Materia 5: Timber

Gordon Shrigley

This text is the final instalment in a series by Gordon Shrigley titled ‘Materia’ in which the architect meditates on the physical and semiotic nature of a number of everyday construction products. 

The language of architectural drawing, although appearing to promise an infinite arena for self-projection, ultimately fails to contain and express the many wanton landscapes our imagination contains. It is in this sense that the environs of the language of drawing are a straitjacket that allows us to think—we think—without constraint, whilst framing what is possible to be thought, possible to be built, within the seductive play of line and the unfathomable horror of the space between lines.

When we choose to ponder and look deep within architecture’s lineations, to try and understand how and what we speak, we see a strict set of visual codes that map out a disarmingly simple, and hence incontestable, series of conditions: edges, sections, corners, etc., that obediently sit upon and within the space of the picture plane, ever-ready for our instruction.

Here resides the underlying humility of the language of architectural drawing.

If, however, we choose to look beyond line’s docility, to consider the conceptual space of the page—the very ground of representation itself—we start to glimpse a more complex field, which, under close examination, has the ability to dissipate into mere nothingness. It is as if the landscape in which line resides, both upon and within the space of the picture plane, exalts in its own vacuity, preferring to be perceived as a messianic presence, rather than as puppet master, invisibly strumming the strings of linearity.

It is in this sense that the language of architectural drawing would present itself as a binary language, which oscillates between hard distinction as line and soft relation as the zero condition between lines.

Hence, we arrive at what we understand as ‘style’.

Or to put it another way: the complex sense of dynamic equilibrium that we associate with a recognisable configuration of identical lines upon and within the space of the relational plane and its associations with a plethora of dominant visual ideologies, such as Modernism, The Postmodern, Neo-Classicism, and its many Mannerist kooky offshoots.

What we consider, then, to be the visual traditions of drawn architecture, from whatever period, is required to be first manifest as a series of easily recognisable compositional tendencies, if it is to be considered worthy of entering the linear canon, as both a sovereign and useful tectonic language.

To complete a successful architectural drawing, therefore, that speaks not just of instruction but also of idea is to produce a clearly identifiable set of lineations that appear (however tendentious such a proposition may be) to instil, within and between the very lines themselves, an overall operative subtext that the author or authors would seek to extoll.

Drawn subtext comes in many hackneyed and cunningly subtle linear forms and relational leitmotifs.

If one was to scan, if only for the sake of brevity, recent European twentieth-century drawn architectural history, as one’s inevitably blurred interpretive field, we can perhaps perceive various linear odes.

Predominant amongst such linear exaltations, I see attempts to valorise historical lineage generally (and occasionally its reflected obverse), which is underpinned by an attendant call for social order, derived from, to mention just a few, ethnic nationalism, the healthy human body, the machine/modern subject, nature, hygiene, energy (real or perceived), the eugenic dream of maximum utility through measure, or, even, a self-reflexive attempt to refer back to line itself, as the ultimate arbiter of meaning.

The curious may wonder how exactly a particular set of linear relationships on the page can be interpretated to contain such worthy fellow travellers, and how each author came to choose this or that form of dynamic equilibrium to express their partisan projections.

One has only to consider, though, why straight lines held in orthogonal relation are wedded to notions of stricture. The Baroque line, resplendent in its unrepentant deviance, to untethered sexual desire? And clean lines with an ‘all mod cons included’ popular modernity, to start to intuit how the language of architectural drawing can be infused with ideas, over and above the simple instruction: build!

Can line and the space between lines really be mobilised to contain ideas? Or are architectural drawings just quaint oddities, decorative leftovers from the grand story of human industry, important certainly to how one plans and constructs a building, but not worthy of preservation. A small selection of the more visually arresting drawings may eventually grace the plan chests of museums and the rare connoisseur, but as most drawings have low monetary value and are rarely deemed worthy of academic study, they are simply thrown away.

If we accept that architectural drawings are primarily disposable graphic artefacts, are they not also ideational palimpsests? Which, due to their universal ubiquity and mask of semiotic banality, accept whichever reading we choose to project, erase, and then project again, upon them. Here, any additional meaning ingrained within the drawing, over and above the direction to build this wall here and that door there acts as a spectre, a gloss even, that evocatively haunts each drawing, but only if we are to take such a view at face value, for the length of time we choose to project such thoughts upon it.

To accept that the value and character of architectural drawings is a combination of the transitional graphic artefact, which enables production to continue, and an empty semiotic arena that invites and effortlessly enables partisan projection, is seductive.

As the sense that drawn language is a transparent utilitarian medium, which allows meaning to be produced and held, but contributes nothing of significance to further freight the drawing with any additional ideational baggage, is a popular view, here we find the dominant reading of architectural drawing as an elegant but basic tool, which obediently expresses, to varying degrees, our unambiguous intentions (depending on the skill of the hand that draws), but, crucially, leaves no semiotic residue.

I have always considered such a reading to be a poor assessment of the language of architectural drawing. It both downplays the value and importance of graphic artefacts to influence material culture generally, but also champions the much-vaunted space of our imagination, which we have traditionally considered to be held within us, in exclusion to all else. Hence, we say, I chose to express this idea through the medium of drawing, as tool, and not, the language of drawing drew me to this conclusion.

Such myopia as to how the language of line bears down upon architectural production, however, effectively blinds us to how meaning is constructed.

I would contend, therefore, that architectural drawing is principally of interest when we choose to read it not just as a semiotically docile series of visual ordinances but as a tense melodramatic play between our indeterminate sense of a fractured self and the infinitely complex plasticity of the world. To choose valorising the former in exclusion of the latter is to forever locate the genesis of drawn meaning as only initiated within the hollow monadic space we carry within us.

For some, then, the language of architectural drawing is like a placid lake, which we ponder at our leisure. In contrast, I see within its depths not clear sweet water, but dark brooding monsters that lurk between and within every line.

To choose to search within the infinitely complex plasticity of the world for how meaning is constructed within architectural drawing is, however, a complex and singular endeavour, especially as my fellow architects have, on the whole, traditionally downplayed, or just plainly failed to notice, the operative nature of the drawn.

I would like, then, to consider an extreme example of the drawn, produced during the National Socialist period in Germany, to explore, through the undeniable facticity of drawing, how ideology can be sewn within the very warp and weft of lines themselves. And, furthermore, to suggest how the employment of timber as talisman for a monstrous and perverted ideology became wedded to a genocidal project.

Who amongst us would argue against the universal nobility of wood? The archetypal tree exemplifies all that we consider worthy and true, instantiating within its very maw both the grandeur of botanic life and our nativist desires, literally sedimented within the blood-soaked soil in which each tree stands. Trees are emperors of the land, veritable kings of nature, solid, immutable, honest, dependable, and above all, indisputably natural.

And yet, the inaugural truth of the tree, for those of us who live within cities at least, is principally told through the language of industrially produced wood and not through a direct and intimate experience of the forest. Our relationship to actual trees—apart from the odd urban tree, zoned nature parks or the occasional foray into the country—is for the most part via the image of trees only, such as greenwash consumer product logos or lavish high-definition nature documentaries.

Within contemporary architectural culture, timber is experiencing a resurgence as it is considered one of several ways that the building industry can attempt to reduce overall carbon emissions. The reintroduction of wood, as high-tech timber product, back into the city, since wooden construction was effectively regulated out of existence, is certainly an exciting material prospect.

However, like the passing of time and the changing climate that the rings of a cut tree record, all materials are metaphorically stained with an undeniable history of use and association.

In 1934 the National Socialist regime commissioned the reconstruction of several vernacular buildings from the 16th and 17th centuries to create the Cloppenburg Museum model village to showcase traditional German rural life, handicrafts, and baukunst.

The reconstruction of any building is an act of homage, to valorise a particular reading of history and everyday life. In this respect, all dominant ideologies (both liberal and illiberal) are pre-programmed, so to speak, to seek to subtly influence or control, not just the present and the future, but also the past.

The state sanctioned reconstruction of any artefact from a nation’s history is always a contentious and costly endeavour, as it requires the reinvention of many obsolescent craft skills. The motivation behind such projects, however, is driven by an urgent desire to rewrite the history of yesteryear as a valorisation of the present. Here legitimation for one’s beliefs, is sought through the undeniable phenomenological truth contained within materials, which are mobilised to convert the contingent truths of the moment, into a bricks and mortar, rooted reality.

The drawing I would like to consider depicts an element of the intended reconstruction of a timber barn facade, and is titled: ‘Auschnitt aus dem Vordergiebel “Quatmannshofes”’. [1] The drawing is by the architect Gerhard Rohling, and is included as an illustration within the book, Das Museumsdorf in Cloppenburg by Heinrich Ottenjann, published in 1944, as a record, to celebrate the inauguration of the Museum Village.

Gerhard Rohling, ‘Auschnitt aus dem Vordergiebel “Quatmannshofes”’, reproduced from Heinrich Ottenjann, Das Museumsdorf in Cloppenburg (Gerhard Stalling Verlag, Oldenburg, 1944), p. 36. Courtesy of Gordon Shrigley.

How should we read this drawing?

One may reasonably counter, before we proceed, that because of the drawing’s unbearable historical associations, that such an example is too thick with meaning to be discussed only briefly here, if one is to act with any sense of moral propriety. For the purposes of this short article, therefore, and concomitant with the frame within which these thoughts are written, I shall concentrate, for the moment, only on how orthographic space is depicted and mobilised.

End Splitting

The drawing is made from lines that are located within the thought experiment we have come to know as: the simultaneous space of the picture plane.

The nature of the pictorial space employed also resides within a rare subset of the picture plane: the space of non-perspectival technical orthographic projection.

The architectural element is further depicted within the language of graphical projection as a cavalier view.

The object depicted is not a fully constituted object; the parts shown do not exist in the life world. The object therefore includes elements that have been conceptually cut to fit within the dimensional frame leading into the picture plane (the limits of the page), to foreground a part only, in section, of the whole building.

The conceptual space within the technical picture plane is a place of neither life nor death. Here objects from the life world are transposed into a place that cannot exist within our universe as it is not bound by the laws of physics. However, the space within the picture plane is still a space, but of a deracinated kind, without the forward march of time or the drama of entropy. To try to think within this space is to be as far away from home as we can possibly imagine. Hence, the experience of traversing this landscape is shrouded (for those of us who stop to meditate on the act of drawing) with a unique sense of unheimlich.

Within Rohling’s drawing, however, we see the depiction of end splitting within the end grain of each timber member. These are shown as web like cracks, to signify how the end grain cut ends of a plank of wood can sometimes split due to the cut parts, which have been cut across the grain, drying out quicker than the parts, which have been cut in the direction of the grain.

End splitting is the result of changes of levels of moisture within the timber element, which is evident within the life world, but would not come to pass within the neutered world of the technical picture plane, which is without moisture and hence decay.

Anyone who decides to draw within the technical picture plane enters an implicit contract that tacitly accepts that the space upon and within the drawing is not real, but nevertheless allows our imagination to run free of our everyday concerns and neurosis.

By showing how timber elements degrade after cutting, however, Rohling brings an aspect of the life world into the space of the technical picture plane, which signifies a partial refusal by the author, to accept the conventions of conceptually neutral pictorial space.

Rohling’s drawing therefore attempts to bring the life world into the space of the technical picture plane, by showing how timber signifies to us its slow death, as the gradual degradation from living tree to an end split dry plank.

Line will never enable a faithful translation from the life world to pictorial space. It will never take us to where we once were, are now, or where we are to go and so, in many ways linear representation is a failed project. Furthermore, the sense that the space within the technical picture plane is a neutral place, without history, is clearly a convenient fiction. However, the importance of line and pictorial space is, after sixty thousand years since the first cave paintings, hard to sully.

For Rohling, however, I read within his lines a desire to delineate what the technical picture plane cannot, the mortal coil of the life world. Here, Rohling’s truth is a barbarous one such that the world had never known; one that brings rot into the very ground of representation itself.

I hesitate though to pass judgement on this work in only a few pithy words. For the answer to the question, ‘is National Socialist ideology present within this drawing?’ deserves a more, wide-ranging and hard-won analysis, perhaps more suited for another arena. Yet, I cannot but sense it is nevertheless there, within the lines themselves.

Furthermore, the analysis of any architectural drawing, to attempt to tease out its underlying ideology, should never result in a gotcha moment. Architectural drawings are complex artefacts, that exude semiosis rather than provide unambiguous signals for us to read.

There is certainly, then, much more to be said about this drawing, but for the moment I submit that, in essence, Gerhard Rohling is a cartoonist.


  1. Heinrich Ottenjann, Das Museumsdorf in Cloppenburg (Gerhard Stalling Verlag, Oldenburg, 1944), p. 36.

I presented an unfinished version of this article at the school of architecture, University of Limerick on 20 March, 2023 and would like to thank both the lecturers and students who attended my talk and provided engaging readings of Gerhard Rohling’s drawing, especially Jan Froburg, Prof. Elizabeth Hatz and Gerard Carty.