On Basket Weaving

Tim Ingold, in an essay “On Weaving a Basket” suggests that all making be thought of as a kind of weaving. He bases this on observing the way that basket-weaving proceeds very differently to something like making a clay pot. Making a clay pot apparently involves the application of form to a material matrix. The clay is at first shapeless, and more-or-less homogenous. The potter then shapes the clay, as if applying a pattern. The concepts of form and matter that derive from this model of making were particularly influential amongst ancient Greek philosophers, for whom sculpture was the archetypal art. We inherit these concepts of form and matter from this quite specific idea of a specific kind of making.

Ingold, however, asks us to pay attention to a different kind of making. Baskets are made of long flexible sticks, and are far less easy to shape. The weaver begins with a spiral, or a number of interlocking spirals, and the basket slowly develops in her hands. The idea of a form applied doesn’t fit well with this scenario, and Ingold suggests that what it resembles more than anything else is something growing. At any point in the basket’s production, the weaver doesn’t have anything like a free hand. The next move is not completely predetermined, but it’s highly constrained—by the nature of the material, and the structural necessity of the over-under movement. With skill, the shape of the basket can be manouevred through adjusting the tension of the strands, and by inserting or ending strands. The basket arrives as a highly formed object—there is no question of the basket having made itself, or happening accidentally—but the role of the basket-weaver is not that of the ancient Greek sculptor.

Ingold claims that to understand making properly, we need to dispense with the picture of making as form-application, and see making in general as having the character of weaving: as a process that unfolds, in which all the previous states of the thing being made exert constraints and pressures on it’s current and future states. The maker’s action is managing an unfolding growth, rather than reifying a pre-existing idea of form.

On Frascari’s Gut-Reactions

Frascari’s first exercise is to draw “a sequence of building details” using only “liquids, pastes, juices of powders that you normally eat, drink or use to spice and flavor your food” and various nibs and brushes. The objective is to cast specific attention onto the materiality of drawing.

Drawing, he believes, isn’t abstract or disembodied—it’s essential to recognise the various textures, smells, pressures, smudges, weights, consistencies and movements involved. This is deliberately at odds with the idea that drawing is a simple representation, a transparent code that describes something that exists or is intended to exist somewhere else. In the case of a set of construction documents, all parties agree that the lines and markings will be read as narrowly as possible, according to a set of prescriptive codes. In this case, lots of things are ignored about the drawing. The contractor’s set may become stained, torn, annotated, or photocopied, but this isn’t important, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the transmission of the required coded information. But the kind of drawing Frascari is advocating isn’t really about clean information-transmission over a pre-formatted channel. The drawing is a place where codes can be treated malleably and content not simply carried but devised. In fact, the distinction between the format and the content isn’t always clear.

By drawing with food, the embodiment of the drawer and the drawing are foregrounded. The marks and lines on the paper carry fragrant and gustatory cues. Attention is drawn to the material qualities of the drawing, and the gut-reactions of the drawer. Frascari’s strategy for escaping the reduction of drawing to information-transmission is to engage the body and it’s tacit knowledge. It’s precisely the point that drawing with wine, paprika and egg-white is unnecessary for effective drawn communication—the exercise invites drawing to be something other than  merely semiotic.

 

Frascari’s critique of digital image-making

Frascari’s most explicit critique of digital drawing tools so far as I’ve read is that they have a “seductive ‘coolness’”, a fascination often picked up before architecture school. This seduction is, for some, a response to the “striking otherwordliness” of renderings; for others a belief that digital tools expedite and economise on the design process; and

“above all… the belief that digital imagery grants instant legitimacy to architectural proposals through a superficial appearance of completeness without considering that this pseudo-completeness hides a loss of rigour”.

This legitimising effect is tied to the apparent realism of digital images. It’s quite true that, as Frascari writes, we have become acculturated to the veracity of the rendered image:

“photo-realistic representations of future buildings are considered the media of choice that allow architects and clients to make informed decisions. The computer screens that show visualisations of architecture in three dimensions have become powerful ‘crystal balls’ or ‘magic mirrors’ capable of showing ‘truthful views’ of the future”.

While I completely agree that this is the case, and that it’s problematic for good architectural production, I see it as necessitating more intelligent and critical use of digital tools, not as making digital tools innately less useful for the imaginative, “cosmopoetic” tasks Frascari envisages.

Eleven Exercises in Architectural Drawing

FRASCARI’S ELEVEN EXERCISES IN ARCHITECTURAL DRAWING

I’ve just received Marco Frascari’s recent Eleven Exercises in the Art of Architectural Drawing (2011). Frascari’s an interesting writer: opinionated, idiosyncratic and unconventional. His essay “The Tell-the-Tale Detail” (1984) is an essential read, and his Monsters of Architecture (1991) is a cogently weird expansion on it. Eleven Exercises isn’t a drawing manual; it’s “not about right or wrong simulations and dissimulations in architectural drawings, but rather about a discerning process that takes part in the interplay generated by our sensorial assimilation.” In other words, drawing in his book isn’t a matter of correct or effective representation, but a cognitive process. This approach is appealing to me because it recognises cognition as a materialised process. It isn’t your mind that thinks, it’s your brain—mind is an abstraction. Nor is thinking exclusively done with brains. I store my upcoming appointments in a calendar, and commit my research ideas to paper because my brain alone isn’t very good at detailed long-term memory. And when I draw, I’m not just documenting ideas that I’ve already had in my brain, I’m inventing new ideas. Drawing is cognition not just documentation.

Questions are raised for me, though, when Frascari appears (at least in this early part of the book) to be setting up a distinction between trivial and non-trivial, imaginative and unimaginative, poetic and prosaic drawings.  I encountered Frascari’s skepticism of CAD when he spoke in person at an Interstices symposium in 2011. He’s of the school that sees digital drawing as inherently less soulful and imaginative than hand drawing, leaning heavily towards the prosaic, and unimaginative. In Eleven Exercises he claims “it is uncomplicated to develop computer-processing systems that can straightforwardly substitute the work of engineers, lawyers, and physicians, but it is an impossible Sisyphean task to develop systems that can replace draftspersons, cooks, rôtisseurs, gardeners, and architects.” Where the former set “base their profession on a sequence of logical protocols” the latter “practice imagination”. I think this claim is just snooty and wrong, and I’d like to see him make the claim to a mob of engineers, lawyers and physicians. I’m concerned that while he’s taking a radical line on the materialisation of cognition, he’s still got some deeply traditional subterranean prejudices at work.