PRINT January 2015


architects’ drawings

THE WORKING DRAWING: THE ARCHITECT’S TOOL is a beautiful book, and like many beautiful things, it has a touch of melancholy to it. Looking at the examples collected here, even those from recent decades, it’s hard not to feel some sense of loss: Nobody draws like that anymore. Not only has drawing practice been radically transformed by the computer, but the structure of the discipline itself has changed. Architects operate in a global arena today, subject to the ever-tighter time constraints and increasingly uniform standards imposed by clients, the building industry, and regulatory agencies. In contrast, many of the drawings in this book are deeply personal communications between architect and builder, executed by practitioners whose individual drawing styles mirror their attitudes toward construction and materiality. In the elevations drawn by Swedish architect Sigurd Lewerentz for his 1966 St. Peter’s Church in Klippan, Sweden, for example, the tightly spaced pencil lines trace out the piece-by-piece assembly of the brick walls: The hand of the architect anticipates the hand of the mason. Others are more idiosyncratic. In a 1972 window detail drawn in colored pencil by the Italian Mario Ridolfi, plan, section, elevation, full-scale details, and pictorial renderings are superimposed on a single sheet, giving the drawing the feel of a craftsman’s sketch. These examples, and many others in the book, are far from the conventional notion of the working drawing as a dry technical instrument executed by an anonymous draftsman. These are, in fact, “working” drawings in a double sense: at once precise descriptions of the work to be completed on-site and an index of the architect’s thought process.

When a cultural practice is no longer vital and urgent, it often ends up in the archive. And the book’s editors, Annette Spiro and David Ganzoni, who both teach architecture at ETH Zürich, have unquestionably succeeded in producing a compelling, even seductive, presentation of their subject as historical and material artifact. The volume has a coffee-table heft, and its format allows for large-scale color reproductions, including many that fold out, sometimes to a width of four pages. The written descriptions of the drawings are also paired with small details of them reproduced at full scale, giving a feel for the texture of the originals. Indeed, the editors are clear about their intention. Spiro writes in her foreword: “The gratification of a beautiful building plan remains untarnished: the main aim of our book is to arouse this pleasure.”

Spiro and Ganzoni have assembled one hundred examples of working drawings, many from a collection housed at their university. The organization is thematic rather than chronological, but a useful foldout chronology, with thumbnails of each drawing at a consistent scale, gives an overview. Their thematic categories (“Building Manual,” “Building Process,” “Hidden Structure,” “Measurement and Numbers,” etc.) provide logical access to the material, although many examples could have easily occupied multiple categories. And there are some puzzling omissions: North America, for example, is underrepresented. In this context, the absence of work from Louis Kahn, an architect deeply identified with both drawing and construction, seems a missed opportunity. The work of internationally recognized figures such as Rem Koolhaas, Robert Venturi, and Peter Eisenman is also absent. Perhaps this exclusion is intentional, since these are architects identified more with their contributions to architectural discourse than with engaging the realities of construction; nonetheless, they do build, and it would have been interesting to examine their drawing strategies alongside those of the others assembled here. The works selected from certain canonical figures are also curious: The color studies by Le Corbusier are charming but atypical, and Karl Friedrich Schinkel is represented by a foundation plan, which tells us little about the complex interplay of graphic effect and tectonics that charcterizes his built work.

The reproductions are complemented by texts from historians and practitioners, and here, too, the editors have opted for breadth rather than depth, with a dozen short pieces rather than one or two long essays. This structure allows the book to include multiple voices and to address themes ranging from the history of drawing practice to the impact of new digital technologies on architectural representation. But it also suggests that intense scholarly study of the working drawing is still to come. In the end, the selection appears to have been motivated by a desire to present the widest possible historical range of examples. The earliest drawing is an elevation of the Cologne Cathedral executed by a master mason in 1280, and the most recent is an engineer’s technical plan from 2013—a juxtaposition that traces something of architecture’s own passage from guild practice to technical discipline. Archival material from Francesco Borromini and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger joins an impressive and sometimes surprising array of contemporary examples, including intricate engineering drawings of the Large Hadron Collider.

So while this broad scope makes it easy to see, and perhaps lament, how much architectural drawing has changed over time, it also suggests that drawing may still be as important as ever for the field, despite the fact that the practice has been radically reinvented—and even consigned to obsolescence—in recent years. The editors have made their case most convincingly where they address the impact of the computer. A 2008 drawing by the consultant firm designtoproduction maps the formwork for SANAA’s Rolex Learning Center for the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland. The drawing only incidentally registers the smooth geometries of SANAA’s plan; it reads instead as a field of numbers that refer to computer-fabricated components assembled on-site. The conventional mix of graphic representation and alphanumeric overlay associated with the working drawing has become purely notational in this case.

Architectural historian Mario Carpo, who has thought deeply about these issues, contributes an essay that emphasizes the historical roots of architecture’s compromise with notation. He succinctly traces the origin of our present-day paradigm of the working drawing as notational device used to mediate between design and construction back to the Renaissance practice of Leon Battista Alberti. Carpo also offers an informed speculation on the impact of increasingly sophisticated computational design on future practice. While “one may surmise that at some point virtual models may become perfect duplicates of, and substitutes for, the buildings they represent,” Carpo writes, this utopian future is still distant, and he concludes that “regardless of the notational tools we use, physical or digital, the Albertian paradox will most likely live on for a while—and with it, all the messiness, uncertainty, and drama that the notational way of building has engendered throughout the history of the design professions.”

For someone of my generation (which spans pre-digital and digital production), these observations ring true. Whether produced digitally or by hand,the architect’s working drawing has a fundamentally ambivalent status as an object, a fact that mirrors Carpo’s “Albertian” paradox. Buildings, landscapes, and cities are concrete physical entities, located in the world and bound to place. Yet the working tools of the architect are highly abstract and ephemeral: drawings, diagrams, computer models, and calculations. As architectural historian Robin Evans (perhaps the field’s most cogent analyst of the interplay between drawing and building) put it more than twenty-five years ago, “Architects do not make buildings; they make drawings of buildings.” Architects work in the studio, at a distance from the building site, and they communicate through a series of codified notations with those who do the actual work on-site. The working drawing is the medium of exchange in this system. And so it would be easy to say that the drawing is only a partial expression of the idea that is completely expressed in the physical building. Just as you don’t need to follow the score to experience a performance of music, the plans are ostensibly irrelevant once the building is realized. Furthermore, the plan can be copied or redrawn without significant information being lost; the idea of the original or the “handwriting” of the architect has little importance in this context. Any number of the archival documents reproduced in The Working Drawing were in fact already copies (blueprints or computer prints) and often were not drawn by the architect of the building they represent. (Acknowledging the collaborative nature of office work, the editors have made an effort to identify the actual draftsperson where known.)

But just as the serious study of a piece of music requires reference to the abstraction of a score, so, too, the working drawing is vital to understanding both the building itself and the architect’s intentions. Such drawings reveal what is hidden in construction; proportional relationships in plan or section are often inaccessible in the direct experience of a building. Moreover, as this collection demonstrates, the everyday procedures of the architect establish an intense dialogue between studio and building site, and it is precisely this in-between quality that makes the working drawing so compelling. These drawings register the essentially nonlinear quality of the design and building process: They are precariously suspended between the fluidity of design and the fixity of building. And the aesthetic of the drawing—the technique and manner of execution—reveals the office culture behind each one. The fast execution of drawings from the Herzog & de Meuron office, for example, speaks to the immediacy of their work and their desire to quickly visualize specific solutions to specific problems. Contrast that to the painstaking tracing of the bearing-wall masonry piers in Rafael Moneo’s National Museum of Roman Art in Mérida, Spain—a slow drawing for a slow building.

It could be argued, of course, that any aesthetic effect of working drawings is accidental—that we endow these artifacts with artistic intention only after the fact. But the working drawing is neither an autonomous aesthetic object nor a transparent technical instrument. It has qualities of both, simultaneously. Landscape architect Gustav Ammann’s three seductive colored plans for the rose garden at the 1939 Swiss National Exhibition, for example, show the plantings in three seasons, when, in turn, tulips, pansies, and roses are in bloom. The watercolor washes and cast shadows in Gottfried Semper’s ca. 1871 drawing for a scaffold crane not only add visual richness but clarify the structural relationships. And the delicate coloring of the lines in the drawing of the Large Hadron Collider are not for visual effect; they indicate different materials and systems.

The most fundamental lesson of The Working Drawing may be that the opposition between aesthetics and instrumentality is flawed, as is the binary thinking behind it. Working drawings embody a more complicated aesthetics of utility, where formal decisions are motivated by consequences in the world. Although it is theoretically feasible, I am not sure that it is actually possible to make a good building with bad drawings. It is precisely by not searching for formal or aesthetic effect but rather by solving specific problems that working drawings paradoxically succeed as aesthetic or formal artifacts. And this should not be surprising. In a world where data and abstract description increasingly replace direct experience, the architect’s working drawing seems more relevant than ever; it is perhaps even a central paradigm of the present.

Stan Allen is an architect working in New York, a professor of architecture at Princeton University, and Director of Princeton’s Center for Architecture, Urbanism, and Infrastructure.