A Bit of Architectural Drawing


I wanted to understand the meaning architectural drawing by hand had in the past, and the meaning it has today. To do so the only things that I could do were to study and draw. After six months of research I selected some architects that, in a way or in another, have revolutionized the way of approaching architectural drawing. Each and every one of these architects have experimented in the field of graphic representation, elaborating drawings that contained their architecture idea fully.

The mere observation of the drawings on some magazine or nice book wasn’t enough. I had to dirt my hands, really get to know which kind of process lay behind every one of those splendid images. Only in this way could I fully understood the effort and devotion in representing an unique idea.

Inventing new subjects of the drawing would have been something too superficial. As a result I decided to pick a “model”, a cubic house used for educational purposes. The house was projected by architect Alessandro Anselmi, and after has been published in a series of flashcards by architect Margherita Caputo. The aseptic nature of the cube was perfect for different interpretations.

While I was studying the different architects through their life, architectural ideas, and representation, I was also drawing. I did this to better get inside the architects’ mind.

For each architect I consulted dozens of publications to find all their drawings, even the tiniest ones. In this way I had a full picture of their graphic oeuvre.

Once I understood each of them, not only graphically, but also their mind-set, I selected for each one of them a couple of dozens of drawings. Especially the ones that had a stronger impact or meaning.

I opened up each drawing style like a surgeon, extracting all the little details and unique features that I tried to replicate partly in my drawings.

The process was long and different for each architect. There was a first part of filtering, where all the “not so important” drawings were took off to give room to the most relevant. In the end I noticed that for every artist there is a specific way of representing ideas that struck the observer more, either for the simplicity or the complexity. I’ll take as an example the process behind Cedric Price’s drawing.

Fun Palace 1961

Price was an tenacious drawer, and we can see it through some great books like Cedric Price Works (Square Book) or the super expensive Cedric Price Works 1952-2003. He experimented techniques, overlapped different ways of representing and had always a funny and critic look on architecture. The images that definitely convey his thoughts are from two of his most famous unrealized designs. The first (a) is a view from the top, over his great project, the Fun Palace. The drawing mix different styles, with the aim of communicating the modernity and stratification of the palace, but from a new angle, the interior of a helicopter. This drawing is original and perfectly centers its goal. And even looking closely it is difficult to understand the manual process behind that. We are talking about a photo of a model, on which Price drawn with opaque markers and then overlapped some cutboard with the holes for the helicopter’s windows. An hell of a work, almost as the one he did for the second drawing (b).

Sketches for Potteries Thinkbelt 1964

Potteries Thinkbelt 1964

It’s another view from the interior of a vehicle, in this case a train approaching one of the stations of his other famous project Potteries Thinkbelt. There are two images (c) where we can see the process and the sketches behind the final product. Here the work seems simpler, but there is again a lot of manual craft behind it. Cutting the parts and overlapping the different layers.

All these things gave me an interesting look on Price’s work, and especially his mind, kind of twisted, but really methodical when he had to represent it. He didn’t take shortcuts, just a lot of effort to better convey his ideas.

A recap drawings to set the final representation

As a resuly I decided to realize an image similar to the second of the two that I described. I opted for a 2 points perspective, with the internal view from a taxi approaching the house. First, I set the drawing with a light pencil, the house and the shape of the windows of the taxi. It took me a lot of time to set the windows, it never looked so natural as in Price’s drawings, there was always something not adding up. In the end I managed to get an acceptable result. At that point I’ve drawn the house, the street lights and the swing with a felt-tip black pen; the two human figures with the pencil; and the crossing lines of the street with a china ink thin pen. Over these lines I applied a dot pattern, and I did the same for the sky, cutting off some parts to reveal the lightbulbs. In fact, it is possible to see the difference of density between the sky and the street. The adhesive dot pattern was also really hard to find.  This texture was really common during the 60s-70s, however this is not the case nowadays when it is only possible to find expensive pattern used for manga images. To complete the drawing, I used an adhesive transparent yellow film for the cab, and a black opaque one for the wheel and the rear-view mirror.

It was a long work, that required lot of planning (d) , but mostly a lot of time to collect all the material. The result is not in any way comparable to Price’s drawing, but I think it could at least get someone curious about the English architect’s work. Furthermore, it taught me the patience that lies behind some great drawings. Everything seems so simple and direct at the beginning, but only looking closely we can see the depth of the work.

The process behind the other 8 drawings was pretty similar to the one I just described. Obviously, there were different issues related to the supports on which I’ve drawn, or maybe the mystery behind some drawing’s technique. It really helped me consulting different publications to cross the result and get an idea of the drawing process.

The result of all my research is a series of 9 drawings and a huge text of 300 pages that goes deep into the architects’ life, idea and drawings, lingers on the themes related to this discipline and also has some interviews to architecture representation’s personalities, as Sergei Tchoban (from the Museum fur Architekturzeichnung in Berlin) or architect and drawer Franco Purini.

The first and last question that I ask in the thesis is: “Is architectural drawing by hand dead? And what is its role today?”

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

The scottish architect has an unique style. He uses a clean but slightly shaking line [01]. He prefers black and white, especially for the prespectives [02] where he often uses his graceful and original font [03]. But he also does interiors drawings, really accurate watercolors [04] that he uses also for the elevations, depending to the project [05]. His way of representing vegetation has made history [06], it is not a case that he is considered a precursor of Art Nouveau. His stroke, so clean and firm, gives its best in his famous striped skies. Skies in tension [07], in contrast with the absence of shadows [08]. He did used hatched shadows but just in the early drawings.

The drawing has been made on a A3 300 gr. opaque smooth paper with china ink.

Josef Frank

The austrian architect has definitely less fame than he deserves. His light watercolors are unmistakable with their tiny details and its evergreen nature [01]. Depending on the message he wanted to give he chose different styles [02]. The watercolors have a delicacy given from the pencil strokes, that are not insisted and almost invisible [03]. He uses diluted colors [04], giving a fairytale atmosphere to the representations, especially with a flat sky and some color stains for an non-intrusive vegetation [05]. But his drawings work so well thanks also to the accurate study of the shadows [06], that, even if they’re light, give a great three-dimensionality to the drawings. Also the colors he choses are not banal at all, they are realistic but at the same time dreamy like a toy [07], using them in calibrated compositions [08] that aim to send an exact message while stimulating the observer. 

The drawing has been made on a A4 300 gr. opaque rough paper for watercolor. The base was in pencil, deriberately left visible, the colors diluted as much as possible.

Gordon Cullen

The english architect is by far my favorite. Unfortunately he is also almost unknown outside britsh borders. He theorized his idea of Townscape through hundreds of incredible drawings. The shapes are sketched and stylised [01]. They seem simple to replicate, but I challenge even professional drawers to accomplish results similar to his. His drawings hold hided complexities, that only he is able to render in a easy way [02], using a lot of different techinques [03] and using the color in the smartest way [04], keeping the drawing light and focus on what is important to communicate. His stroke is at the same time insisted and careful, dirty and precise [05], producing perfect and unmistakable images with just a bunch of lines. We can say he has the gift of graphic synthesis [06]. Gift that he uses to convey concepts creating new ways of architectural storytelling, as his patented sequentiality of images [07], that illustrate paths and views of the city. His drawings are tiny or huge, always giving the viewer a clear image. They are full of life [08], how Cullen wanted the city streets to be.

The drawing has been made on a A4 200 gr. opaque rough paper for pencil. I used a charcoal pencil.

Lina Bo Bardi

The italian architect, naturalized brazilian, has had a renovated fame in the late years, but her way of drawing was never pointed out. Lina used drawing with a great naturalness, without thinking about the implications. She produced fast and imprecise watercolors [01]. Ink or pencil, it made no difference, she had a rapid and carefree stroke [02], filling the drawing with bright and local colors [03], never disturbing, just joyful. Her human figures are kind of goofy, stylised and child-like [04], without mentioning her animals and the thriving vegetation, typical of Brazil [05]. Next to her childish spirit there was a more precise one, how we can see in the numerous side notes [06], but especially in her realized projects. She often depicts scenes of sweet daily life, giving almost movement to the drawings [07]. Her most iconic drawings are central prespectives [08], kind of a naive representation, but perfect for her intents.

The drawing has been made on a A3 300 gr. opaque rough paper for watercolor. The china ink was used in the quickest and most natural way on a thin pencil base. The watercolor also was cast in a rapid way.

James Stirling

Stirling has definitely set a trend in architectural representation during the 60s-70s. His use of axonometric was copied by hundreds of architects. He is often called Isometric Stirling. Axonometry allowed him the best clarity and functionality [01], typical of his architecture. He often added a sparkle of creativity to the rigorous technical drawings [02]. Thrifty on colors [03], he used a thin coloured pencil to hatch the different areas, the sky was instead composed of crossed blue lines. His architecture is not the fruit of a sudden inspiration, but it is developed through infinite little study sketches [04], rarely published. To give depth and character to the technical drawing he used lines with different thickness and wise hatchings, if necessary [05]. But was also really common the total absence of contest [06] to point out paths or parts of the project. His “worm’s eye” view [07] became really famous. Even if it wasn’t anything new, Stirling used it in a smart way, giving an unprecedented point of view of the interior spaces, becoming one of his typical features, together with the full black filling of the sectioned structure [08], simple, effective and functional.

The drawing has been made on a A3 300 gr. opaque smooth paper. China ink was used for the lines and the filling, light coloured pencil for the background.

Aldo Rossi

The architect from Milan was one of the first to give an artistic significance to the architectural representation, but always keeping it strictly related to the project and its whole atmosphere and never end to itself. Rossi had a melancholic and beautiful idea of architecture, and his drawings perfectly reflect it. The line is not precise, but at the same time it is precise inside the context of the drawing [01]. The stroke is fast, and often reiterated [02], to delineate shadows and atmospheres that we can easly define metaphisic [03]. Aldo Rossi was an incredible drawer, as we can see in his more precise drawings, but to convey his ideas he often used irrealistic prespectives [04], or sometimes he introduced classical elements, people and out-of-context objects [05]. All these features communicate a really human nostalgia. His stroke is childish, and it is perfect to represent his “intelligent naivety” [06]. The colors are bright, and they overlap [07], with different intensities, techniques and supports [08], from watercolor, to feltip pens, gouache, crayons and whatnot.

The drawing has been made on a A3 500 gr. opaque rough paper for mixed techinque. China ink was used for the shapes, crayons to color it up.

Lebbeus Woods

We can count on the fingers of one hand the projects realized by Woods, but despite that his production of drawings is more than impressive. He is definitely one of the most interesting figures in the modern architecture scene, especially for his theories, exoposed in different essays with relative drawings. He focused on a destroyed architecture [01], and in the coming of the architect, an almost mythical figure, to save it. A geometric-organic-mechanical tissue [02] creates new spaces in a post-apocalyptic atmosphere world [03]. These new spaces, these new zones, are the sparkle to start the revolution against the war and corrupted architecture. He used countless techniques [04], often realizing installations. Woods alternates tense and broken lines [05] to a detailed and precise stroke [06]. His drawings have always a perfect spatial construction [07], with a mastery in casting colors and shadows [08] his works are alive.

The drawing has been made on a A3 300 gr. opaque rough paper. Black pencil for the buildings, and different coloured pencils to give shape and color to the rest.

Zaha Hadid

The iraqi/english architect is almoste every time linked to modern architectures and seductive 3D renderings. But not everyone knows that Zaha Hadid has only drawn and painted for the first 15 years of her career. Her canvas usually depicted the project in a totally twisted space [01]. She used ascending and exaggerated prespectives [02] to convey the tension of the idea. Cut and speed [03] are her typical features, but always using them in precise and experimental images [04]. Zaha Hadid used compositions of elements in the space [05], often making them explode in different directions to dismantle the enviroment [06]. There is a huge attention and elegance in the choice of the colors, with a limited pallette of colors [07]. Acrylic colors that are either flat or nuanced with great mastery [08].

Despite her great ability Zaha Hadid stopped realizing hand drawings the moment she had the right technological instruments to convey her ideas. She is the perfect example of the shifting from analogic to digital drawing that happened at the beginning of the 90s.

The drawing has been made ona 60×40 cm canvas. Graphite for a rough base, and then acrylic paint.


Who influences you graphically?

If we talk about hand drawn architectures, most of my influences come from comics. I genuinely think that the best hand drawn architectures (graphically speaking) come from comics, especially since the beginning of digital era. The stroke perfection of Chris Ware, the fantasy of Moebius, the synthesis of Hugo Pratt, the lightness of Igort, all of these comic artists, in my opinion, can teach us something that we can apply on drawn architectures. But we can not forgot some absolute masters of architecture and its drawn counterpart, like Aldo Rossi and a lot of others that I studied in my thesis. Everything influences me today, from graphic design, to movies, illustration, any kind of entertainment, that, thank god, we have in unlimited quantities thanks to internet.

What prompted the project?

This project is actually my master thesis. I didn’t want to do a basic architecture project, or either a refurbishment to end five years of studies. I wanted to do something that I really liked. I wanted to draw, learn new techniques and get an idea, as big as possible, of what is and mean architectural representation. I’m a big fan of analogic supports, so I decided to focus on hand drawn architecture and its role today.

What is your take on contemporary architectural representation?

Architectural representation is definitely in a great moment of its history. There are countless styles, tools and great designers out there. Digital drawing allow us to produce clean and beautiful images in a fast way. Something that 20 years ago could have took weeks, today can be done by the end of the day. That implies a growing speed also in the trending styles, everything moves faster and that means more opportunities to emerge, but also less time to do it. A designer really needs to absorb new updates almost everyday. Doing something original become pretty hard nowadays, especially when we have so many inputs from so many sources. That’s why it’s important to filter our options and get crafty. Your website is an example of how we can still invent, either with 100 different tools or 1 tool.

In taking architectural drawing as a process and inherently tied to the project, how limiting was the super imposition of the formal cube?

My first idea was to draw in different styles a “Generic itched roof house”, as you can see here. But this generic house implied a project that had to be directly connected with the architect and his/her architecture idea. It wouldn’t have worked. So my teacher suggested me to skip the project part and focus on the drawing part only. Taking the cube as a model allowed me to think only about the drawing techniques and the message related to them. In the end it really helped me, and being the project a single house gave me the opportunity to place it anywhere without, for example, the limitations of a multi-storey building . Another plus was that the cube is also pretty easy to draw.

What is your take on contemporary tools of drawing?

I think we’re still in a shifting moment. Digital tools are not totally developed yet. BIM is going to be the future but still needs to be implemented to become a tool to do architecture and not only buildings. VR is still at its first steps, but Tilt Brush seems to be something that really can push forward representation. Graphic design and illustration programs seem to be the more interesting. There are tons of styles, programs and new tools that we can use everyday, and that’s great, but at the same time I feel overwhelmed. That’s why I like analogic drawing, it gives me the time to think rationally and slowly. At least at the beginning, after I can easily shift to digital if necessary.

What and to what extent have they influenced how we perceive and communicate architecture?

This question make me think about the photorealistic renderings, especially those realized in the early stages of a project. They are something that can easily damage a valid project. It is expected to see something like this in competitions, and keeping the project similar to early renderings, in my opinion, is not great. Also the famous “Uncanny Valley”, the moment when the photorealistic image repels us, it’s a common thing. We can avoid all of these issues by using abstraction. Abstract drawings communicate ideas, moods and especially the architect’s will on the project. Finding our own way of representation seems to me the only way to really create and maybe build architecture today (obviously also with the help of more rigorous technological tools).

What role does the sketch play?

The sketch will always have a fundamental role in architecture. This is a thing on which 99% of architects agree on. I personally can not imagine starting producing any kind of image, from an architecture project to a simple movie poster, without a little sketch as a basic guideline. Pencil and paper have always another taste, but also digital sketching is great. Sketching allow us to convey ideas, and especially keep our mistakes by hand. Paper and tracing paper with sketches, notes and doodles can tell us a lot about where the project started, and where is going to end. Things that a direct-to-digital drawing is not capable of. Tools like AutoCad or BIM programs have this kind of problem, but I’m seeing that technology is everyday shifting more towards an “handy” approach, and that’s great, or at least is better than mouse and keyboard.