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Drawings are the spiritual heart of architecture

Paul Finch

With the winner of the inaugural Architecture Drawing Prize announced, Paul Finch looks at how hand-drawn images still play an essential role in design

The inaugural Architecture Drawing Prize is being exhibited and presented at the World Architecture Festival in Berlin next week – a reminder that in a world of mesmeric multiple images, the architectural drawing still has a powerful resonance.

In some ways it was a concern about the possible decline of interest in drawing that prompted the launch of the award, made possible thanks to the support of Ken Shuttleworth/Make and Sir John Soane’s Museum, where an exhibition of the best entries will take place next February.

Staatsgalerie sketch 2 index

Staatsgalerie sketch 2 index

Sketch of James Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

Happily, the number of entries, more than 150 from round the world, suggests that the art of the drawing is alive and well. Moreover, hand drawing is clearly still something taken seriously, since it attracted the largest entry of the prize’s three categories: hand-drawing, digital, and hybrid.

At their best, not only do drawings convey architectural intention, but also something about the meaning of the project and the thinking behind it. In some cases this extends to thinking about the nature of architecture itself, which explains the interest of specialists such as Niall Hobhouse, whose magnificent drawings collection in Somerset has been the object of admiring critical interest. Niall amusingly claims that Somerset is a subset of London, but anyone who has been to his wonderful country eyrie will know that this is a conceit on his part. Only some of the people are London-types; the farmland is genuine.

Even the RIBA work stages assume that the initial ‘scribble’ will be supplied for next to nothing

As to drawings, the Hobhouse filter will not allow, in general, for anything other than the refined product. However, there is a world of drawing that is not for display, not for planning authority, certainly not for contractor, and possibly not even for client. You might start with the architect’s ‘scribble’, the sort of semi-sketch, semi-analysis visual note, which Peter Ahrends has helped assemble into a publication just being launched.

From there comes the more formal proposition, related to feasibility and concept, where some of an architect’s true value lies. Unfortunately, even the RIBA work stages assume that this sort of drawn idea will be supplied for next to nothing, even though it may be the most valuable analytical (intuitive) diagram that informs the potential project. Stages 1 and 2 of the RIBA plan of work have always been heavily underestimated in terms of value, and therefore in terms of fee chargeable. The drawings are thus undervalued too.

At later stages, there is more acknowledgement of the power and importance of visual representation, which may of course be entirely digital, but nevertheless entertains the idea that a human hand is involved. Hence the drawings used for public consultation and planning procedures, those semi-authentic representations of a future reality.

How does one equate perspectives with the authority of working drawings, beloved of the true design architect? They are related but separate, the one an attempt to indicate a whole outcome, the other the process by which individual elements contribute to that whole. These elements can be combined in certain specialist drawings, often the hallmark of a particular architect. Years ago, it was always a pleasure to receive images from James Stirling, who would hand-write on drawings to indicate which way was up in the worm’s-eye axonometric which made the representation of his buildings so distinctive.

Other architects have their methods of letting you know who the designer is – or at least who you think it may be. The examples of competitions won by architects whose drawings were taken by judges to be by someone else entirely would make an amusing chapter in any history of contemporary architecture. But they must have been pretty good.

Paul Finch is editorial director of the World Architecture Festival


Readers' comments (2)

  • Barnaby Kirsen

    In the same way I rue the day that we moved from records to digital music, I would be sad to see the loss of the hand drawn image. It is more connected, and has more feeling than a CAD drawing. Sometimes, even intimately knowing the wobble of a table can be used to shape the design, giving rise to more 'fortunate accidents'.

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  • I thought I'd encountered something like this before. And I had - the RIBA Journal's "Eye Line" drawing competition, whch celebrated its fifth year this last August. Also international, also welcoming hand-drawn, digital and hybrid works. Well, they do say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

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