Drawing as democracy
By Jay Merrick, journalist and architecture critic
In 2006, in an apartment overlooking Copacabana beach, the 98-year-old Oscar Niemeyer led me to a cramped corner where a slanting desktop and an A3-wide roll of drawing paper were fixed to the wall. He tore off a large sheet of paper, smoothed it down, and picked up a thick felt-tip pen. And then, in half a dozen strokes, he outlined the shape of a Communist party memorial that Moscow apparatchiks had asked him to design.
The stillness of his unblinking gaze; his small fingers holding the felt-tip; the way his curving lines wavered for a moment and then become certain as the felt-tip moved more rapidly. But the marks suggested very little until the final line had been drawn. Niemeyer promptly drew the form several times more, as if looking for something else.
CGIs have become central to a psycho-pathology of design that craves a more marketable certainty of vision. One encounters startlingly impressive visuals that make it difficult to know whether an architectural student is profoundly (and intelligently) talented, or will eventually become a CAD-wonk, transforming, say, Croydon into a “vibrant” conflation of Singapore and CentreParcs.
Antidote: pencil, nib, ink, paper . . . eye, hand, thought, doubt, accident, emergence. Let’s fold in some poetry, too: “Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the shadow.”
Those lines are from TS Eliot’s poem, The Hollow Men, which concerns the aftermath of the 1914-18 war. Eliot’s shadow refers to the post-war existential and political morass. But the idea of a pregnant, fraught space between intention and action transfers to the hope implicit in drawing – the sombre shadow becomes a charged space in which the unexpected form can materialise.
Drawing is hazardous. There is no instant clarity. Drawing forces you to think again, and again. Drawings cannot be finished. Pens, pencils and paper are the primary building materials; sketches are the first intimations of the tense physicality and potential of architecture, and the effect that even the smallest detail may have.
Drawings are marks on what the art historian, John Berger, describes as the “eddies of time”. And he adds: “When the intensity of looking reaches a certain degree, one becomes aware of an equally intense energy coming towards one . . . the encounter of these two energies, their dialogue, does not have the form of a question and answer. It is a ferocious and articulate dialogue.”
To draw in a fertile way is to imagine and substantiate one kind of form, and then realise that you are creating something different and self-challenging. Unlike a CGI, a properly exploratory drawing made by hand can never exude the aura of a virtually completed architectural product.
Deanna Petherbridge, author of The Primacy of Drawing, writes: “One of the purposes of drawing should be to challenge the philosophical and artistic tedium of the readymade. In a sea of tired, second-hand and endlessly recycled images, the indigestible dross that has passed many times through the body politic only to resurface again and again in the sewers of cyberspace, the drawn image that springs from the visual imagination of the individual is infinitely more potent and subversive.”
When Oscar Niemeyer finally put his felt-tip down all those years ago, he asked which of the drawings I liked best. Was this a maestro-supplicant routine? Not at all. He just wanted to find out what the sketches had made me, a stranger, think of. Drawing as democracy.
In The Hollow Men, we read: “Shape without form, shade without colour, /
Paralysed force, gesture without motion.” Remind you of anything? I’m sure I heard a mouse-click.
This post forms part of our series on The Architecture Drawing Prize: an open drawing competition curated by Make, WAF and Sir John Soane’s Museum to highlight the importance of drawing in architecture. The winning and shortlisted drawings will be exhibited at Sir John Soane’s Museum 21 February – 14 April 2018.