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In praise of the quizzical line

Jay Merrick on drawing

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 and smoothed it down. Picking up a thick felt-tip pen he outlined, in half a dozen strokes, the shape of a Communist Party memorial that Moscow apparatchiks had asked him to design.

Three things struck me: the stillness of his unblinking gaze; his small fingers holding the felt-tip, and the way his curving lines wavered for a moment and then became certain as the felt-tip moved more rapidly. 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.

Is this looking for something else - this taking a line for a walk, as Paul Klee famously put it - still fundamentally important to 21st century architects, and to those who teach them? CGIs have become central to a psycho-pathology of design that craves a more marketable certainty of vision. Today, you can encounter startlingly impressive visuals that make it difficult to know whether an architectural student is profoundly intelligent, or will eventually become famous for transforming Croydon into a ‘vibrant’ conflation of Singapore and CentreParcs.

An antidote is needed. Pencil, nib, ink, paper - in relation to eye, hand, thought, doubt, accident, emergence. To those words we might add Juhani Pallasmaa’s engrossing phrase, the thinking (and making) hand. Let’s fold in some poetry, too: ‘Between the idea/ And the reality/Between the motion/And the act/ Falls the shadow.’

Those lines appear in TS Eliot’s poem, The Hollow Men, which concerns the aftermath of the first world 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 easily to the act of drawing. That sombre shadow becomes a lacuna; a charged and not quite identifiable space in which the unexpected form, created in an intrinsically uncertain, physical way, may arise.

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 details 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.’ In comparison, Piet Mondrian’s ‘fixed laws, which govern and point to the use of the constructive elements of the composition’ seem bossy and trivial.

To draw in a fertile way is to imagine that you’re in the process of seeing and substantiating one kind of form, and then realising that you are creating something different and self-challenging. At best, drawings are provisional answers that remain fissile and questionable. Unlike a CGI, a properly exploratory drawing made by hand cannot exude the virtualised aura of a completed architectural product.

In drawing, the relationship between hand, eye, intuition, emotion, and thought is febrile and equivocal. It can produce an astonishing range of expression, as is well shown in Will Jones’ book, Architects’ Sketchbooks, by C. Errol Barron’s exquisitely delicate watercolours, for example; the virtuosity of drawings and paintings by Rafael Viñoly, and Witherford Watson Mann; Sean Godsell’s architectural spoor, in the form of crude clumps of ruthlessly simplified figurations. No mouse, no pixel, no certainty, no instant architectural heroism in this kind of work, just potential.

In The Hollow Men, Eliot speaks of: ‘Shape without form, shade without colour/Paralysed force, gesture without motion.’ Is CGI leading to something like this dehumanised simulacrum of creativity? Here’s Deanna Petherbridge, author of The Primacy of Drawing: ‘I believe that many of the rich potentialities of drawing have been repressed in our time and need to be rediscovered and revalued. In particular, drawing needs to be reaffirmed as intelligent practice, which is as much as much about thinking, seeing and interrogating as inventing, and which communicates as intensely with others as it refers to the affective self.

‘One of the purposes of drawing should be to challenge the philosophical and artistic tedium of the ready made. In a sea of tired, secondhand 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.’

Note the elegant demotion of solipsistic visual invention, and the promotion of drawing as an expression of democratic contact. The latter is certainly what I experienced in that cupboard in Rio de Janeiro. When Niemeyer finally put his felt-tip down, 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, an incidental stranger, think of.

Jay Merrick is architecture critic at the Independent

Readers' comments (2)

  • Hoorah, Jay. I recall a eminent architect/juror's response to a very simple set of pencil and chalk sketches, presented for a building near an ancient monument; "I am not exactly sure what you are proposing, but I think I would like to find out" - and we will. Drawings leave space for discovery, where CGI's don't.

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  • This was a joy to read, a real pleasure. Drawing forces you to think....and think again.

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