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"Story poles" are temporary structures that illustrate the shape of a proposed building. Typically composed of PVC pipe, string, and vinyl flags, these provisional outlines merge the present and future as they jut from the ground and float over existing buildings. In some California cities, they are erected during the formal design review process to demonstrate how potential structures will affect the views of surrounding neighbors.

Story poles are a special way to understand a building. With bold vertical strokes, more ephemeral flagged horizontals, and structural diagonals that are meant to be ignored, these ad hoc sculptures visually emphasize verticality while collapsing depth. Particularly when viewed from a distance, they appear to be more of a two-dimensional bar chart than a three-dimensional volume. In a way, this is intentional. In coastal communities, story poles’ forms are largely concerned with visualizing what will be obstructed, not replicating what will be built. What would be hidden by a building with this silhouette?

In so doing, story poles also illustrate how buildings are mechanisms for controlling the environment. Created out of simple disputes over who can see the Pacific Ocean, the poles literally embody the aesthetic and monetary conflicts between nearby property rights holders. In communities with high land values, a building that obstructs ocean views may slash the market value of nearby properties by hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. And the priority given to protecting such views diminishes alternative possibilities for those parcels, like increasing density or building affordable housing.

By calling attention to this instrumental way of understanding buildings—that buildings are understood as sources of conflict over scarce resources—story poles emphasize how different ways of interpreting the built environment are wrapped up in the social systems that give buildings meaning. The elements of the landscape we emphasize are connected to systems that produce and contest value, cultural importance, and power. Moreover, because story poles are constructed as part of an institutionalized process of laws and regulations, they are an example of how these domains are defined, negotiated, and enforced.

In other words, by elucidating what is hidden and what is visible, story poles remind us how complex seeing really is.

The series is currently featured in the "What is an image?" exhibition from the International Visual Sociology Association. That exhibition was featured in Visual Studies, including as part of a related roundtable discussion.

Selections from Story Poles were originally published as an essay for MAS Context's Observations section.


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