Architectural manuals and Pacific speculations

Sarah Treadwell

Drawing by Sarah Treadwell. Courtesy of Sarah Treadwell and Marmalade Publishers of Visual Theory.

Lodged in an architectural archive at the bottom of the world, [1] Joshua Kirby’s 1755 book, Perspective of Architecture: a work entirely new […] announces that ‘All those lines that are boundaries to the several parts of Architecture, are either straight or circular; and therefore, those two different kinds of lines variously applied, may be said to constitute the principal parts of the order.’ [2] The lines that construct the fine drawings and text are certain and containing; the curvature of the earth is framed, as is the path of progress.

In this and many subsequent manuals or instructional accounts of architecture, the drawing of lines—which is also the construction of the limits of the architectural object—is subject to technical and anecdotal regulation. The line is not only the primary mode of drawing technique but is also the primary structuring device within the design process. Linearity, characteristic of Western thought, pervades the discipline despite architecture’s engagement with curvilinear space and baroque effects. The line is characteristically continuous, even, and straight.

However, within the straightness of the line (perhaps because of the power of its thrust—its flight and friction) certain other conditions arise. Catherine Ingraham has probed the materiality of abstract geometry arguing that linearity does not stay cleanly in the world of ideal geometry [3] and the writer Paul Carter has unfurled the arabesques caused by the meeting of line and other. ‘It is the linear thrust itself, as it penetrates the ‘other’, that creates the counter patterns rolling back from the lip of the hole.’[4]

Despite Kirby’s restrictions on the nature of lines that were to be operative in architecture, the drawings in his volume also deploy another condition of the line. Dotted and dashed lines appear in his fine engravings to mark invisible centrelines and to indicate movement necessary to the construction of figures. Dotted lines, tracing unseen geometries, have been allowed into the discipline to deal with the invisible, the implied, and the mobile. Like the matter and arabesques of linearity, dots, and dashes, caught firmly within the straight line, also serve to gently critique its rigid nature. Hidden and phantom conditions are productive weaknesses within the disciplinary practices of the architectural drawing. [5] Thomas Wang, in his 1996 manual on the practices of architectural drawing (a genre generally committed to clarity and straightforwardness), reveals a world in which the self-evident presence of the plan is frequently undercut by a dotted line. ‘Dotted or short-dashed lines represent unseen edges of an object. Continuous lines represent the visible edges. Short-dashed lines in general represent hidden or unseen objects in front of or below the observer. In plan drawings, these lines are often used to indicate objects underground. In sections and elevations, they are often used to indicate the location of objects behind any opaque planes.’ [6]

Beneath the resolution and self-sufficiency of the plan is a zone in which unseen bodies force alteration to the everyday, planar surfaces of architecture. Dotted lines indicate a partial condition of unseen physical presence as it exudes or imprints on the matter before the viewer. These removed forces become outlined on the opaque surfaces of architecture, which are consequently rendered as permeable. Leaking through, the ‘unseen’ conditions start to materialise, the surface shifts towards transparency. 

Not only unseen things but also phantom conditions are marked into architectural drawings. When broken lines take the form of a series of long dashes, Patten & Rogness, in their instructional volume (1968), refer to them as ‘phantom lines’. [7] They are utilised in situations such as when a particular, specific detail is drawn in a generalised structural condition. The traditional, hierarchical arrangements in which structure may be seen to take precedence over detail become undone by a structure rendered as partial, dissolving, and impermanent with a long-dashed line.

Dots and dashes in architectural drawings often signify a repressed spatial movement as Porter and Goodman indicate in their 1985 drawing manual: ‘The dashed or broken line represents the third category. This line has an important function in orthographics because it represents a convention of depth. For instance, lines that are broken using short dashes function as “hidden lines” and signify objects that occur behind the plane of the drawing. Conversely, long-dashed lines signify objects that occur forward of the plane, i.e., between the viewer and the cut.’ [8]

If the plan has been seen as a cut that reveals everything at once, on one plane, dotted and dashed lines indicate the necessity of reading the vertical effects from above and below onto that plane. Dotted lines induce the viewer to shift between underground and surface condition and back again. The ‘conventions of depth’ that Porter and Goodman identify point to a past and future occupation of the plan condition and the movement that inevitably takes place between.

Dotted lines also record the movements of the shaping of architectural forms and figures. Joshua Kirby’s dotted lines rotate the eye and hand of viewer and maker through the spatial fabrications of the orders. Dotted lines activate the seemingly closed contours of his figures suggesting that movement could bring about other formal possibilities. With their shimmering lack of completion and their variable speeds (dots are surely slow compared to the headlong rush of a dash) dotted and dashed lines suggest that the making of architecture is always a mobile speculation. 

Such speculative tendencies in broken lines are both mobilised and resisted in their deployment as boundary lines. Boundaries that attempt to insist on closure and containment are often constructed in architectural drawings with a series of dots and dashes. Long – short – short – long – intermittent gestures of ownership and control but the inherent permeability of such lines suggests that the boundary might be seen as negotiable. In architectural drawings dotted lines, representing approximate borderlines or approximate conjunctions for which there may not yet be full agreement, also indicate sites of contention. 

Signalling the presence and absence of matter, dotted and dashed lines have within them the possibility of complete rupture; reading the darkness of ink or graphite as depth, as perforation, dots mark a line of separation. As a warning of frailty and the construction of weakness, the partial and intermittent nature of the dotted lines is found by Kasha Linville to be an underlying condition of the straight line. 

She discovers this in Agnes Martin’s pencil lines that grid her watercolours: ‘her line is sharp… Sometimes its own shadow softens it… Most often her line respects the canvas grain, skimming its surface without filling the low places in the fabric so it becomes almost a dotted or broken line at close range.’ [9] Even ideal geometry is, in the end, molecular, catching on the surface in a pulse between the physical and cerebral.

The flickering solid/void, on/off pattern of the dotted line suggests the structuring of digital drawings. Digital drawings, like dotted lines, deal with the imaginary, the speculative, and the partial and are committed to the unfinished and the mobile. Materiality becomes intermittent or dispersed in both dashed lines and digital drawings and matter is reduced to component level; on/off, matter/void, current-inducing oscillation. Electrical pulses that drive digital constructions are activated in orthographic drawings with the spatial connections and ruptures of dotted and dashed lines.

The on/off digital patterning of dots and dashes suggests that these lines, as in Ingraham’s analysis, are coded with bodily rhythms that complicate (bloodless) ideal geometry as the only grounds for architectural making. Rosalind Krauss, writing on a piece by Duchamp suggests that ‘the oscillation figured in the work through the back-and-forth of its rhythmic arc operates as a temporal analogue to the shifting undecidability of its definition of male and female.’ [10] On/off, residual matter/gap, dotted lines trace bodily cycles of pleasure into architecture. A beat induced, not only in the on/off pulse, but also in an approximate flickering shift between drawings and built architecture, potential and completion.

Broken lines also have a desire for completion; join-the-dots and discover meaning. Restoration and reconstruction drawings often use the dotted line to imagine perfection and restore unity to the damaged or fragmentary. Such drawings are a speculation concerning the past in the present and acknowledge an alternative to continuous, linear accounts of time. Attempts to navigate time with dotted lines is to formally step in and out of the present, past, and future.

Dotted and dashed lines suggest the fabrication of narratives. Three dots in a line at the end of a sentence invite speculation on the next event leaving the uncertainty of the dotted line trailing out of the story; a refusal of completion and an invitation to continue. As Nigel Lewis puts it: ‘a minute attention to spottedness in things, [is] an attention so marked that one sometimes has the impression of an obsessively pointilliste word painter at work behind the scenes. This is a world required to read alterations in surface appearance for tiny signs of danger, divine displeasure, the malign influence of the stars: the eruption on faces which might mean the plague…’. [11]

In his Ten Books on Architecture, Vitruvius looked to the stars, intermittent dots of light, ‘visible or invisible according to fixed times’, and found linear designs: the constellations Archer, Scorpion and Balance. [12] He traced the movements of the figures and the consequent patterns of sun and moonlight and fitted his account of architecture into a wider world. Those dots of light in a black sky that Vitruvius saw were also navigational aids to the first inhabitants of South Pacific islands. They followed the lines and patterns of stars from island to island. Islands that came to be represented on European maps in the eighteenth century as small dots in a vast ocean. [13]

The lines of the European explorers, marked on the charts from anchor point to anchor point with small dots, encountered, across the permeable boundary of the foaming shore, suggest a new sort of architecture. Architecture in the Pacific is traditionally structured through systems of intermittent linearity, lines of weft and warp woven together. Systems of weaving that depend upon the appearance and disappearance of material lines as they construct surface. Weaving can be seen as a technology of dotted lines as it builds gaps, as well as matter, into architecture.

Marco Frascari has pointed out that ‘[a]ll “lines” used in other crafts requiring metis [cunning intelligence] derive from the lines used in a loom. The tracing on the ground at a construction site shows clearly the textile origin of construction. The plan of a future building is marked by the tracing lines (pulled between the battered boards), which together resemble a huge horizontal loom. This shows that a plan of an edifice is woven, like fishing or hunting nets.’ [14]

Watching for the critical opening gap, the weft line surfaces and dives into the rising and falling path of the warp line constructing together a dazzling surface.[15] The simple singularity of the straight vector is replaced by a surface construction that leaves room for criss-crossing, back-tracking. As Carter points out, such tracking, marked like a sequence of footfalls across ground, is not conceived of in terms of progress or efficiency but is instead another sort of linearity, like a dotted line, sometimes over and above itself, composed of ‘potential crossroads’, responsive to circumstantial contingencies.

Through the gaps in the woven wall come sounds, spacing, breath … ‘For neat work the draughtsman must be prepared to take pains and do his dotted lines without mechanical aid. It is a help, when doing a dash line of any length, to count mentally 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-5 etc., keeping time with the pen.’ [16] Dotted line architecture, woven as a network is premised on the rise and fall of bodily cycles; it is lightly fabricated and disinterested in permanence. In the darkness of the woven interior points of light construct architectural effects recalled in the gleaming lights that appear out of the black void of the computer screen. The persistence and pleasures of these dotted lines are rhythmically patterned into the flickering, mobile constructions of new architectural space, Pacific space.

Drawing by Sarah Treadwell. Courtesy of Sarah Treadwell and Marmalade Publishers of Visual Theory.

This text is included in Spatula: How Drawing Changed the World, ed. Gordon Shrigley (London: Marmalade Publishers of Visual Theory, 2004) with essays by Slavoj Žižek, Barry Dainton, Annette Geiger, and Christoph Marchant-Kiss et al. It is excerpted with the publisher’s permission.

Copies of the book can be purchased here.


  1. Architecture Archive, University of Auckland, New Zealand.
  2. Joshua Kirby, The Perspective Architecture: A Work Entirely New, deduced from the principles of Dr Brook Taylor, and performed by two rules only of application, begun by command of his present Majesty when Prince of Wales (London, 1755).
  3. Catherine Ingraham, ‘Initial Proprieties: Architecture and the Space of Line’, in, Sexuality and Space, ed. Beatriz Colomina (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992), pp.254–71.
  4. Paul Carter, The Lie of the Land (London & Boston: Faber & Faber, 1996), p.298.
  5. W. Abbott & W. Millar, Building Drawing with Notes on Building Construction (London, Glasgow, Bombay: Blackie & Sons, 1926), p.4.
  6. Thomas C. Wang, Plan and Section Drawing, 2nd edn (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1996), p.41.
  7. L.M. Patten & M.L. Rogness, Architectural Drawing, revised edn (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm, C. Brown Co. Publishers, 1968), pp.2–3.
  8. Tom Porter and Sue Goodman, Manual of Graphic Techniques for Architects, Graphic Designers & Artists (Vol. 4) (New York: Charles Schribners & Sons, 1985), p.10.
  9. Kasha Linville, in, Rosalind Kraus, Bachelors (Cambridge, Mass.: October, MIT Press, 1999), p.79.
  10. Rosalind Kraus, ‘The Impulse to See’, in, Vision and Reality, ed. Hal Foster (Dia Art Foundation, Seattle: Bay Press, 1988), p.63.
  11. Nigel Lewis, The Book of Babel: Words and the Way we see Things (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p.49.
  12. Vitruvius, Ten Books of Architecture, trans. M. M. Morgan (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1960), p.258.
  13. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary (1973) gives as a definition of dot: ‘A small island… represented in the general chart… only by A.D. 1748.’
  14. Marco Frascari, ‘The Compass and the Crafty Art of Architecture’, Modulus 22 (1991), p.7.
  15. ‘And besides, while it may be true that the weaver has to time the passage of the arrow-headed shuttle with the woof to ensure it finds the warp’s gap, the critical moment originates outside, and the successful weaver is he who aligns himself completely with its movement.’ Carter, op. cit., p.320.
  16. W. H. Smith, A Guide to Draughtsmanship (London: E. & F. N. Spon, 1943), p.29.