PRINT December 1977

Drawing Toward Architectural Drawings

OVER THE LAST FOUR YEARS architectural drawings have become a focus of widespread public consumption. Unlike photography, which was collected privately on a small scale for over a century before earning curatorial parity with painting and sculpture in major public collections, architectural drawings appeared first on the walls of museums and other nonprofit institutions, then in publicity-gathering “goodwill” exhibitions at commercial galleries, and finally as objects for sale from mainstream dealers who normally trade in painting and sculpture.

Most observers trace the current popularity of architectural drawings to the massive exhibition of 19th-century drawings from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts organized by Arthur Drexler in 1975 for the Museum of Modern Art, a show that not only brought the genre to public attention but even affected the attitudes and drawing practices of many present-day architects. Even before the Beaux-Arts show, however, drawings by contemporary architects had appeared in smaller exhibitions at the Modern and at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (which has since mounted a number of one-man architectural exhibitions). The next year witnessed the opening of the Spaced Gallery, devoted largely to architectural drawings and renderings, and there were important exhibitions of work by Herb Greene at Florence Duhl Gallery, Antonio Gaudi at the Drawing Center, and a group of practicing Chicago architects at the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago. Last spring, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum mounted the important bicentennial exhibition entitled “200 Years of American Architectural Drawings,” organized by the Architectural League of New York. This fall brought a whole spate of architectural shows: the Drawing Center and Cooper-Hewitt exhibitions here under review, plus others at Leo Castelli in New York, Harcus Krakow in Boston, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Next spring the Drawing Center will mount a show of early 20th-century visionary drawings, and the Museum of Modern Art promises to bring things to a majestic climax in a definitive exhibition of drawings and models by a wide range of currently practicing architects, with much of the work made to order for the show.

“Drawing Toward a More Modern Architecture” is the title given to two rather distinct exhibitions, one at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design, organized by the Museum’s curator of architecture, Richard Oliver, the other at the Drawing Center, selected by the architect Robert Stern and hung by the Center’s director, Martha Beck. The two exhibitions share a common catalogue—a special issue of the English magazine Architectural Design, edited for the occasion by Stern—one of whose drawings is reproduced on the cover.

Both exhibitions present drawings by architects practicing in the United States, with an emphasis on younger talent, the mean age of the exhibitors at the Cooper-Hewitt being five or ten years younger than those at the Drawing Center. A few names appear in both exhibitions: Charles Moore, Robert Kliment and Frances Halsband, and Stern. Both esthetic and didactic purposes are avowed at both locations, but they are served in different proportions that reveal contrasting approaches to the same subject-matter.

The Cooper-Hewitt exhibition, the smaller of the two, was housed in a small railroad-flat of a gallery in the basement of the former Carnegie mansion. Here the purpose of the selection was predominantly apologetic and didactic: the public was being persuaded of the value of architectural drawings, and the show argued its case by presenting drawings as stages in the process of architectural design. A major goal was to include as many different stages and/or media as possible, from the first exploratory studies—as in Charles Moore’s ink sketch on a cocktail napkin—to the final configuration set down in the finished presentation drawings. Thus Kliment and Halsband’s design for a YWCA project could be traced through a dozen study sketches, an equal number of final plans and elevations, a small site model, and a set of reduced photostatic reproductions of the working drawings used in the actual construction. Similar combinations were on display for several of the other architects represented.

The sequential-stages concept was violated, in my opinion, by the inclusion of “critique sketches” along with studies and a final plan for a house designed and built for himself by James Coote. The “critique sketches” are simply vedute—views of the completed house drawn from various well-chosen vantage points. They are all quite attractive under the architect’s trained touch, but there is none of the tension between concept and appearance, or between graphic and plastic means, that often energizes a draftsman’s attempt to visualize something that has not yet been built.

Anyway, the sequential format was not adhered to with strict consistency, and this happily made room for Roger Ferri’s fanciful but altogether winning drawings for a skyscraper to be erected on the northeast corner of Madison Square, in which the glass envelope is broken by setbacks filled with craggy outcroppings of rock, waterfalls, and luxuriant vegetation. Technically, the draftsmanship looks crude at close range, yet the drawings are fully appropriate and effective as a means of presenting the architectural content.

At the Drawing Center, wall labels with statements from the architects helped elucidate the projects hanging on the walls for the general public, but the principles governing selection and installation were rigorously esthetic rather than didactic. It seemed clear from the high-key overall effect of the show that its organizer sought out the best and most important group of drawings that could be assembled within the established limitations of time, budget, and ideological orientation. Some of the projects were surprisingly old, such as Venturi and Rauch’s 1969 Thousand Oaks project and Mitchell/Giurgola’s even earlier, but influential, Boston City Hall competition entry of 1962. In many cases, however, the drawings revealed new work from major talents—there were 1977 drawings from Michael Graves, Mitchell/Giurgola, Stuart Cohen, and others. Some of this recent material was created for other exhibitions like Stanley Tigerman’s drawings for a Little House in the Clouds, featuring a house with grand-piano profile symmetrically matched across an axial road by a giant topiary mirror-image (shown last year in Chicago). Two of the same projects represented at the Drawing Center were more extensively exhibited in September under the rubric “Immanent Domains” in Boston: Rodolfo Machado’s stately, centrally planned country house, evoking Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos as strongly as Palladio; and Jorge Silvetti’s profoundly eclectic house—a cube wrapped by a stairway leading to open sky—designed for a hypothetical site on the island of Djerba off the coast of Tunisia.

The particular selection on view at the Drawing Center focused attention on the esthetic orientation of younger architects practicing in the 1970s. Extending an argument he has advanced in different forms many times in the past, Robert Stern directed us toward an understanding of what he terms “post-modernism”—the attitude that rejects the rigid formalism of the International Style and welcomes the contingent, the dumb and ordinary, and the symbolic. Postmodernism openly embraces historical eclecticism, and it is as likely to pull visual quotations from Le Corbusier as from the 19th century or the Renaissance. This attitude was crystallized in the exhibition by William Hersey’s design for a Piazza d’Italia, a very important, if mind-boggling project now reportedly under construction: a plaza in the Italian section of New Orleans featuring a fountain in the shape of Italy and a scenographic parade of columns and entablatures spouting water where there should be volutes and metopes (the architect calls them “wetopes”). This kind of rich, allusive imagery, paralleled by Robert Venturi’s often quite literal conception of a building as sign and symbol, lends itself to the fuller range of rhetorical effects attainable through line and color in the drawing medium—in contrast, as Stern observes, to the undecorated cardboard models that better expressed the stripped, puristic functionalism of the International Style.

But drawing offers seductive pleasures of its own quite apart from its power to communicate architectural values—a conflict for both draftsman and viewer that seems particularly acute in an exhibition of such high quality as that at the Drawing Center. In a brief essay included in the catalogue, Michael Graves makes an important distinction between “definitive” or presentation drawings and the more exploratory studies that precede them:

Where one might expect in the final drawings an attempt to incorporate all the figural and polychromatic interests of the building in an effort to approximate reality, I think the reverse might be true. The drawings made in previous states of the building’s development probably come closer to the essence of the imagined composition than the cool, objective renderings of the final drawings.

This explains why earlier sketches are so often more satisfying. There the graphic means are being stretched to express a conception that goes beyond the informative power of any single model, whether graphic, plastic, or verbal. When we admire the visual finesse of, for example, Stern’s Seaside Suburb, or the extraordinarily evocative pencil perspectives of Coy Howard, we are responding to a different kind of achievement, namely that of finding an interesting graphic means to present an already formulated idea. At this point, as Graves writes, “The burden of inquiry is shifted from the drawing to the architecture itself.”

And this is exactly as it should be. Presentation drawings sometimes reveal pretensions suggesting that they can be accepted esthetically on the same level as artists’ drawings, and this impression is often reinforced by architects’ repeated and undisguised borrowing from “fine art” drawing and painting. The borrowing is sometimes merely uninspired, as in Stuart Cohen’s placement of an axonometric rendering over a cropped reproduction of a Magritte painting. At other times it is subtler and more in tune with current trends, as in the self-consciously “worked” surface of Howard’s drawing, or in the lengthy and often obtuse theoretical statements accompanying projects by Peter Eisenman and Lauretta Vinciarelli. Both the attitudes and the visual vocabulary of ’60s Pop art live on in projects by Venturi and Rauch—e.g. a “Soft Pretzel” sign that could well have been done by Oldenburg a few years ago—and Gerald Allen—cartoon balloons and dot-patterns like those of Roy Lichtenstein). The four diamond-shaped panels showing Stanley Tigerman’s House in the Clouds reach back even to Mondrian, even though the architecture itself owes more to Le Corbusier, as was also true of several other works in the show. It would be unfair to take these allusions to high art seriously—that is, to measure architectural drawings against those by visual artists without granting a “handicap” to the architects for “amateur” standing. As Deborah Nevins and David Gebhard observed in their catalogue for “200 Years of American Architectural Drawings,” “the stylistic conventions employed in architectural drawings almost always tend to be borrowed from outside architecture, especially painting. . . .” Beyond the realm of conceptual sketches, where thinking and drawing are in closer communication, architectural drawings are probably best granted their tendency to absorb—with admittedly varying degrees of success—any and all influences that come their way, for the allegiance of their creators is not to drawing but to architecture.