1. Sketchy Drawings

Much has been already written about the drawings from 20th century in architecture, particularly with reference to the collage and montage techniques of Mies van Der Rohe at the turn of 20th century,  about Archigram, Archizoom, Superstudio, OMA, Cedric Price, Bernard Tschumi, Zaha Hadid among many others. This essay intends to discuss the relationship or even the gap between ‘intention’ and  ‘representation’ as seen in nine canonical drawings between 1900s and 1980s from the Drawing Matter Collection. What this essay will bring forward is the fuzziness or sketchiness as an intentional quality in some of the well-known drawings, in the disciplinary history of architecture, and that these sketchy drawings perhaps carry the clearest of intentions in their work.  

On a cursory glance, what can be seen is that some of the canonical architectural drawings between 1900s and 1980s are very sketchy, patchy, fuzzy, shaky, and have many other similar qualities when compared to the ‘realistic’ and perspectival computer renderings of contemporary architectural visualization -which appear very clear, sharp, precise, easy to read and, hence, one can argue that they are very transparent. In a sense, one can say that the canonical architectural drawings of the 20th century should be difficult to read and one can even say that in that sense they are very opaque. Yet, in another sense, these very seemingly opaque sketchy drawings, of the 20th century, have remained with many of us as objects of study, inspiration or fascination. Think of the canonical drawings from the 20th century: From Mies’ collages, to to Eisenmen’s oblique drawings. None of the drawings would necessarily be termed as clear renderingsLet us call these drawings sketchy. Sketchy, not as the opposite of clear, but sketchy in the sense of alluding to something. Like the alluding capacity of a caricature or even fragmented cave paintings of First Societies, there is something clear in the intentions of these sketchy drawings. 

2. Clear Intentions

Recently, the idea of intention has gained prominence in some architectural discussions, particularly among architects like OFFICE KGDVS, 51N4E, LIST, Dogma, to name a few, who in ways more than one are also carrying forward,  and departing in their own ways, from the projects of prominent 20th century architects. One of the ways to read this is to think through what Rem Koolhaas refers to as program. Shifting the meaning of the word program, from its utilitarian baggage. Koolhaas reframes program as agenda as “trying to find ways that we could circumvent or avoid the architect’s passivity and by this I mean his or her dependence on the initiatives of others.” [1] One should not confuse agenda with function, which remains anchored in the discussions of utility. Instead, agenda needs to be understood as something that arcs across spectrum of fiction, desire and utility that is able to drive the coming together of form. In fact, like a Gothic cathedral, it should be possible to read such agendas at every scale of the said architectural work: from the drawings to the detail to the whole range of people and things that would mobilize in the formation of the project. Today, agenda is discussed among many architects as intention. 

However, there is another sense of intention and that sense is that of a project. Project in the sense of a projection, or a projectile motion, of what one wants to do with architecture. In that sense, one can also say that the intention of the architect, need not end at the scale of a building project, but it is a projectile arc, that encompasses all the work that the architect does, even if it means that none of the buildings, drawings, models, have anything in common. What the projectile intention of the architect simply means, is that in most works that the architect produces, with or without a client, the architect will do the work in a certain manner, and not in another manner. This is what Graham Harman refers to also as style[2]. This poses an interesting problem. If the architect is always intending and yet, is always able to do things only in manner that the architect is able to do, then, the architect is both intending and un-intending at the same time. 

3. Style

Style has had a dubious status amongst architects, it is seen as a superficial and sometimes even lazy way of engaging with architecture. However, seen from Harman’s view, style is the very essence of all things, everything lives already in a certain way, and not in another way. Yet, unlike the modern historians of architecture, for Harman, it is impossible to know the essence or style of anything fully, but always partially. As Harman notes “A style is never visibly present, but enters the world like a concealed emperor and dominates certain regions of our perception.”[3]. It should be evident from the way critics and theorists are be able to speak about works of architecture, art, etc. where the architect is not ‘aware’ of ones ways of or not much has been spoken or written about, or of works that do not have any clear author associated with. 

Seen this way, style, seems like an unintentional act, something that is innate and unintended. Like how we walk, how we speak, how the oil paint spreads, how a brick lays, a timber behaves, a bird pecks, and so on. yet, in another sense, as Harman notes, the question of style is also that about how things are rendered in new relationships: in this case, the relationship between the person and the field of architecture. This means that while we live our lives in a specific way we at times become part of relationships, that nudge our lives in specific ways. Yet, like in every relation one is always negotiating the difference between one’s own intentions and the emergent intentions, of the relational object. Similarly, when one relates with architecture, it is in this negotiation between what one is and what architecture nudges one to be, one is able to set the project or the intention to navigate through the field of architecture. One can even say that perhaps the engine that drives architectural works emerge from this tension embedded in this negotiation. In that sense, every intention is already a negotiation. 

When Hadid paints her Planetary Architecture Two one can read the negotiation of redefining or re-understanding the idea of tectonics as a planetary play and architecture as part of that expanded tectonic landscape. Or, when Mies -to Archigram to Superstudio to OMA- energetically put together the collages one can read the negotiation between the background epoch -from industrial capitalism to neoliberalism- at play and their intention to critique or nudge it. Or, when Cedric Price draws his notation heavy drawings of non-buildings one can see the negotiation between the background technological determinism at play, various affordances of the emerging technologies, and Cedric’s intentions to equally playfully negotiate that given medium in his way. These negotiations can also be seen in the aesthetic choice of the ragged, rough, brute, quick, urgent, and worn out fragments and marks in the architectural drawings which at all times are aware of the background conditions. Yet, there is one more interesting aspect about these drawings, and that has got to do with the aesthetic choice of the unfinished and fragmented nature of the drawings themselves. There must be an aesthetic quality to these works, beyond or apart from their context. One can argue that it is the unfinished and fragmented nature of the drawings that offer the aesthetic quality, by creating another kind of rift in the works, that is between the appearance of the work and the intention of the work itself. To put it in other terms, the rift between how the things are rendered and what is intended to be rendered. There is a sense of ambiguity that this gap between the appearance and intention that gives a sense of depth to these works. It is not the same as rendering the background conditions of the society or the human conditions, but the negotiations of rendering the intention into a specific form of drawing that is at the heart of the gap or ambiguity in these drawings. For instance, the rift that one experiences in the well-known architectural collages; Archizoom’s abstract notations; Hadid’s paintings; Cedric’s sketchy drawings; brings our attention to the architectural project in itself, the drawing of the project that we see, (literally) apart from the context or the medium or the background, that it is responding to. Here too, the drawings may be distorted, fragmented, unfinished yet, there is no denying that these drawings are alluding to, pointing at, and intending, something very specific in the work. Harman would argue that they are alluding to the real project more really than the realistic perspectives. One good test of this gap between surface quality and the intent of the project is to go through the series of iterations of each of the drawings mentioned above. My sense is that in each case, one will find the allusion to the intent in the drawing in each of the iterations, even in a drawing series, like that of Hadid’s. We can say that the drawings may appear sketchy, but their intention is nonetheless clear, as it enter our “world like a concealed emperor and dominates certain regions of our perception”.


[1] Koolhaas, Rem, Bernard Tschumi, Ana Miljacki, Amanda Reeser Lawrence, and Ashley Schafer. “2 Architects 10 Questions on Program.” PRAXIS: Journal of Writing Building, no. 8 (2006): 6-15. Accessed May 26, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24328969.

[2] Harman, Graham. 2005. Guerrilla metaphysics: phenomenology and the carpentry of things. Chicago: Open Court.

[3] Ibid.

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