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Architecture & design

Telling a story through architects’ drawings

— December 2011

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

Drawing by Peter Clash

Architects’ Sketchbooks

Edited by Will Jones

The architectural design process is essentially visionary – that is, the architect’s job is to envision future possibilities for the built environment and to communicate such ideas as effectively as possible. Faced with the task of representing things (buildings, landscapes, cities) that do not yet exist, architects have for centuries turned to the visual media of drawings and models, which may serve many purposes throughout the design process, from initial conceptual sketches to more detailed construction-related drawings. Although in recent years much attention has been focused on innovations in computer software-generated renderings, with their photo-realistic precision, many architects continue to pursue the time-tested approach of hand-sketching as a means of initiating, capturing, and communicating their design ideas.

This concept of drawing as a kind of visual language is introduced by architect Narinder Sagoo in his foreword to Architects’ Sketchbooks: ‘I use drawing to tell stories about the spaces and places that we intend to create… it provides me with a tool to communicate often very complex ideas in the simplest possible way’. The work featured in Architects’ Sketchbooks provides an intriguing cross-section through the many varied techniques and media deployed by contemporary architects in their quest to ‘tell the story’ of their designs.

Editor Will Jones has compiled an impressive collection of 500 such drawings by 85 architects from around the globe, illustrating not only that hand-sketching is alive and well but also that the definition of a ‘sketch’ is open to interpretation. The included work is provocative and fascinating in its diversity, running the gamut from the simple organizational diagrams of Shigeru Ban and the traditional annotated perspective sketches of Norman Foster to the stylized comic-book panels of M15 Arquitectos and the wildly abstract paintings of Will Alsop.

The book includes work by such established and well-known names as Foster, Alsop, Rafael Vinoly, and Ken Yeang, as well as younger, lesser-known but equally talented sketchers such as Brent Buck, Penelope Haralambidou, and Luke Pearson (whose moody science-fiction-infused perspectives are particularly striking). We also find the work of architects such as Junya Ishigami, who stretch the definition of sketching to include small physical models constructed of paper and cardboard, which stand as three-dimensional analogues to the two-dimensional sketches more often used in the design process.

Perhaps most interesting are the sketches that allow us to see an architect working through the design process, trying out new iterations of a form, considering different materials and methods of construction. The architects Chad Oppenheim and Office dA are good examples of this type. Each collection of architects’ sketches presents, as Sagoo writes, ‘a unique opportunity to eavesdrop on their creative graphical conversations’. In addition to beautifully reproduced sketches, the book includes a concise, straightforward text describing each architect and his or her approach to the act of drawing.

Perhaps my only criticism of the book would be directed at its organization. The work is presented in alphabetical order by architect’s name, which is certainly a logical and straightforward method. Even so, given the book’s successful incorporation of an incredibly diverse range of graphic styles and media, a stronger curatorial approach could have meant organizing the work into broader shared themes, perhaps related to the degree of abstraction or realism, to the juxtaposition of diagrammatic versus perceptual sketches, or to distinctions between more process-oriented ‘messy’ sketches and more polished, presentation-quality images. Nevertheless, Architects’ Sketchbooks provides a thorough and compelling survey of the language of drawing as practised by contemporary architects.

Architects’ Sketchbooks, edited by Will Jones  is published by Thames & Hudson (UK) and Metropolis Books (USA), 2011. 352 pp. 500 colour illus. ISBN 9781935202462


Scott Murray
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Scott Murray is author of Contemporary Curtain Wall Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009)

Media credit: From Architects’ Sketchbooks edited by Will Jones

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