I love architecture drawing. Maybe it is because I am so bad at it myself, but I am completely seduced by dense lines pointing to impossible forms and spaces, to Prismacolor pyrotechnics, and even to slavishly accurate classical renderings. Luckily, we seem to be undergoing a Renaissance of drawing, despite—or perhaps, perversely, because of the prevalence of computer and communication technologies.
The recent exhibition of the late Lebbeus Woods’s work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (through June 2nd) reminded me of beauties of pencil on paper (full disclosure: I oversaw the collection or commissioning of many of those works when I was curator there in the late 1990s). The drawings, which are much smaller in real life than their reach indicates, are gorgeous and troubling at the same time, indicating Woods’s unease at the current state of our reality.
The architect never built anything beyond a few installations, though he very much wanted to. I would argue that is because his “experimental architecture,” as he called it, drew us beyond what was possible to visualize the implications of what we were making out of our world. See, and wonder, he showed us, or be afraid, very afraid.
Another recent exhibition explored the possibilities of drawing in Europe. Aedas, the redoubtable architecture gallery in Berlin, just organized "New Frontiers: Experimental Tendencies in Architecture: Zeichnen (Drawing)." I am afraid it is now closed, but somebody should bring it to the United States; the catalog is a wonderful record. In the book’s opening by Dieter Ronte, “Manifestatement” you can find a rousing call for drawing: “Think in pictures, not the husk of economic words. Liberate architecture from constrictions … Give your imagination room, imagine the room. …”
The more scholarly essay by Florian Medicus ends with a quote from the late Raimund Abraham: “…all you need is a piece of paper, a pencil, and a desire to make architecture.” Some of the works, such as Sebastian Heinemeyer’s plans on tracing paper, are abstract indications of such possibilities. Others, such as those of either Dietmar Franz or Franz Riedl, are collages that combine images of a decaying or empty world with drawn implications.
I love the more exuberant imaginings of Lukas Goebl, entitled Cities of Beautiful Bodies, or the sprawling explorations of urban conditions Constantin Luser spins out over the page. Florian Unterberger’s Endless Drawing imagines a skyscraper city dissolving into colored blocks. In all these images, the essence and the end of built form are drawn out further.
Then there is the portfolio of a student named Henry Stephens, which one of my own students at the University of Cincinnati (James Bayless, himself a mean man with a pencil) found on Issuu. A New Zealander who also studied at the University of California at Berkeley, Stephens has an incredible imagination that he tethers to an ability to combine collage and hand drawing. His early work, done in Auckland, appears all to be pencil or charcoal, and strong at evoking moods. His most recent projects, including Woolopolis and a proposal for an Earthquake Museum, are mainly computer-generated collages with what appears to be some hand drawing. They show forms accreting into enigmatic masses or piles of recognizable form distorted by placement. I especially like A Visual Abduction, which starts from an analysis of the movie "Bullitt" and winds up with machines and cabinets I have to confess I do not understand, but which let me imagine a reality transformed through mechanical vision.
Finally, his proposal for a new home for the Pacific Film Archives in the Marin Headlands shows that mediated view contained in fragments of an almost pure architecture, if we think of that in Adolf Loos’s sense as a gravestone found in a forest. I do not know who Stephens is, but if he, as well as some of the Europeans who did work that I saw in the Aedas gallery, and recently at schools in London, are any indication, we might not be able to borrow, scrimp, or build ourselves out of our mess, but we will be able to draw ourselves out of it.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.