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Feature

Strokes of
genius

In today’s digitized landscape, drawing by hand is akin to an act of resistance

LOST Sep-Oct 2019

Genius Katie Shima p246

Spherical Plan Vessel, 2012, by Katie Shima. Ink and graphite on vellum.

Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

A young architect I work with recently came to my desk with a design question. After talking, and getting nowhere, I offered him a pen. He held it gingerly, not entirely sure how to open it, cradle it, and drag it across the page. It was equal parts comedy and tragedy, watching a gifted architect fumble with a pen.

I started working in 1994, as the first generation of drafting software was adopted, and learned to draft both by hand and with a computer. Some days I worked with vinyl pencils on Mylar sheets, and other days with MiniCAD on a Mac II. I handled leadholders, adjustable triangles, and a sliding straightedge, and I handled a mouse, a digitizing tablet, and floppy disks.

It was a time when many traditional physical media (photography, newspapers, letters) were abandoned for electronic ones; but for our profession, the change was devastating. Architecture lost a fundamental physicality, and architects lost a fundamental authority. Those practitioners today who continue to work by hand offer eloquent resistance.

Palazzo Madama (House of Savoy), Turin, Italy, 2016, by Nataly Eliseeva. Pencil and ink.
Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

A hand drawing is an architect’s physical, bodily expression. Its strokes, palette, and style reflect her sense and self. Every architect has his own hand: a way of stopping a line, rendering poche, and curving an S. Katie Shima depicts a world in which mechanical processes replace exhausted natural ones. Her exquisitely fine pencil linework, which spreads weblike across plain white paper, lends uncanny grace to these dystopias.

A hand drawing gives the architect singular imaginative power. It is an immediate, unfiltered transmission from the mind and, sometimes, the unconscious. No other person could have seen or rendered it in just this way. Nataliya Eliseeva crafts lovingly detailed domestic interiors in pen and pastel on colored paper. The scenes’ golden tones gives them a nostalgic glow, as if they’ve been reconstructed from personal history or half-remembered dreams.

A hand drawing is limitless in possibility. The empty sheet makes no assumptions and imposes no rules. It allows for architectures seemingly impossible in aesthetics, structure, and scale. In sensual watercolors, Beniamino Servino pictures long sliverlike sheds, called panetta, lifted high on piles straddling crevices in the Alps. He invents a new building type that’s both utilitarian and romantic.

Architects will continue to draw by hand professionally and personally. Sometimes it’s simply the best way to solve a problem or complete a presentation. But most American architecture students are no longer trained to construct perspectives, analytiques, or renderings by hand. And increasingly in offices, computer renderings and models are the primary design tools.

At first glance, the watercolors of Alex Fernández, which have the stateliness of Beaux Arts renderings, seem like anomalies. Composed from different, sometimes unorthodox views of a single neoclassical structure, they both celebrate and quietly complicate its formal authority.

Architectural drawings are always illusory. They hold at their core a figment, a structure that is remembered, imagined, or hoped for. A hand drawing might be always tinged with loss, offering us a glimpse into a world that remains most fully realized in the mind of its author, that burned most brightly in the moment of its creation.

Hôtel De Sully, Paris, 2002, by Alexander Fernández. Pencil and watercolor.
Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Alexander Fernández

Boston, Massachusetts

An architect’s travel notebook is typically filled with casually composed sheets, with drawings that vary dramatically in their level of completion and quality. The travel sketches of Alexander Fernández, a design director at Gensler, have an altogether different character. His watercolor drawings of historic European monuments, completed when he was teaching and doing research abroad, are expressive and elegant.

In small notebooks, starting with a sharp pencil, Fernández blocks out the fundamental geometries of a building, recording multiple views of it simultaneously. One two-page spread might contain a ground-floor plan, a bird’s-eye axonometric, notable ornamental details, and an interior perspective of the same building. Finally, he fills these line drawings in translucent watercolor. Little empty space remains on the pages. Nonetheless, each one is composed with the same sense of balance and restraint as the stately Gothic and neoclassical buildings he’s observing.

Window, 2012, by Katie Shima. Ink and graphite on vellum.
Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Katie Shima

Brooklyn, New York

Katie Shima’s drawings imagine a world where mechanical and biological processes have become confusingly intertwined. A vast viral network of pumps, motors, tubes, vials, and gears dominates the landscape, producing oxygen, water, and essential nutrients for the planet after its natural systems have failed. Except for some small green plants cultivated in sealed, glass-topped vessels, there are no flora or fauna.

In these drawings, mechanical components are deployed illogically, redundantly, and excessively, with minimal output: it takes an enormous mass of machinery to sustain a single sapling. Yet the scenes are ultimately hopeful. Shima renders the machine components and connections with angelic fineness and precision. Their composition is lucid and tissue-like, as if the machines themselves have life and move and grow as individual organisms. One senses in their persistent, gentle hum the promise of a new, more balanced ecology.

Pennata above pilotis, 2011, by Beniamino Servino. Ink gel pens, watercolor, coffee on paper.
Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Beniamino Servino

Caserta, Italy

There’s a strong autobiographical character to Beniamino Servino’s drawings. Over decades, this architect has drawn prolifically, first in notebooks and now “on all types of paper and cardboard, preferably not clean.” He typically stamps each page with a date and serial number and then files it digitally and physically.

In a series of drawings proposing finger-like buildings (pennata) straddling peaks in the Alps, Servino imagines long sheds lifted on slender legs, with chutes connecting them to the ground below. These perspective views are rendered in dazzling nonnaturalistic color with markers, watercolors, and coffee. No empty space is left on the page; margins are filled with notes and washes of paint. The drawings for the pennata included here, echoing the same ideal form, were created over several years. They capture a structure that appears to Servino again and again, in different guises, like a recurring dream.


City dovecote, architectural fantasy, 2010, by Nataly Eliseeva. Pen and ink.
Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Nataliya Eliseeva

Moscow, Russia

When asked to describe her drawings, Nataliya Eliseeva begins, “I draw from my childhood.” Though she works professionally to complete new designs for buildings and interiors, her drawings are charged with feeling, as if the scenes have been summoned from personal memory. While drawn with great technical precision, the people and objects inside them seem enlarged, charged with symbolic meaning, as in a Freudian dreamscape.

Most contemporary architects render details of interiors uneasily, as if they are inessential, outside of the architect’s scope. In Eliseeva’s drawings, however, furniture and decorative objects structure the space itself, physically and imaginatively. In a bedroom, an owner’s possessions (artwork, urns, chairs, barbells) seem to encrust its outer walls so that they set the limits of the room. In a bathroom, it’s the large tub at its center, rather than the floors, balcony, and open doors, that seems to define the place. The furniture and personal possessions within these rooms, rendered with great care, make the case for an architecture that is intimate and that can only be known from the inside.

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