton on Flickr

As our building façades present architectural faces to the world, some structures are also canvases for portrait artists. Portuguese street artist Alexandre Farto (aka Vhils) chips and carves exterior walls like a woodcutter or bas-relief artist. While many visual art forms are additive, with paints or other media being applied to surfaces, Farto’s works are acts of subtractive beauty, rendered with raw mechanical power. In a form of urban archeology, he reveals texture and color beneath blank surfaces, showing our buildings have real depth and are not merely the backdrop for today’s thin digital wallpaper. Farto’s favorite subject is the human face, which he explains in an interview during his 2015 Scratching the Surface exhibition in Hong Kong: “When you work with the portraits, you can make a connection with the history of the place and the people who lived around this place. It’s like a confrontation between two realities, and it leads to a reflection about the way we create our identities.”

With the unprecedented shift of world populations to urban centers, development is causing many neighborhoods to gentrify and suit middle-class tastes. When existing structures are erased and then replaced, artists, architects, and urban planners have to confront the challenge of connecting a new building to its history of place. The Bowery in southern Manhattan is one such neighborhood in New York City undergoing a transformation for better or worse, depending on your point of view. The history of the Bowery is a story of ups and downs, from one of the city’s principal streets and home to the wealthy and famous in the 1820s, to a decline after the Civil War that created a dark corner of the city with brothels, flophouses, and one of America’s earliest street gangs. In the 1970s, city officials made an effort to disperse the vagrant population, and the entire lower East Side has been transforming since the 1990s.

The faces of the Bowery neighborhood were recently featured as a temporary art installation on 62 windows on the new citizenM hotel in the Bowery, designed by the Amsterdam firm Concrete Architectural Associates, with Stephen B. Jacobs Group serving as executive architect. The Citizens of Bowery series was photographed by Filipino-American portraitist Christelle de Castro, whose studio is on Rivington Street near the hotel. De Castro went door-to-door capturing residents, visitors, local business owners, and street artists. The faces are serious, playful, pensive, and, in one case, feline. They are facsimiles of real life and real people, impossibly fit within the boundaries of a square window box, highlighting the inescapable edges of the medium. Video interviews of the subjects live on in digital recordings, but today the ephemeral faces are gone, revealing the quiet normalness of a gridded hotel façade.

Women are Heroes by JR, Nairobi
Photo by stadtlandschaft on Flickr

In 2015, Bostonians experienced the work of another street artist, French artist and filmmaker JR, in the form of a giant mural on the 200 Clarendon Street façade (remembered by most as the Hancock tower). JR claims to own the largest art gallery on earth (the streets of the world), and the human face is one of his favorite subjects. In one example, he placed 4,159 portraits on and within the Pantheon in Paris and transformed a sacred space into something else entirely. All his work is striking, but the most meaningful for me personally is his Women Are Heroes (2008–2009) project in Rio de Janeiro. JR rarely explains his work, but in this case, he conveys his intention to show the power of the female face. In a logistically and politically challenging project, he pasted huge photos of faces and eyes of local women on the hillside favelas of the Morro da Providência neighborhood, an area plagued by violence where women are often the victims. The collective female stare from the hillside sends messages the viewer is left to interpret. A university professor might call this gaze a “social tool for behavioral negotiation,” but to a resident, it might simply be a plea for greater humanity within a struggling community. In any case, it is the faces that speak.

The faces of architecture are both symbolic and literal, scratched into stucco, back-lit in glass or pasted-up paper. We all have moments of pareidolia, the tendency to see faces in inanimate objects such as buildings, clouds, and even the moon. This attraction to the human face is hardwired in us from birth, and our interpretation of these countenances become more finely tuned as we grow older. There is a long history of anthropomorphizing buildings—as they present a façade to the community, buildings become a social communication tool in the same way our human faces are. Let us communicate that social intent clearly because people can’t help but look.