The Power of the Diagram

Interview

How would you define the very notion of the 'diagram'?

Diagrams are visual devices for representing quantitative information in an abstract way. It is a technical genre of drawing that often requires two elements: 1.) a graphical syntax of symbols, arrows, lines, and notations 2.) a specific set of parameters through which algorithms can be processed to generate sequences of relationships. They have the capacity to deal with hard data or soft facts.

Walls House Section
Walls House Section

Where does the diagram originate from? How has it been appropriated by the architect?

One could argue that the genesis of the diagram as a pictorial language on flat media can be traced back to primordial wall paintings, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the advent of cartography. In all cases, the diagram is an explanatory narrative device to document the history of a place and/or event. Architects have since extrapolated the medium to chart the potentialities of their designs.

Walls House Plan
Walls House Plan

What role does this medium hold within architectural discourse?

Architects such as Cedric Price were able to demonstrate the capacity of the medium to transcend conventional modes of architectural drawing (i.e. plan, section, elevation) to represent qualitative relationships between the behaviour of buildings and their users to espouse a social dimension. Other architects such as Bernard Tschumi were able to cross the medium with the pictorial language of illustrated fiction to yield a ‘comic strip-style’ of drawing to merge plan, perspective, and image. This mode of representation will continue to evolve as a tool for exploring conceptual ideas about our relationship with architecture, time, and place.

If you had to select three diagrams which are pivotal within architecture, what would these be and why?

1.) Cedric Price – “Generator – Activity Compatibility” (1977, chart) – it is not an architectural drawing but could possibly be a tool for generating one. Price believed that architecture should have a social conscious and the capacity to adapt to its user’s needs and desires. In some respects, this chart is a diagram of the mind that aligns neuroscience with architectural potentiality to empower every user to be an architect of their own space.

2.) OMA – “Seattle Central Library” (2002, section) – the silhouetted envelope of the building encloses a spatial arrangement of text without alluding to its architecture. Instead, it describes programmatic relationships and their relative importance in a complex ecosystem of uses with respect to proximity and scale.

3.) FOA – “Yokohama Ferry Terminal” (2002, section) – a conceptual drawing that distills the spatial organization of a formally complex building into a continuously-looping circulation scheme situated between a city and its ferry port. In this instance, the architecture is a direct manifestation of the diagram from which it emerged.

Cedric Price - “Generator – Activity Compatibility”
Cedric Price - “Generator – Activity Compatibility”

Analogue vs. digital, to what extent is the diagram influenced by these - two modes?

++In some ways, digital modes of thinking, processing, and representing information have augmented (and even replaced) analog ones through technology and mimicry. This shift has altered our level of engagement with the creative process and the extent to which diagrams are crafted aesthetically.

What role does the diagram play within your creative process?

In my architectural practice, the diagram is a representational device used to lay bare the fundamental notion(s) of a design. The process of creating the drawing is also an attempt to break down all of the complexities into simplified terms and describe a design’s reason for being with absolute clarity. The best diagrams are self-explanatory.

What is for you the architect's most important tool?

Le Corbusier once stated his preference for drawings over all else in the profession of architecture because they simply leave “less room for lies”. I believe this is a sentiment most architects (including myself) share. The ability to probe the history and theory of architecture through writing is of equal importance and injects a degree of context, criticality, and meaning into the overall creative act.

About

Dominique Cheng (b.1979) is a Toronto-based architect/artist/writer.  In 2020, he founded NONUMENT – an interdisciplinary architecture and design practice committed to creating works and experiences that are layered in meaning, specifically/spatially located and impeccably executed.  His work has been widely published and exhibited in North America and Europe.

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