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Reading response Wk 13 | Media and Architecture 2012

Reading response Wk 13

My first real job (besides the usual lawn-mowing and babysitting) was organizing the archives in my dad’s office. I spent my summer months in their storage room, and, later, the company’s (un-air-conditioned) warehouse rolling and unrolling reams of plans, yellowing, some crumbling on the edges, chucking out the ones marked, in red pencil, “VOID”. I’d nod in recognition at the buildings I’d seen in their half-built or final versions, or imagine the ones that I’d never seen, and the ones – altered or abandoned – I never would.

I’m far from technophobic, but, for me, there will always be something magical and nostalgic about hand-drawn plans – something to do, certainly, with my tactile experience with those old, shelved, obsolete sheaves of graphite on paper. The musty, dusty smell; the nearly identical (but occasionally idiosyncratic) all-caps lettering; the gritty fibrous ridges of old paper, the diaphanous crinkling of tracings, the sticky-slickness of vellum: they’re qualities that computer-rendered drawings, on their shiny inkjet stock, just don’t have.

In The Conventions and Rhetoric of Architectural Drawing, James Ackerman acknowledges, at least implicitly, the psychological effects of these materials: “Sheets of paper are not neutral with respect to the drawings done on them” (294). Their shape and orientation are anthrocentric, catering to the human body’s dimensions, and the human mind’s sense of order in the rectilinear. The tabula rasa is not a complete void – it is, after all, a tabula first.

If the materials used constitute something of a universal grammar for architectural plans, Mark Hewitt’s “Representational Forms and Modes of Conception” starts to articulate a kind of architectural linguistics. Mindful of the fact that “architectural drawings are secondary representations of artifacts (buildings) as well as works of art in themselves,” he proposes a methodology for looking at “architectural drawing as a medium of thought” (3).

To return to some of the analogies we’ve talked about this semester, I’m reminded of how making a building, like making a film, is not only a lengthy process of creative delegation, but a modular process – where individuals acts of creation contribute to the “final” form, but can, in some cases, stand on their own. I.e. storyboards, sets, costumes, screenplays. Other art forms, produced solo, don’t have this quality: only rarely are we privy to a painter’s initial sketches, or a novelist’s first few drafts. But architecture shares with film an evolutionary quality – a guiding set of ideas and principles spawns many ancillary works that are nonetheless integral to the process. The fact that so many plans, sketches, elevations, and renderings are part of the MoMA’s collection speaks to these works’ independent value, much like the sale of cinematic concept art books or printed screenplays.

I put “final” in quotes above because it’s rather questionable, following this vein, whether a work that involves this kind of constant revision is ever “finished”. As a film may undergo reconsideration or recontextualization over many decades (without any edits), so too may a building (without any additional construction). And is it stretching too far to think of renovations as similar to re-edits for the VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray release, rejiggering the thing to fit with contemporary demands? Whether or not it’s the original architect orchestrating a “director’s cut,” new drawings – new works inspired by the old – will play an important part of rethinking completed structures, as in the exercises Dan Hill recounts in “Teaching and Drawing Urban Sensing”. The process continues even unconnected to the original instigators.

Architecture, in both abstract and specific senses of the word, is a product of the collaboration between the designer and the user of what’s designed. There is architectural drawing, but there is also the architecture of drawing, as illustrated (literally) in Thomas A. Bredehof’s “Comics Architecture, Multi-Dimensionality and Time”. In the examples from Jimmy Corrigan, the artist, Brian Ware, plays with the conventions of linearity and chronology in comics, not so much violating them as exploiting them for new creative possibilities. As in a building, the pages he lays out have a definite intended program – but they also exist, fixed, open to and even encouraging alternative ways of exploring their nooks and crannies.

Architectural drawings exist in the main to guide the construction process – but they have an architecture of their own, and are important discrete parts of the process as a whole. As a sort of synecdoche for the evolution of a building, they can be fixed as an important artifact unto themselves, and enshrined in a museum – or they can be stamped VOID and marked for rethinking and replacement. And, perhaps, rediscovered, if only briefly, and appreciated for their anachronisms and incomplete solutions – for their never-realized potentials, and the immediate evocations of their smell, look, and feel.

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One Comment

  1. shannon

    Lovely, Alex. It’s been such a pleasure to take a little peek inside your mind — to observe how you’re processing and creatively synthesizing these various readings — each week. Ackerman and Hill (and even Bredehof, in his discussion of the 3D cut-outs in Ware’s comics) would agree with you that the materiality of these drawings is significant — and not only for nostalgic purposes. The specific drawing substrate to some degree informed what kinds of forms were drawn on it. And several of this week’s authors suggest that there’s much to be learned by regarding old drawings — perhaps even those marked VOID — as historical documents that can help us peek inside the minds of architects past, and better understand their habits of mind.