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AT ISSUE: Sit. Look. Sketch.

The journey from eye to hand can profoundly affect
the experience of a place

ROME

For the last 20 years, a side street of Trastevere in Rome has disgorged a dozen or more architectural design students every morning at 8:00 in early June, each carrying graphite pencils, sketchbooks, and kneaded erasers. At noon, they return for lunch and a rest, before reemerging from their apartments on the Vicolo Moroni with easels, large drawing boards, and charcoal to draw from observation, on site, the streets and spaces of Rome until sunset. This format — analyzing the architecture, strada, piazza, and art of Rome by drawing plans and sections with proportional measurement in sketchbooks, followed by drawing the urban landscape to learn the art of visual structure and composition — defines the essential experience necessary to embed the ideas, concepts, and perceptions that fuel a designer’s imaginative capacity.

In the “Drawing Rome” course that I created with codirector and artist Jennifer Riley, and during my many years of teaching architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, I’ve insisted on providing this course of study. I continue to do so, believing it valuable to the development of a designer’s visual and intellectual engagement with the world and with the body of artists and designers that came before us. Foreign travel to experience alternate cultures and values also permits a level of reflection and awareness of the built environment that familiarity of place tends to prevent. I also believe that cross-pollination between the formats of design and artistic inquiry is one of the fertile roots of human creativity. The classes had robust enrollments; our students grasped the value of the course, one that would not rely on the camera to provide them with insight and understanding and the chance to develop themselves as designers.
 

Tonal drawing overview of Rome from the area near the Villa Medici and the Pincian Hill next to Trinita die Monti, 9.5 × 7.5 inches, prismacolor pencil.

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This double format accomplished many useful things, but chief among them was that drawing slows down the act of seeing and deepens our engagement with the world. It is a form of knowing, and it is also understanding, providing access to a world of sensual ideas. Many things cannot be discovered by mere looking. The extra intellectual and emotional energy required of drawing commits the mind in a manner wholly unlike any other form of inquiry. Drawing is not passive, nor is it amusement or entertainment. To the contrary, it requires rigor to be done at all.

The benefits of drawing are startling. To draw plans and sections of existing buildings and spaces is to reverse engineer, so to speak, some portion of the process by which the building or space had to be created. In so doing, we gain unique insight to the design choices by the authors of these places and build a repertoire of ideas about design. Drawing before an easel — a shift from the analytical drawings of plan and section, which have a rational basis for their construction, to the subjective drawings made from perceptual observation — addresses the invention of a complete spatial identity, one the drawing itself owns. It is useful to the architect to learn the art of composition and the cultivation of visual order born from experience. Drawing in this manner involves the total human, our conscious and unconscious lives, dreams, and sensations we hardly know the names of. This is where, in the crucible of creation, individual artistic conscientiousness has the opportunity to be forged.

Drawing, freehand in particular, weds understanding to opportunity, creating a capacity for imagination that is unscripted. This is why free-hand drawing should be supported and taught, and I do not think one has to be great at drawing to gain the insight and benefit that it now appears  — with new evidence from the sciences — that we, as humans, are uniquely hardwired to imagine because we can draw. ■


Stockholm

The most extraordinary 303 days in the most extraordinary places. There is no better way to describe my experience in Western Europe, where I spent nearly a year examining many of the world’s greatest cities. My research explored civic spaces as the architectural expression of the people, documenting their shape, their uses, and how people interact within them.
 

Sequence of Stockholm City Hall’s primary public spaces: Blue Hall, Council Chambers, Golden Hall, Hall of Mirrors, Bell Tower, Arcade, and Courtyard; materials: graphite on Strathmore.

About halfway through my journey, I found myself standing at the gates of Stockholm City Hall. Anyone who has seen pictures of or visited this building can attest to the fortresslike nature of the structure, with its massive brick walls and imposing stature. An exploration of the interior, however, reveals an impressive array of spaces that welcome the public on an unforgettable journey. My sketch illustrates this dynamic spatial experience, one of interlocking volumes around a central courtyard. By abstracting the spaces as a volumetric axonometric, the sectional quality of the spaces — tall, narrow, wide — can be viewed in concert with the plan and ultimately convey a compelling approach to circulation and sequence through the building.

When you travel it can be difficult to see the details in the whole, whether it is because you do not know the language, the people, or the customs. It is when you are able to sit and reflect, as I did while I sat along the waterfront completing this drawing, that the nuances become apparent. Every line drawn must be thoughtful: You begin with a blank sheet of paper, and line by line the nature of the space emerges. It is here that I began to see the smaller details within the larger context of not only the building but also my trip. Each city I visited, every person I met, or building I saw was part of a larger picture. ■


Provence

The monastery of St. Ganagobie in Provence, France, is located on a limestone plateau surrounded by sheer cliffs and overlooks the River Durance. The site is so commanding that it has been occupied since the Bronze Age. Stonemasons built a monastery here almost 1,000 years ago using local stone and wielding tools that an ancient Egyptian would recognize. A community never exceeding 13 monks has lived in the monastery almost continuously since its construction.

It’s the sort of place that suggests refuge in a troubled world.

I visited St. Ganagobie on a recent December afternoon, when the monastery was covered in snow. Drawing allows me to see things I never noticed before, so as I sat in bone-chilling wind on a frozen stone wall, I wondered what ink and watercolor would uncover. I saw that the plateau was a vast space where the saw-toothed Alps merged with the sky. Ravens floated above the cloister, and lavender plants lay dormant in the snow. St. Ganagobie seemed small, almost cozy, in this spectacular setting, a hulk of yellow stone with intricate carvings about the entrance.
 

Entrance to the monastery of Notre-Dame de Ganagobie, with Alpes in the distance covered in snow. Materials: Micron 005 archival ink pen, Koi Water Color Pocket Field Sketch Box by Sakura; brush has a water reservoir.

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Despite its remoteness, or perhaps because of it, the monastery was exquisitely built. From doorpost to roof ridge, there were no veneers, faux finishes, hidden supports, nor imitation. If the monastery was a refuge for the faithful, the building was an act of faith. Tools similar to the hammers, chisels, and rasps of St. Ganagobie’s Romanesque builders can be found in a mason’s toolbox today. Perhaps that’s what gives us such a shiver of recognition. A thousand years melt away between the unknown builders and us.

When asked why modern architects no longer built cathedrals, the German poet Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) said, “People in those old times had convictions; we moderns only have opinions.”

And in place of stone we have as many materials as we have opinions.         

Today monks gather in the chapel choir of St. Ganagobie seven times a day, chanting prayers to God. Outside, bright cars flit down the cliff road while the River Durance flows to the sea. ■


Vienna

Le Corbusier wrote that travel sketching was a way to “fix deep down in one’s experience what is seen.” He argued that through the process of drawing art and architecture, one engaged in a meditative act of looking and observing, absorbing the lessons of the greatest structures of the previous centuries. However, he also argued that sketching ultimately amounted to “discovery” and enacting imagination and originality. In “inventing [and] creating, one’s whole being is drawn into action and it is this action which counts.”

As a legacy of both the Grand Tour and Modernism, travel sketching continues to be an act of study. Yet I do not feel the need to be an inventor in my discipline, nor do I feel pressure to foster a New Age of Architecture. I draw places and objects, whether paintings or piazzas, to look closely, to think visually, and to investigate what works and what could work better. I feel free to alter details, colors, and volumes as I draw.
 

Urban seating in Vienna’s Museum Quarter; materials: pencil, ink pens, colored pencil, marker, and watercolor.

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Student gallery from Kirin Makker's drawing course in Rome

While on site in the Museum Quarter of Vienna on a late sunny afternoon, I was captivated by the overwhelming sense of calm felt within such a busy urban space. I began drawing one of the hundreds of street-furniture pieces in the main square. As I drew, I wanted to emphasize the people relaxing lazily but also convey the overall activity of the space. I made the lounging furniture formally simpler and drew people in active scribbles, using purples and yellows to show the contrast of energy, the sunlight fading into evening, the feel of the square over those hours.

Drawing for me is inherently interpretive, critical, and open-ended. I return to my sketches repeatedly, reworking them years after they were started on site. My drawings are thus process-rich because I force them to be. I want them to be palimpsests of my journeys across space and time in a postindustrial and global age. Although I inherited the practice of sketchbook-keeping from previous centuries of tourists, architects, and artists, I approach drawing as a means of meditating creatively with both the world around me and the marks I make on a page. ■


Mumbai

Walking onto the hot streets of Mumbai, India, for the first time, I was confronted with sensory overload. A riot of honking taxis, touts, pedestrians, colorful trucks, rickshaws, and the odd cow seemingly pressed from every direction. But after taking some time to sit and watch—no small feat with the commotion around me — a pattern emerged. The sidewalks were not actually the space most conducive to walking; rather, they were a place of transaction and gray markets. If you needed to walk somewhere in a hurry, you took the line between moving traffic and parked cars, which acted as a buffer between the stalls and pedestrians. If you walked on the actual sidewalk, you signified to the touts that you were shopping. I found that beneath the intensity of the smells, sounds, and colors, the more familiar model of a street section gave a structure to the unique nature of the area.

Mumbai sidewalks are more of a linear gray market for touts that can’t afford traditional rents, with a pedestrian zone between parked and moving cars.

At key intersections, often anchored by a major train station, the intensity would pick up and a curious built artifact would inevitably appear: the fading grand Bollywood theater. These structures are deteriorating for several economic and social reasons, and one of the key reprieves from the intensity of city life is disappearing along with them. Strategically placed and architecturally striking, the theaters are notable now for their crumbling façades and interiors that only hint at a more impressive history.

Classic theater in Mumbai’s Colaba area; materials: pen on Moleskine sketchbook paper.

This overwhelming density of the public sphere and lack of respite provided a fruitful zone for speculation. In my drawings, I proposed a retrofit of the theaters that would recapture their role as an urban getaway. Taking advantage of the massive growth in the popularity of the sport of cricket, the theaters would become home to indoor mini-fields called pitches. The classic buildings would regain their grandeur again with a quasi-civic role. The concentration of street life outside is likely to grow as Mumbai continues to be a city of desire for a growing population, but the cricket courtyards would provide a welcome escape. ■

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