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Creative Collisions: on architects' relentless sketching

Niall Hobhouse reviews the Courtauld drawing workshops to understand the value of the sketchbook: ephemeral and incidental, sketches are the spent fuel of the design process

The first in the series of Drawing Matter workshops took place in the summer of 2013 at the Courtauld Institute (AR September 2013). Participants were trying then to address the question of how architects’ drawings of buildings can usefully be liberated from the disciplinary machinery of architectural history and of attributional connoisseurship by assessing and critiquing them as objects in their own right.

The second event in June of last year was centred principally on the Sir John Soane Museum, and tried to build on some of these lessons while shifting format and focus. The sessions rejected formal presentations − in favour of direct confrontation with the objects themselves, and also the exclusive representation of work by dead architects − in favour of talking about drawing practice, and using the drawings of contemporary practitioners as the primary evidential tool.

On this model, the collision of disciplines and historical perspectives produced the sharpest insights: Pablo Bronstein (as an artist) carefully explaining to dazed historians that the only way of sequencing a set of early 19th-century office renderings was actually the drying-time of particular inks; Freddie Phillipson (as an architect), following an elegant forensic exposition by Adriano Aymonino of the iconographic programme for Syon with a set of his own exploratory drawings of the house. It was these re-drawings, of an intransigent building in the grip of a complex new programmatic brief, which proved clearly Robert Adam’s understanding of the spatial problems he was confronting, even as he made his decorations do the work of distracting the Duke from the architectural exigencies of adapting a Jacobean Long Gallery for use as an antiquarian library dedicated to the history of the Percys. Or Álvaro Siza, explaining that as the plans for the Tivoli Corner of the Bank of England evolved, he saw Soane constrained to the point of desperation by the inherited language of columns and capitals: ‘really, he just needed somebody to invent concrete …’

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During the hours of endless reconsiderations an ashtray is near at hand

And then Siza himself, whose architecture grows across a million bits of paper, describing how this process works, as he leafs through sketchbooks made nearly 40 years before; gestures in the air with a cigarette packet and cigarette, in default of a pencil or a better drawing surface; or in a quiet public conversation with Peter Carl at the Soane on the Sunday evening of the workshop. The sketchbooks present the powerful threads by which imagined solutions to specific formal problems are reiterated and endlessly reconsidered, asking the audience − clients, housing association residents, scholars, pupils − to stand beside the architect at the precise point in the (imagined) street or house where the problem presents itself most forcefully. When abused by more ruthless visionaries the sketch can quickly become just another mechanism for establishing authorial control; in Siza’s hands it is a courteous request to let what emerges on paper do the thinking, talking, the explaining. The answer emerges − or somehow merges gracefully with the problem perfectly restated. Meantime the process of design has itself become a demonstration of the logic of its outcome − so that in strange slow motion the audience has participated as the drawing does the work of finding out − not too quickly, as Kahn puts it − or not more quickly than the friction of a biro against paper allows …

Sketches are the spent fuel of the design process, without any practical use beyond the split seconds of their creation

It is these sketchbook sequences, so casually interspersed with jotted phone numbers and appointments, with measurements taken hurriedly on site or sketches of a pretty young woman glimpsed on the train, which provide us with one uncomfortable answer to the earlier questions of curatorial and historical ‘value’. Sketches are the spent fuel of the design process, without any practical use beyond the split seconds of their creation. They never set out to be autonomous objects, let alone to be beautiful; at best they are incidental (and easily disputed) witnesses to any considered history of what was actually built, or by whom; and their capacity to convey an idea depends generally on direct comparison not with the building but with earlier and later versions of the same subject, which may well not have survived.

In their relentless iterative method, ephemerality and evanescence, the sketchbook seems to be the historical artefact closest in structure and wild profligacy to the digital design process. Siza is after all drawing the same thing again and again, pausing over the previous version only when the new image is reconstituted to the same point; in that moment of reflexive, even frantic, uncertainty something has to be made differently.

From this improbable parallel, perhaps, the subject material for another workshop: development of panic-inducing parametric algorithms?

Drawing Matter workshop

Where: Courtauld Institute, London
When: June 2014

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