The Traction of Drawing

I was at the The Traction of Drawing, the 2009 Interstices Under Construction Symposium last weekend. It’s good to see the Under Construction event becoming established – this time there was a sizable international contingent. Tina Engels-Schwarzpaul and Ross Jenner did a great job of organising it (and simultaneously editing issue 10 of Interstices, based on last year’s symposium On Adam’s House in the Pacific ).

New Zealand schools of architecture, and the Auckland University school in particular, has had a long fascination with architectural drawing. In the mid-nineties there was some amazingly skilled work: (I was personally conscious of the shadows of Peter Wood, Russell Lowe, Simon Twose and Andrew Barrie), some acute theorising of representation and post-coloniality, and some excellent teaching (in Sarah Treadwell’s drawing lectures in my first year at architecture school I understood very little, but remembered an enormous amount). The Traction of Drawing was, in this respect, a return visit to familiar terrain.

Sadly, there was little new at the event. In light of this symposium, I think that by the turn of the century, theorising about drawing had become consolidated: the arguments sketched, positions established. Catherine Ingraham’s Architecture and the Burdens of Linearity (1998), Robin Evans’ The Projective Cast (1995), and Stan Allen’s Architecture: Practice, Technique, Representation (2000, just released in a second edition, 2009) are the texts I find most compelling from this period. Ingraham indicates the philosophy of linearity implicit in much of architectural drawing, while Evans, with his characteristic lucidity, explores the mechanics of projective drawing and Allen insists that drawing not be artificially divorced from the context of architectural practice.

The Traction of Drawing felt dated, particularly with regard to computer drawing, which, unfathomably, some people seemed to think was somehow more problematic than any other mode of drawing. We were treated to the antique spectacle of some people standing up for ‘the digital’, others for the humanising value of hand-drawing, and others charitably proposing some kind of ‘hybrid’. Hybridity is an essentialist concept that assumes the existence of the discrete identites it merges, when in fact the extent to which drawing, modelling, simulating, rendering, geometry etc are actually differentiable as practices in the first place is precisely what is in question. Few people seemed interested in examining actual differences between computer- and hand-drawing; and there was a dearth of reference to current literature. Some bad critical habits were on display: unjustified reliance on puns and etymologies; and the tendency to build towering theoretical edifices on carefully selected edge-cases (a glaring fault of my own paper).

Drawing is ill-defined. So what? What is the desirability of establishing this kind of definition anyway? What is gained from maintaining a clearly demarcated thing called ‘drawing’? Albert Refiti’s paper, ‘Against Drawing’ described the construction of a Samoan fale as a kind of drawing in space that was not resolved as the projection of a plane, but as the aerial trajectory of a suspended curve. To call this a hybrid of drawing and modelling is to impose a categorical distinction that makes no sense in the cultural-technical context. Andrew Barrie commented at one point that the tendency to consider drawing in terms of a single authorial figure was an historians way of seeing things – and it is possible that the desire to maintain categorical distinctions like ‘drawing’ is a similar historians bias. Why defend drawing? Drawing doesn’t need to be defended from anything.

The keynote speaker, Marco Frascari, was of little interest, unfortunately (I didn’t attend his wrap-up comments on Sunday). Some of Professor Frascari’s writings (‘The Tell-the-tale Detail‘ and Monsters of Architecture especially) are excellent. Here, however, behind enjoyable although dubiously-useful latinate neologisms such as ‘facture’ and ‘sapience’, his argument was unimpressive. He began with the idea that architects are neurologists because they act on the nervous system. But then there was a blurring of emotion and sense, and  the discussion collapsed back onto the assertion that certain drawings provoke emotion and others don’t (from his examples, I had the uncomfortable feeling that he meant blurry bits were emotional and straight-line drawings weren’t). The materiality of drawings, Frascari argued (the weight of their lines, the texture of their surfaces) are to be savoured for their emotional stimulation. But it isn’t recalcitrant Cartesianism to observe that architectural drawings operate in other ways than the direct pleasuring of the embodied viewer; commonly (although not necessarily) notating or foreshadowing an act of construction in a higher-dimension space. (In fact, it occurs to me that projective drawing is not really Cartesian at all – it certainly isn’t Euclidean). To neglect these other operations of architectural drawing in favour of the pleasure of the singular drawn artefact is falling back on a comfortable auratic elitism.

The session I found most interesting was the final one (possibly because I had already given my presentation, so I could relax!). Andrew’s discussion of Japanese folded-paper drawings accessed a practice unfussed about maintaining distinctions between drawing and modelling. Mike Davis’s demonstration of how drawing operates in a host of ways in his own current practice was refreshing because it classified drawing by forms and degrees of abstraction rather than media. Christine McCarthy, noting the origination of section drawings in renaissance anatomical practice and ideas about architecture as a body, catalogued current medical diagnostic techniques which have supplanted cutting (MRI, CAT, PET), raising the possibility of new parallel architectural drawings. I almost laughed out loud when, in response to yet another lengthy question about whether computers are stealing the souls of our drawings, Christine simply replied that in a few years nobody would care, so it wasn’t a big deal. This session at least felt like it was taking place in the present.

Interstices has always had high academic standards, but it needs to continually update itself. In my view, The Traction of Drawing was too hidebound to assist with this.


6 thoughts on “The Traction of Drawing

  1. I’m an architecture student at the University of Kansas in the U.S. I happened across your blog a few weeks ago while researching Lagrangian Coherent Structures, and have been hooked since. Your clarity of thought and real interest in learning are obvious in your writing, and are both characteristics I would like to see more of in most of my professors.

    There’s a refreshing directness of thought in this blog that I really enjoy… it’s, in an odd way, kind of uplifting. I found myself nearly laughing also, when I read the following line:

    “I almost laughed out loud when, in response to yet another lengthy question about whether computers are stealing the souls of our drawings, Christine simply replied that in a few years nobody would care, so it wasn’t a big deal.”

  2. I also got a laugh out of that line.
    Though I share the same anxiety around the inability to merge digital and traditional modes of drawing in any meaningful manner. Drawing lines, notes and hatches over CGI certainly looks good, but seem to be just another surface treatment.
    Some of the stuff out of the UK student awards this year looked promising though.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Philip. The way i see it, there’s just no question of merging or reconciling drawing with a pencil and drawing with software. Drawing is a technological practice: there are always tools and techniques involved in drawing, and those tools and techniques have always overlapped. There are very good reasons why electronic drawing and modelling is dominant in architectural practice. I have difficulty seeing it as anything but ignorant to argue that electronic tools lack ‘soul’ or ‘life’ or whatever. There are of course differences between drawing technologies, but they certainly aren’t a matter of one being more human than the other. Do we complain that using a t-square and set squares is less human than drawing lines by hand?

    Photoshopping hand-drawn elements over renders is, as you say, largely a matter of style. More significant to me are how hand-drawings and computer-drawings change the way we process architectural thinking as we design, rather than after the designing has happened and we are trying to show off what we’ve done.

    I’m fully committed to the proposition that drawing is a technology of design, not just a means of representing it.

  4. Very nice discussion and a thoughtful post, thanks.
    I think I agree, I draw all the time, by hand, by computer, in my head, etc. How is the technology of these types, and their changing hierarchical expectations, affecting what we design. As an architect I am engaged in imagining a three-dimensional world and all ‘drawing’ is both simultaneously 2D and 3D, I wouldn’t try to define differences between computer drawing and hand drawing or drawing and modeling, whether physical models or computer models. The consequences of each of those technologies is much more to the point.

  5. Pingback: Diffusive Architectures « Spatial Design at AUT


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