Lines of enquiry
Beyond the Drawing: New Dimensions in Architectural Representation
A conference at the University of Nottingham on 24 June Nick Temple began this stimulating conference by suggesting that instead of regarding perspective as mere image-making, we should investigate its profounder significance. James McQuillan then explored Dalibor Vesely's proposition that our intellectual space is threatened by 'instrumental thinking'; this, he said, is paralleled by our flight from the centre, as in the deformed, directionless landscapes of Robert Smithson or Daniel Libeskind. Yet the human mind continues to insist on art as perfection, enabling us to participate in the eternal.
Raymond Quek discussed how Kandinsky's paintings no longer have a centre either, 400 years after Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for suggesting that space was infinite.
Representation, said Quek, is more powerful than reality; Libeskind's early drawings always seem more powerful than his buildings. Representation enables us to depict impossible spaces, as in Choisy's worm's-eye architectural drawings, or M C Escher's hallucinatory scenes.
Benachir Medjoub then screened a series of short videos that blended straight film with artificial effects, intentionally confusing the real with the false. Regrettably, his explanation focused more on technical practicalities than philosophical speculations. Engineer Chris Williams showed a slide of his early IBM 1130 mainframe, saying he had had to programme it himself. Today's software packages, he said, give us no control; much better to write our own. So he rejected the suggestion that we're losing skills; actually, we continually replace old abilities with new ones.
Williams ran a small C++ programme he had written, and we watched it draw a spiral of 150,000 lines. This led him into a comprehensive lecture on grid-shell structures, culminating with his Great Court design for the British Museum. Although this held us all spellbound, he showed no inclination to speculate philosophically about why he does what he does.
Nic Clear then delivered a blast against all professional architectural practice.
Denouncing orthographic projection for leaving out too much information - apparently unaware that plans, sections, and elevations actually represent threedimensional space - he presented four Bartlett student videos. One seemed to be a quasi-sci-fi metanarrative, in which red streaks darted across monochrome images, against a soundtrack suggesting paranoia, disgust, and claustrophobia. In another, a sub-Archigram walking machine lurched along, crippled by the weight of its own mechanical redundancy. A third video depicted an enigmatic, hallucinatory GaudÝesque voyage through beautifully coloured, abstract spaces.
Striking though it may be at first impact, after 10 years of this kind of work from the Bartlett, by Neil Spiller and his followers, isn't it becoming a bit predictable? Disappointingly, Clear didn't theorise at all, and concentrated on explaining technical details.
Then Plasma Studio, 2002 Young Architect of the Year, showed some of its work. Very much in the current mainstream of translucencies, conceptual mats, topographical matrices, and deformed meshes, Plasma admitted its drawings are often incomprehensible to others; it was interesting to see how client pressure often forced the architecture to improve.
In a delightful lecture, rich in erudite references and hilarious parables, Marco Frascari discussed how communication is participatory, not confrontational.
Computers produce no materiality, no bodily contact with paper, and no loveable object, whereas a physical drawing is threedimensional. Any representation draws us into a complicitous relationship with what is represented; like an icon, it looks at us as we look at it.
Discussion descended from these heights into questions and answers concerning particular technical problems. But Edward Cullinan rose to the sublime again with a presentation of some of his own projects, which he re-drew on the spot using an overhead projector: a true master of all building technologies, with his head among the gods.
Thomas Muirhead is an architect in London.
For details of a further conference in October, visit www. nottingham. ac. uk/sbe/research/ ahtg/home. htm