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Editorial View: Architectural Representation

Redefining the ambivalent relationship between architectural representation and content

This special issue reconsiders the relationship between architecture and representation. Representation used to be thought of as simply drawing, but engorged by the possibilities of the digital age, it
now encompasses many other aspects, such as montage, renders, modelling and films. Thirty years ago, James Stirling’s hand-drawn axonometrics were the height of aspirational innovation; now a new generation of digital natives effortlessly mainlines into the latest software packages.

Throughout the modern era, changes in modes of perception coupled with the increased sophistication of representational techniques have refined and redefined architecture. Yet this complex synergy is rarely discussed, thus ignoring a critical and eloquent dimension of the architectural thought process. The epithet ‘paper architect’ is freighted with condescension. But as Nicholas Olsberg writes, ‘Drawing is an essential and persistent element in architectural culture and a means of portraying what John Hejduk called its “state of mind”’. Drawing encapsulates the elusive, synaptic spark between mind, eye and hand, whether that hand is holding a pencil or a mouse. For Peter Eisenman ‘Drawing is a way of thinking… I’m not trying to represent something; I’m trying to make it real. And the only way it can be real is through my drawings’.

New approaches to representation often presage more profound epochal shifts. ‘There is always a historical moment when techniques and methodology influence culture and the culture argues for a new body of work’, says Hernan Diaz Alonso. An obvious example is Zaha Hadid’s early Suprematist paintings. Produced without the midwifery of software, they were a genuinely new way of thinking about architecture. Likewise, Frank Gehry’s experiments with carved models, which were then digitised, marked another detour. Parametric modelling is simply the latest phase in the evolving rapport between tools and content, elevating design to a hitherto unimaginable level of digital cruise control.

However, once new techniques are more widely disseminated, they invariably become formulaic. The radical becomes the norm and the distracting search for novelty begins again. And now that architects can draw on a much wider repertoire of tools to assist them in devising new and more complex forms, is such licence an unequivocally good thing? Can they resist the lure of technique in order to sustain a wider sense of enquiry and inculcate a new point of view? ‘I don’t agree that a concept should exist simply because the tool allows it,’ argues Marcelo Spina. ‘The architect is delivering on a set of core beliefs. Any new image should belong to the a priori belief system that precedes the enabling capacity of the tools’. Beyond its crucial role as an incubator of ideas, representation for its own sake ultimately disconnects architecture from its core purpose, which is to build. As Manfredo Tafuri once told Peter Eisenman: ‘You have to build, because ideas that are not built are simply ideas that are not built’.

Readers' comments (1)

  • I'm not sure the hand and mouse are equivalent tools for thinking. The pencil/pen will always be the most instantaneous medium of transmitting one's ideas becasue it will never be upgraded where as the software through which a mouse draws is constantly being evolved, so how does one ever refine one's hand over time? One could argue that one's "hand" is merely a technical issue, but it dosen't seem that segregated from content when looking at the sketches of some of our best architects. I wouldn't discourage computer drawing, but I also wouldn't buy into the idea that man will ever be drawn to a machine product over a hand made product. At least before we've achieved singularity.

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