THE DREAMS THAT STUFF IS MADE OF
A while ago, Thom Mayne and I were talking about our recent projects, some of which have nothing explicitly to do with buildings. This is the exception for Thom but the norm for me these days, and at least part of our discussion was about why we would want to make work that looked to most people more like art than architecture. Interestingly, we both claimed the projects in question—Thom’s series of large physical models and my series of large drawings—addressed spatial and tectonic issues most relevant to the design of habitable space. I suspect that we will have a hard time convincing our more skeptical colleagues about this—so be it. Experimentation and research don’t aim for immediate acceptance, but rather at opening new ways of thinking and working, for their authors as well as anyone who might creatively interpret the outcome, which is the only justification for their publication.
(above) A corner of LW’s large-drawing room, cleaned up to display the drawings.
To regular readers I say, don’t worry, I’m not going to trot out the arguments for experimentation that I’ve made in many posts and indeed quite recently. Instead, I’d like to address some specifics of the Conflict Space series of drawings, shown here. This is partly in answer to recent requests by readers for me to discuss how I draw. While I remain skeptical of putting too much emphasis on drawing, for fear of distracting from its content, the way a drawing is constructed is, as in a building, part of its content.
The impulse to make these large drawings—they are, with one exception, 74 inches high by 120 inches wide (188 by 305 centimeters)—came first from my desire to make drawings at the scale of a room, that is, at an architectural scale. The reason for this is rather simple: to see if one could physically and not only mentally inhabit the space of a drawing. The second driving force was to see if drawing at that scale would produce something different than I’d imagined or drawn before.
Regarding the question of scale, I would say that the drawings in this series, experienced in the flesh, do invite our physical participation in the drawn spaces. This can be attributed to their size, but also to the fact that their presence is quite tactile, that is, one sees that the drawings’ surfaces, lines, and textures are made by a hand on actual, not simulated or virtual, material. The same effect could not be achieved through a blow-up of a smaller drawing. Secondly, drawing at this larger scale did inspire a different way of making marks and thus a type of space I had not drawn before, one emerging from the subtle variety and scale of marks only in drawings large enough to permit such a range, from the light to he heavy, the thick to the thin. Of course, viewing them on a computer screen negates these very qualities. This is similar to the experience of seeing an actual building and then photos of it. Following this thought leads us in the direction of considering representation as reality, which is not where I want to go in this post. Rather, I want to stay focused on the drawings and how they came to be what they are.
At the outset, I decided to work within strict, clearly defined limits. Even more, I wanted to restrict myself severely, in order to see what could be accomplished with a minimum of means. I won’t deny that this was in part a reaction to the surfeit of means I had employed in the past—tone, color, shading, accomplished through a variety of media, graphite and color pencils, pastels, ink—not to mention the rendering capabilities of digital computers, which enable a truly infinite range of possibilities. I wanted to put all that aside, to free myself of it, and also to free architecture—always the subject of my drawings—of an excess that increasingly seems to me to be suffocating its true spirit.
Architecture does begin with the plow, the brick, and acts of making. In different epochs, their uses are inspired by different ideals, and in our own, the plow, the brick, and the making must serve our complexity and diversity, the thousand subtle variations on a thousand human themes, even as they remain plow, brick and making. Architecture has become the most difficult and daunting of arts.
Such were the thoughts in mind as I prepared to draw. I chose as a ground a fine linen canvas that I prepared with black (actually very dark grey) acrylic paint. The result was a matte surface, perfect for receiving any drawing medium. For mine I chose an artists’ quality, water-based white crayon, because of its opacity and also its ability to be manually sharpened to a fine point by a hand-held sharpener. I would make white marks on a black field. The reason was, I admit, counterintuitive. Our cultural habits prejudice black lines on a white field as being the most evocative of space. White lines on a dark field are abstract, even flat and two-dimensional. Regardless, I reasoned that the drawing of a line is in itself positive, an assertion of edge and boundary that will overcome spatial ‘reading’ habits—my first big gamble.
The second gamble was that I would use only straight lines drawn with a specially made straightedge that enabled me to hold it firmly against the vertical surface of the primed canvas. The straight line is a spatial vector, conveying direction and magnitude of energy, not just symbolically, but also in the physical, intellectual, and emotional energy it takes to draw the line exactly as it is. Moreover, any curve can be created with straight lines, the smoothest with a mathematically infinite number. With straight lines, the boundaries of any form can be established.
Using this approach, the drawings aim to evoke in two dimensions three-dimensional figures that overlap and interpenetrate one another in spaces at once ambiguous and precise. In one sense, this echoes the goal of early Modernism to achieve spatial continuity and social universality, but differs radically from it in that here a universal visual language of vectors yields the idiosyncratic and discontinuous. This is important to an era such as the present one in which individuals are locked in a decisive struggle for their identities with the leveling forces of commercialized mass culture. Modernism, in its day, sought to reinforce a then-emerging demand for social justice, challenging a rigid class system by the establishment of an egalitarian environment. Today, the ‘egalitarian environment’ of consumerism does little to support social justice in any form. These drawings aspire to finding, in spatial terms, what I have elsewhere called ‘the differences in radical similarities.’ Too grandiose? No doubt. But such are the dreams that provide the energy to drive such projects.
ps. Thom Mayne and I have agreed to carry forward our discussion of his exploratory models. Keep an eye out for future posts….