Saturday, November 10, 2012

Conceptual Drawing

Several weeks ago Michael Graves wrote an op ed in the New York Times entitled Architecture and the Lost Art of Drawing.  He very succinctly noted that, in spite of the dominance of computer graphics, the need for hand drawing is central to the practice of architecture.  Some excerpts (my emphasis):

 “Architecture cannot divorce itself from drawing, no matter how impressive the technology gets. Drawings are not just end products: they are part of the thought process of architectural design. Drawings express the interaction of our minds, eyes and hands. This last statement is absolutely crucial to the difference between those who draw to conceptualize architecture and those who use the computer.
“The referential sketch serves as a visual diary, a record of an architect’s discovery. It can be as simple as a shorthand notation of a design concept or can describe details of a larger composition. It might not even be a drawing that relates to a building or any time in history. It’s not likely to represent “reality,” but rather to capture an idea.
“As I work with my computer-savvy students and staff today, I notice that something is lost when they draw only on the computer. It is analogous to hearing the words of a novel read aloud, when reading them on paper allows us to daydream a little, to make associations beyond the literal sentences on the page. Similarly, drawing by hand stimulates the imagination and allows us to speculate about ideas, a good sign that we’re truly alive.

Architecture and the Lost Art of Drawing by Michael Graves in NYT Sept. 1,2012

Sketch & Elevation of Denver Central Library by Michael Graves, 1991
Following are drawings (both site and conceptual) the great architects throughout history have created in attempting to visualize architecture.  They vary considerably in style, but are nearly all freehand ink or pencil.  There are plans and elevations, but also a few perspectives.  As befits Graves “referential sketch” recording the “architect’s discovery”, notes describing the idea are to be found accompanying many of the sketches.

 Bernini’s preliminary sketches for the Four Rivers Fountain in Rome convey the high Baroque vigor of the final design.  The sketches also illustrate the structural concept of the fountain: four freeform Travertine pillars rising to a single mass, which itself supports an Egyptian obelisk.  Note that the sketches all seem to be from one side of a free standing sculptural pile; a reminder that most of his other work was designed as a “stage-set” to be viewed from one angle.  The fountain, in this regard, is unusual for Bernini, and is a striking work of art viewed from any side.  Fun fact: the fountain was the setting for a scene in the movie “Angles and Demons”.

 A more architectural example is Michelangelo’s early sketch for the dome of St. Peter’s.  It is a simple elevation roughed out with pencil and straight edge, but the revised arcs of the actual dome shows the rethinking that went on during the drawing.  Note the faded plan and perspective detail at the page top, showing his thinking about the paired columns supporting the drum.

 Charles Garnier was a leading light of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in late 19th c France.  This ink “parti”, or conceptual drawing for the funeral of Victor Hugo shows his emotional, almost gestural approach to design.  It also hints at the Beaux-Arts focus on symbolism and human scale.  The projects of that time might seem grotesque in their symmetrical plans, but their elevations and details always bowed to the need for human scale.

 It is not certain that this sketch of H. H. Richardson’s Marshall Field building was by Richardson himself, but it certainly was done by someone so deeply immersed in the concept that “telegraphic” shorthand was enough to capture both the idea and the atmosphere.  The drawing technique was quite common for 1885, being used by correspondents reporting events to their newspapers.  In addition to the pencil, black crayon  and white ink on cream paper, the artist seems to have added a hint of brick red to the building itself.

 Otto Wagner’s 1894 pencil elevation of the Kunstgalerie is about 20 inches wide, and shows a loosening of style from the typical Beaux-Arts elevations.  His finished renderings were an early inspiration for my own work.

 Although trained in Beaux-Arts techniques, Louis Sullivan practiced a thoroughly American sort of design limited only by the strength of steel and concrete.  His reputation is centered on a lifelong exploration of ornament applied to the modern “curtainwall”.  This pencil sketch of the Eliel Building in Chicago is done on office stationary, and shows his habit of playing up the top and bottom of a tower while leaving the shaft as a simple repetitive window wall.

 This letter sized set of ink sketches and notes was done on the steamship S.S. Friesland in 1897 by Cass Gilbert.  Unlike the preceding architects, Gilbert learned the craft by working for 20 years in Midwestern offices and New York City.  His designs were decidedly historic, and were deeply informed by the color and texture of natural materials and building techniques.  Look closely, and read his notes to catch a glimpse of an architect who has mastered his craft from conceptual design to brick color to construction cost.

 Above is a sheet of sketches for the Jubilee Pavilion of the City of Vienna by Joseph Maria Olbrich.  His brilliant pencil elevations and perspective exemplify the fluid creativity of the Vienna Secession movement.  His career was unfortunately cut short by leukemia at age 40.

 Perhaps the most amazing artistic draftsman among these architects is Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue.  His pencil site sketches and conceptual doodles have always blown me away.   His ability to clearly and dramatically illustrate perspectives, elevations, plans and details, seemingly without effort has always depressed the hell out of me.  I really should have a separate post on his drawings. (the post on his work/life is here)

 You can’t have a listing like this without Frank Lloyd Wright.  Although much of the finished rendering of Wright’s early work was done by Marion Mahoney Griffin, Wright was quite capable of sketching in plan, elevation and perspective.  The letter and ink sketch describing Mr. Lowell’s house show this ability to describe an idea with style and economy.

 Back to the Beaux-Arts.  Whitney Warren’s ink sketch is a typical parti elevation done with simple economy.  The 1910 drawing is only slightly larger than letter size, but became the basis for the most famous railroad terminal in the USA.  Google the Grand Central Terminal in New York City to see how close the final building came to the sketch.

 British architectural education ran on a separate, but parallel track to the French Beaux-Arts.  Edwin Lutyens is perhaps the greatest British architect produced by that system in the early 20th century.  He had his start building English country houses, but this ink sketch shows his thinking in regard to the Viceroy’s House in New Delhi, India, in 1912.

 Josef Plecnik, like Joseph Maria Olbrich, worked for Otto Wagner in Vienna, joining the Vienna Secession movement which rejected historical ornamentation.  This cornice study in pencil and ink shows his ongoing exploration of organic architectural detailing.

 This sketch of the Ingalls Rink at Yale University by Eero Saarinen haunted me during architectural school.  How could someone take a soft pencil to a lined yellow notebook page, and create such a spontaneous yet convincing image.  Just amazing…  even now.

 The study of classical architecture is not dead.  Quinlan Terry has continued the traditional English use of historic idioms popular a century ago.  His on site pencil sketch of an arch by Bramanti shows an eye for detail which is the traditional path to understanding.

Santiago Calatrava combines the science of engineering with the art of sculpture to create spectacular architectural forms which continue the eccentric Spanish design trends developed by Gaudi and Candela.  His studies of human and natural forms have naturally led to similar ink and watercolor sketches of his building concepts, such as this sketch of Barajas Airport in Madrid.

All of the above examples are of famous architects and famous projects.  But the lowly draftsman also needs to have the ability to rough out an idea before producing construction documents.  The following drawings are from the early years of my career when I worked for various architects as a “pencil pusher”.

First, we have a sketch and development drawing of a service station in a restaurant.  The sketch is felt tip marker on canary trace, and the dimensioned drawing is drafting pencil on mylar.
Next is a zoning analysis and massing sketches for a residential block.  It was produced with graphite pencil on white trace paper.
Finally, there is an elevation study for the Times Square Tower Competition back in 1984.  (Pencil on trace)
....Which led to a presentation board sketch.  (Pencil and color pencil on legal size bond)
....And a final presentation which was one of 8 winners.  (Pencil, color pencil, pastel and airbrush on 30”x40” illustration board)


  1. a very thoughtful introduction to "parti". I thought the parti had to be a plan sketch that was "approved" before the student could proceed with developing the scheme over the "semester" be fore being finished up "en charrette" and delivered for final review. I also understand that the submitted design had to obviously be the same design as in the parti sketch

    1. You are exactly right regarding the Ecole des Beaux-Arts definition of "parti". My use of the word is closer to the "concept" that I was taught in school; that is, a guiding idea expressed with plans, elevations, perspective sketches, or any other visual tool. I always liked the practice of quickly establishing a "concept" for a design or painting. I'm less enamored by the rule that the final must match the "parti" sketch.