How are architects drawing in the world of digital culture?

Drawing Attention

How are architects drawing in the world of digital culture?

We have a lot to thank computers for; the laptop I typed this article on can execute millions of instructions every second. This is a number us humans can’t comprehend, but thankfully, computers can. Computers have changed the way we see and interact with the world around us: able to connect people across the globe and able to optimize oil extraction from prime sites decided through digital derivation.

Those most grateful for our microprocessor-driven overlords should be architects: they may romanticize the analog medium of sketching, but the truth is every building constructed today is “drawn” up using a computer at some point and the computer allows them to conceive every shape and size imaginable. Depending on who you ask, this has either saved or ruined architecture, and this friction is acknowledged in Drawing Attention, currently on show at the Roca Gallery in West London, where drawings from 70 participants are on display.

Random scrambles of distorted images
Thomas Parker, Jonathan S Collision, The Sorting Plan, An Obscura Revealing Lumetric B-Side. (Courtesy Roca Gallery)

Drawing digitally is now part of the process of design, something historian Mario Carpo describes as the digital turn in architecture. Drawing Attention, curated by Jeremy Ficca, Amy Kulper, and Grace La, professors at Carnegie Mellon University, Rhode Island School of Design, and Harvard GSD respectively, attempts to unpack the manifestations of this and asks questions such as: Where does the advent of BIM (Building Information Modeling) leave 2D digital drawing?

As evidenced in this exhibition, the second dimension is far from obsolete. In a post-digital age, and as digital representation techniques allow architects to obfuscate renderings and reality, we find these 2D drawings to be evermore abstract as they take on more artistic qualities, representing architectural ideas more so than buildings themselves.

The 70 drawings are thematically displayed in the following categories: Drawing limits; Drawing omniscience; Drawing instrument; Drawing environments, and Drawing as world-making.

In Drawing limits, architects like Zachary Tate Porter play with scale: his Topographic survey of two Sidewalk Holes in Downtown Los Angeles (see gallery above) is wonderfully ambiguous; the holes could easily be moon craters. “The digital model presents a crisis of scale,” he argued, and the scroll of a mouse facilitates a “seamless” and “disquieting” transition between scales.

Parametric drawing of a cell pavilion
Achim Menges Bundesgartenschau Wood Pavilion. (Courtesy Roca Gallery)

Architect Achim Menges, meanwhile, achieves ambiguity in a different way. An abstract view of his Bundesgartenschau Wood Pavilion celebrates the structure’s parametric qualities, something which is fitting for the exhibition’s venue (the Roca Gallery was designed by Zaha Hadid). However, this view is a reminder of how alienating parametricism can be. Where Porter’s scale subversion was playful and called upon the viewer to interrogate a terrain they see every day but probably ignore, Menges’s drawing is devoid of any scalar reference; it could be any size—a daunting and maybe exciting prospect, but one thanks to Hadid, we’ve already experienced. Rightfully so, parametricism doesn’t get much more of a look-in; but still many works on show exhibit the digital tropes from this period (fractals and excessive iteration) which is odd considering, by the exhibition’s own definition, this is an examination of the contemporary.

Elevation of a modernist crematorium
Jelena Pancevac Office 171 Crematorium collage elevation in winter. (Courtesy OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen)

‘Drawing as world-making’ showcases the industry’s biggest names. Jimenez Lai of Bureau Spectacular; Office Kersten Geers David Van Severen (KGDVS); Mark Smout, Laura Allan, Geoff Manaugh, and Tom de Paor are all on show. All exhibit interesting works though only KGDVS’s OFFICE 171 Crematorium from 2014 stands out, a hallmark of the post-digital ‘style’ pursued by other offices such as Point Supreme, Hesselbrand, and Fala Atelier, among others which aren’t part of the exhibition.

A painting of the ocean floor
C. J. Lim, Ocean Cleaning. (Courtesy Roca Gallery)

Drawing Attention also partially highlights how architects are representing the environment. C. J. Lim of Studio8 Architects goes against the grain of using endless amounts of data to inform a drawing, instead opting for a tongue-in-cheek cartoonish depiction of the ocean littered with plastic bags with phrases like “recycle or die” written on them. Lim’s Ocean Cleaning falls under the ‘Drawing Environments’ section of the exhibition, which arguably misses a trick by omitting architects who are aggressively pursuing a more sustainable planet. As the academic Peter Buchanan argues, without the computer we could not grasp the complexities of climate change nor be able to design the built environment to ameliorate it. Where are the drawings that exhibit this way of thinking? We are in a climate crisis after all.

Drawing of a desk and chairs
James Michael Tate, Inhabiting Abstraction. (Courtesy Roca Gallery)

That aside, there are some outstanding drawings on show: Sarah Wigglesworth’s The Disorder of the Dining Table is a classic—dating back to 1997—but always a joy to see and still relevant, as evidenced by James Michael Tate’s development of this drawing for an architecture office showcased adjacent. Meanwhile, Maj Plemenitas’s MSFM — Territorial Printing with Ocean Currents riffs off graphic designer Peter Saville’s timeless work on Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album cover. That work was informed by radio signals from a neutron star, whereas Plemenitas’ piece is derived from a simulation of the autonomous “production” of islands, seamounts and resilient shorelines.

“Drawing is taking a line for a walk,” said artist Paul Klee in 1961. When he said this, he was invariably inferring a pen, pencil, or paintbrush being guided across a page by a human hand. Through drawing, architects conceive spaces and places; stage sets for the theater of life. British anthropologist Tim Ingold takes it a step further, proposing that life is carried out on such lines, not just within them. Today, however, algorithms, scripts, and strings of code are used to represent architecture, serving as more than architecture’s final form before the hand-over to contractors and builders—the people that make architecture manifest in physical, tangible reality.

However, contractors and builders will never use the drawings exhibited in Drawing Attention, for drawing digitally is not just a means to an end, like it was before Carpo’s “digital turn”, defined by him as a period between 1992–2012. We’re now well beyond that and Drawing Attention gives us a glimpse of our post-digital trajectory.