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.