Architectural Drawing (1983)

By George Collins

This essay was first published in the catalogue for Drawings by Architects (25 February – 3 April 1983), held at the ICA in London. A period piece, for sure, the text sits at the cusp of changing attitudes to the display and value attributed to architect’s drawings. 

In recent years a major change has occurred in the nature of architectural drawing. This has come about, in part, from changing functions that drawings fulfil in architects’ offices, particularly as regards preliminary sketches and presentation devices. But another and perhaps more significant change for the general public is the fact that more and more drawings by architects are being collected and treasured as art objects, independent of the building or situation that they may depict. 

For a century or so most architects have started a design with freehand drawings or mere sketches, sometimes in consultation or conversation with the patron or institution for whom they are working. Subsequently, more formal presentation drawings are developed, often in an office, and sometimes in alternative form, primarily made for the patron or for the press – in the latter case often after the building has been completed. Diagrams may also be drawn up and used at any phase during the process of planning, building and the commentary on it afterwards. The most exacting requirement is, however, the multitude of working drawings prepared by the architect’s office and by all associated contractors in the course of constructions. Models are also made before and after completion of the building and for all sorts of reasons; in recent years models have become instrumental in what seem to be a mutual desire by both designers and public to be able to grasp ‘the real thing’ and not merely a projection of it. 

Of these various professional types and uses of architectural drawings, all but working drawings – even diagrams at times – are beginning to be revered and collected as art objects. Working drawings are collected in the archives of architectural institutes and they are useful for the adapters and restore, but working drawings are not ordinarily exhibited unless they are the only remnant of some illustrious building. 

The fact that some architectural drawings have begun to be collected and exhibited as works of art would seem to suggest that paper architecture is beginning to compete with built architecture. This is a departure, because architects, when speaking or writing about architectural drawings, have usually suggested that the drawings are inferior to architecture itself. In this connection, the general public assumes that most architectural drawings precede the erection of the building, and the public really doesn not care – as the architect certainly would – whether the structure was built or remained an ‘unbuilt’. Related to unbuilt structures are visionary schemes of architecture, of city planning, and of the cosmos that began to surface in the 1960s. Most visionary projects are ‘unbuilts’, of course, because the mechanics of carrying them out over time eradicate much of their flair. Sometimes, as with Mies Van der Rohe’s glass skyscrapers, the higher technology of a later generation allows visionary projects to be approximated, and in some case – as with Bruce Goff and Antoni Gaudi – the resultant built structure actually seems to be an extension of the ‘visionary’ drawing from which it was produced. A subjective art and aesthetic can enter into architectural drawings, and the general public may be right in thinking that some paper architecture is superior to built architecture. 

The whole matter of architectural drawings is complicated by the question of what the age that produced them considered to be ‘reality’ and a proper representation of ‘reality’ on paper. Egyptian paintings, bas-relief with frontal eyes in profile heads, and representation in parts of the garden villas at Tell El Amarna, used to be considered quite primitive. Were the Egyptians blind? Certainly no classical Greek or Roman would have shown objects like that, but would rather have approximated the ultimate discovery of perspective rendering. We now realise, of course, that the Egyptians were trying to project the actual reality of a situation and would not be satisfied with a mere retinal image that distorts and reduces the experience of the actual world into what mere man sees – not what the gods see. Later, during the ‘degeneration’ of the western Roman Empire into early Christianity, men again sought God’s version of ultimate reality instead of their own, as we know from their manuscripts. For the cathedral building of the later Middle Ages in which architectural drawing were obviously needed for the construction to be carried out (and which was so complicated that we are still arguing todays as to how it was done), the master masons apparently had recourse to absolute geometry – not perspective – in the raising of an elevation from a plan; this we know from the relation of the secrets of the master masons by Matthew Roriczer. 

In Renaissance times when architectural drawings burgeoned and several new types emerged, the drawings were circulated for the purpose of communication among professionals. Linear perspective, seemingly perfected by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi early in the fifteenth century, was little used by architects for several decades. They developed modern orthographic projection: elevations in scale, vertical sections sometimes including elevation proportions, and horizontal sections (plans) occasionally with diagrammatic insertions from other horizontal planes of the building. Orthography does achieve an absolute vision, but only parts, and some of the parts – the vertical and horizontal sections – are meaningful only to professionals; in fact they are in a way inner visions of situations that really do not exist and cannot actually be seen by man. 

One of the interesting aspects of recent architectural renderings is the popularity of paraline drawings – especially isometrics and axonometrics. Both are essentially isometric, that is to say, that they are in exact scale, and receding lines do not converge to a point at infinity as they do in perspective renderings. Such methods have apparently been known and practised since very ancient times; they have been appreciated in relatively modern times by such architects as Ledoux and Boullée, in the late eighteenth century. But they seem to have only become popular in the 1920s when two similar wings of the Modern Movement – the Dutch Neo-plasticists and the Soviet Suprematist/Constructivists began to employ these methods at about the same time. Van Doesburg and van Eesteren’s 1922–3 axonometrics of the planes and masses of architecture were exhibited in Paris in 1923. Actually painters had been struggling against the 500-year tyranny of linear perspective since the late nineteenth century, but had tended to produce only texturing, or reversions to early Christian, or Picasso/Braque Analytic Cubism – fluttering, incomplete fragments of overlapping planes in a shallow space. It remained for two movements completely dedicated to Platonic geometric form and not to variegated surface effects, to make the break and produce precise, scaled overviews of actuality, that seem to be pictures of architectural models when, frequently, they are in fact cutaway drawings. 

Paraline drawings have another, practical advantage in that they can be made to look like built models, but are less expensive for an office to build and ship than are the bulky or often delicate models – ponderous if made of wood or metal, fragile if made of cardboard or paper. 

Recently the medium of architectural drawing has been fruitfully invaded by others to such an extent that the designation ‘architectural drawing’ may have become somewhat indeterminate. Drawing, in its definition by the Drawing Centre in New York, is any work on or of paper, i.e., ‘papery’. This means that an architectural model made of cardboard or paper can be classified as a drawing. As for the other end of the term ‘architectural’, an architect need not make the drawing, provided it represents some aspect of architecture either to any spectator or for the draughtsman who, actually, may have in mind a toaster, a cave, a snail shell, or simple porridge (i.e., mud architecture). 

If the RIBA and the AIA will acknowledge paper architecture as on a par with built buildings, the range of what can be presented in an exhibition such as this is immensely magnified and enriched, although there is the danger that it might be undifferentiated from any other show in an art gallery. But if architects are, as I have suggested, trying to achieve an absolute world, they will be aided in this by the intrusion of the cosmic fictions of poets, novelists, painters, sculptors, graphic artists, and even engineers.