Elia Zenghelis: The Image as Emblem and Storyteller

Richard Hall

We recently arranged for Elia Zenghelis to give a presentation under the title ‘The Image as Emblem and Storyteller’ via the Architecture Foundation’s YouTube channel. The talk summarises a thesis that Elia has been continuously developing throughout his career: from OMA’s polemical early work, via decades as one of the world’s preeminent educators, to his recent collaborations with DOGMA. Showing examples of his work, Elia argues that ‘images can do more than be mere illustrations. They are endowed with the makings of a much more eloquent instrumentality: they can be the embodiment and the visual discourse of a project, with all the aims, values, and content represented in a single composition. Images can be projects in their own right’. [1]

Elia has indeed dedicated most of his career to what could be described as ‘the idea of the project’. This attitude eschews the sequential causality to which practice can often be ascribed. It places his thinking in a specific tradition, wherein architecture – beyond the rhetoric of problem-solving or immediate social action – is first and foremost concerned with investing reality with coherent ideas. In this pursuit, Elia utilises architectural images not only as depictions of something not-yet-realised, but rather more ambitiously as projections of the ideals to which the architectural project aspires. Within this intellectual framework, Elia puts emphasis on a special genealogy of drawings: those that, like a tableau – through conscious choices about media, projection, content, narrative and composition – present the project in microcosm.

The talk jointly contributes to the Architecture Foundation’s ‘Tracing Postmodernities’ programme and pre-empts the presentation of Drawing Matter’s ongoing research into the early drawing practice and working methods of OMA. This research is primarily based on two sources: a close reading of the repertoire of drawings produced for particular OMA projects, and a series of interviews with contributors to this process, including Elia. The lecture that follows describes both the origin and development of the relationship between ideas and images central to the period of OMA’s work under study. It also offers a reminder that if architectural practice is at all a specialism, it is in part through its ability to instil the built world with the enthusiasm of ideas — elevating the otherwise procedural nature of building to the status of architecture. [2]

Richard Hall


  1. Elia Zenghelis, ‘The Image as Emblem and Storyteller’ workshop and talk summary (Cambridge MA: Harvard GSD, 2016).
  2. Paraphrasing Elia Zenghelis, ‘The Aesthetics of the Present’ (London: AD Vol. 58 3/4, 1988).