Marie-José Van Hee: Seeing not Showing

Tessa Baird

Marie-José Van Hee (1950), House, c.1990. Graphite on tracing paper. © Marie-José Van Hee.

‘House’ by Marie-José Van Hee is drawn on a sheet of trace, the edge of which is visible at the top, offset from the plain white ground for photographing or scanning. It is a freehand drawing that uses black graphite for lines, to hatch, shade, and achieve gradations of roughly rendered solid tone. In the freehand marks, a particular sensibility towards both drawing and building is discernible. Perhaps something of the significance of darkness as much as light in the determination of space, and of openness towards which parts of a building can be allowed to feel heavy or fine. These aspects can be traced forward in the combination of dark soffit and high-level glazing in the dining room of House Van Hee in Ghent, redolent of something ancient in the unusual balance of light and shadow.

The drawing is in fact many drawings of varied and nonspecific scales and orthogonal and perspective projections. The orientation of the paper shifts to accommodate newer drawings in the space between the ones previously made. Some are drawn over existing ones, and there are places where it is not clear to which stage of the drawing the lines belong.

In a freehand drawing, the marks embody the pace of their making. We see where things are abbreviated, or where the pen has lingered longer to fill something in. In this drawing, a flight of steps appears as two effortlessly balanced interlocking meanders between parallel lines. We are invited to consider this page as a single work, so the pace here is significant in how it makes clear the drawing’s cumulative nature. Rather than a particular iteration of a piece of architecture’s prebuilt life that might be found in a single sketch, the drawing is a record of thought developing over time.

It is not always clear what the lines are describing. There are moments of plan and elevation that we recognise, but here architectural drawing seems to be communicating with the mind’s eye of the person drawing rather than a mode of communication with others. The drawing is not made with the purpose of being seen and understood after its making. Instead, the action within it elucidates the architect’s own thinking about design: movement between viewpoints, relationships between parts, time. The house itself, or the many possibilities of what it might be, take shape in the temporary meeting between the page and the mind of the person drawing.

The consideration of this page as a single work of drawing lends some weight to this partially internalised process, of drawing to enable/allow oneself to see, but not necessarily to show. This seems worth noting from the day-to-day position of a practitioner, who works in the context of both longstanding conventions of architectural drawing with their practical requirements, and the newer tools we now use. It is not that these newer tools involve less imaginative thinking or projecting forward to what something might be, but that say, the construction of a view in Adobe Photoshop (which all aspects of the architecture may be tested within), will tend towards being framed from the start as a ‘final image’. This framing implies that it will be comprehendible as a singular representation of space and fabric in a way that Van Hee’s drawing does not.

Perhaps an equivalent to a full and cumulatively drawn page like ‘House,’ would be an export of a Photoshop file with all the hidden layers turned on, or all the extra stuff off the edge of the Illustrator artboard. This would result in a different kind of accumulation though, where meaningful graphic detritus builds up with the potential to reveal and obscure aspects of the intent of the image. In this way, it differs from the remnants of progressive live editing at play across the page that constitutes ‘House’, where there is no ‘final’ frame or view in the representation.

The kind of drawing that ‘House’ is may exist in the sketchbooks or piles of paper on the desks of architects, but it contrasts with the more congealed ideas that circulate in architectural practice of what a ‘sketch’ should be.   The most prominent of these is the kind of drawing that is made once a substantial part of design work is done, or the building is finished, to explain an aspect of it – perhaps the natural lighting strategy of a building with the direction of the sun shown using a big arrow, or the overall ‘concept’ as conceived by a maestro. These types of sketches are defined as such because they are hand drawings, often using a combination of fat felt tip and thin line pen, both with a slight wobble in their application to signify their hand-drawnness. They are reductive rather than generative, and then either didactic or mythologising, the former locating its purpose in a design and access statement, or magazine building study, the latter on the branding of the building site hoarding or exhibition catalogue. Either way, they call upon the hand-drawn stylization to make themselves seem more amenable and spontaneous – an eager grin or condescending wink. This is the mechanism of kitsch, which is not by itself something entirely negative. Maybe such applications of hand drawing would be innocuous if the effect didn’t seem to have been to have done the other kind of sketching a disservice, by making it uncool. Sketches have become either too much a diagram of functionality, or too much an imposition of the personhood of their creator.    

Among students, I sometimes find myself drawing in an attempt to explain what I am thinking, and realise a bit embarrassedly that the result doesn’t explain much at all. This is in part a hurried consequence of the limited amount of time that a tutorial is supposed to last, but also because I did not realise that I had been drawing for myself to see. Drawing for oneself does not always translate what was envisioned onto the page, even where there was an intention. It’s similar to the effort to fit words into a sentence that aptly describe the thoughts inside your head. In this moment, it’s hard to convey that this is a useful kind of drawing to engage with, rather than a failed version of the other kind of sketch that makes its point more decidedly. In Van Hee’s linework, there is beautiful conviction. We can see that she is seeing. Perhaps before you can possess the kind of skill so evident in ‘House’, then the value of doing this kind of drawing is for the thinking experience it offers is less apparent in what has been made.

‘House’ is stored and shown, so the drawing experience documented on the page is translated into something with a shared value, set in relation to other types of architectural drawing. It is a claim for drawing as action, not just end product depicting end product. This offers a faint line in the sand against the conflation of architectural sketches with presentation material. Here we are shown neither the final or refined object of architecture nor style of practice and no advertisement of lifestyle or class bias that the aesthetics of these might evoke.

It is important for practitioners to resist describing work when-doing-it in the way that it is described by others when-selling-it and so avoid a kind of codification of a sales pitch in the appearance of a project. It is also important that we detach from the tendency to always present when we draw. In this world, the drawing cannot elude its own status as a commodity. Its form of action, though, can help preserve a more open field of architectural drawing, where aspects other than those which are most regularly commodified can take precedence. One possibility in time is seeing, not showing.

Tessa Baird is co-director of OEB Architects and teaches architecture at Central Saint Martins.

This text was entered into the 2020 Drawing Matter Writing Prize. Click here to read the winning texts and more writing that was particularly enjoyed by the prize judges.