Architectural Drawing and the Two Images

by Samir Younés

Carl Laubin, Capriccio in process of buildings by Edwin Lutyens, 2016

Architects and artists see the world as image and build the world as image. As makers of images, they know that seeing and imagining are intimately related. Although seeing concerns objects that are external to the mind and imagining pertains to objects inside the mind, both acts merge freely in the imaginal lives of artists and architects as they simultaneously set to sculpt their forms, shape their artistic preferences and craft their artistic gaze. Architects and artists know that an image is more than what they see and imagine; rather, it is the ways in which they see and imagine. Between received images and making new images, their artistic gaze alternates between—in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s expression—seeing as and seeing in: inheriting meanings and projecting meanings onto the world of images.  

<i>Colonnatura I</i>, by Samir Younés.

Fundamental to the production of images has been the inseparability of making and seeing, of reason and feeling. The making of images, especially architectural ones, combines reason and imagination (Aristotle’s phantasia or thinking through images) because the act of making buildings depends on the principles and rules of composition. But the act of making buildings also depends on the desire for preferred architectural images—for their aesthetic appreciation, for their possession and for their dissemination. In fact, the artistic and architectural image, which can collectively be called the poietic image (Greek verb poiein: to make), may be appropriately termed an image-desire because it is coveted, sculpted, stylized and qualified with multiple layers of meanings and imbued with numerous personal and cultural attachments. For these reasons, drawing—manual drawing—has been placed at the intersection between the ideation and the realization of artistic form.

Because architectural drawing is an aesthetic activity of the mind, imagination and memory, it lays claim to reality inside artistic consciousness. This claim falls in the realm of artistic truth—an artistic fictive truth that renders fantasy artistically real, and when a building is finally realized, it can be said to have become artistically real. Since architecture is made poetically, or poietically, it can be understood both dialectically as well as logically. Before it is realized, a building lives briefly as a capriccio: a constructed fantasy requiring the mind, the hand and the pencil to be present within the image, journeying to its sources, turning around its masses, surfaces and moldings and traveling through its crevasses. Both disegno and capriccio can perform like a juxtaposition of metaphoric images, imaginatively transposing one image into another and transposing meaning from one image into another. Metaphoric images and Cartesian images readily exchange places, at least temporarily. In this sense, drawing is an intellectual activity that is inseparable from architectural making, just like construction, stone by stone, is a physical activity of architectural making. These were some of the qualities of the traditional image, the poietic image.

Drawing equipmentA significant number of architects today express grave doubts about whether drawing will survive for one more generation in academia and in practice. Many, perhaps most, architectural school graduate students today do not draw manually. For a couple of decades now, many architects have invested considerable fervor and hurried confidence in the promises of the next software in computer graphics. At times, this unbridled trust made them suspend their usually critical senses regarding the deep intervention in architecture brought about when measurable data (1s and 0s) are transformed into ever-more outlandish forms. But the deep intervention in architectural conception and its graphic representation had already begun several decades before (increasingly since the 1950s), when the mind-set of technique became a system that thoroughly pervaded the overarching view, the overarching self-image of society. Technique, as defined by Jacques Ellul, denotes the absolute efficiency and rational organization that can be attained at any given time. Technique seeks to organize all facets of human activity towards maximal efficiency. As such, it is a pervasive intentionality that came to apply to the totality of utilized means in the technological society. While the machine is the most obvious manifestation of the domain of technique, it is only one among its many phenomena. Technique may be seen to include the bureaucracy of a government which has become a thing in itself, rather than the accomplishments it is supposed to implement; or the contemporary practice of city planning; or the intervention of media technologies in the quality and distribution of knowledge. Technique also designates the object, the technological phenomenon itself, whereas technology designates a discourse on technique. To put it differently, the relationship between technology and technique can be seen as analogous to that of physiology and the body. For example, the computer is the technical phenomenon, while computer science is the technology: the discourse on the computer.

In the decades that followed the Second World War, technique and its discourses came to be qualified by autonomy, automatism, causal progression, self-augmentation and replication and an unbending resistance to external feedback—particularly from the humanities.1 Beyond mere mechanized means to achieve certain ends, all the technological phenomena are now interlinked. They became a system, a mediating system that permeates the whole of culture—especially its communications based on images. In fact, a new kind of image developed: one that became the ultimate common measure between one individual and another, between the individual and society, and between society and nature. Because the technical system refers to itself and replicates itself, it cannot point beyond itself. Because the images of the technical system—what one might call the technicist image—refer to themselves and replicate themselves, they became their own ends, their own other. Thus it is important to distinguish between two images of the world: the poetic, or poietic image, which we discussed above, and the technicist image. There are two images because there are two cultures—one humanist, the other technological—and architects and artists have been haplessly oscillating between both cultures. This parallels, although not exactly, C.P. ’s intent in his book The Two Cultures to overcome the divide between humanist culture and scientific culture, except that that is less of a problem now. The most acute divide occurs between humanist culture and the world of technique, which is not necessarily the world of the sciences.

The tool and the technological phenomenonBoth manual drawing and computer graphics have been placed at the intersection between ideation and realization, but they have widely divergent effects regarding both the image of the world and the images with which the world is built (literally, the weltanschauung). Computer enthusiasts usually derided the critics of computer graphics in architecture by telling them that the pencil and the computer are both tools, that it is only a matter of time before one is accustomed to this new tool and that resistance to computer graphics is equivalent to being intentionally behind the times. Explaining away the significant differences between manual drawing and computer graphics by considering them as “just tools” in an equal sense presupposes that the tools for drawing are neutral instruments that have no effect on the designer’s intentionality. In their zeal, computer enthusiasts insisted that the mind was unchanged by the tools at its disposition. Herein lies a grave error in understanding what a tool is and why can a tool be symbolized, as well as why it is difficult for a technical phenomenon to be symbolic in any comparable way.

Tools result from both the collaboration and the opposition between mind and body. Because the mind requires certain ends, it develops certain means, and tools are developed in order to fulfill these ends and means. The tool serves, but it also presents resistance to intentionality, and for this reason, tools must evolve in order to overcome the resistance. But resistance also serves intentionality and participates in artistic elaboration. Tools and methods are used in order to extend the mind’s intentions into the world through the body. For example, the pencil, as a tool, extends the mind’s intentions with the use of the body, which executes drawings by way of the pencil. In the operation of drawing, the paper and the pencil present a certain resistance. With muscle, skin and bones, we feel the surface and the contours of the object as it is being drawn. That is why the artistic gaze grows with artistic making. Drawing allows the architect to ‘sculpt’ the building; in this sense, the pencil is a tool because it is an embodied experience. The basis of the operation of drawing is epistemological and resides in the experience of the object as other—as that which stands apart from the consciousness that made it, the consciousness that is presently experiencing it. Returning the gaze of the maker that imagined it, the drawn object reminds the maker of its successes and failings: does the drawing conform to the image present in the maker’s consciousness, or does the maker need more wisdom, more experience in composition, more drawing practice? When artists or architects draw (designo), they recall, combine and transform the forms present in their memories. Thinking through drawing is an imitative and inventive act at once, the act of the hand trying to execute what is simultaneously being developed by the imitative and inventive mind. Mind-eye-hand are ontologically interdependent, and the tool, the pencil, allows them to reach out to the world with a dialectical relationship: seeing its images and meanings as they are, and seeing into its images and meanings as they could be. The drawn object returns meaning to the consciousness that imagined it, and the tool mediates this relationship. These are some of the reasons that make symbolic thought possible through the mediation of the tool, and these are also some of the reasons why manual drawing and the tool are positioned at the intersection between the ideation and realization of architectural form, of artistic form.

With the replacement of the tool by the technical phenomenon—that is, with the replacement of the pencil by Autocad (the current industry-standard software program for architectural design)—the mediation of the body and the extension of the tool have been replaced. We can say that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” but how strange it is to say that “Revit BIM software is mightier than the sword?” If the manifestation of artistic form previously depended on a symbolic thought that instantiated expression and representation through manual skill, this manifestation has now been replaced by technical processes and operations and the near elimination of what has hitherto been known as symbolism—whether art is imitating nature, symbolizing religious themes or reflecting social mores. It is important to note that the augmentation of technical phenomena and means has been accompanied by a diminution in symbolic form and meaning as well as in humanity’s mediation in tools. By replicating themselves, technical phenomena cannot reach beyond themselves. Technicist images symbolize themselves. A symbol that symbolizes itself is a condition of no sense—of, literally, non-sense.

Building information modeling

The massive production of technical phenomena, all made with the utmost rationality and efficiency possible, mean that these phenomena not only occupy the real but have become the absolutely real. They acquired an unassailable aura of necessity. When technical phenomena in great number entwine with the belief that their necessity must remain unquestionable, the result is that technology appears to be infinite—an infinity that acquires its own metaphysic because it is omnipresent. In their proliferation, technicist images induce “ideo-motor” actions, to use William James’ expression.2 Relentless repetition of technicist images tends to form and conform the mind by inducing other technicist images, and these images become the first stages of physical acts that transform the world accordingly. Many “inventive” forms produced by architects today have less to do with their creativity and more to do with the software that they use.

Do computer graphics not compel the mind to work in a particular direction, and is the role of the architect in this case not that of an editor? Already in much of the profession, the architect’s role has been reduced to that of a manager of previously fabricated technological components. But the technicist mind considers the proliferation of means as a necessary condition of artistic freedom—the belief that the increase in means necessarily entails an increase in the freedom of expression. Only, this proliferation of means, Ellul insisted, makes for a freedom from which the artist cannot escape. With this triumph of means, with the triumphalism of technicist images, any combination of forms becomes possible. Artistic genres, or traditional modes of artistic composition, are considered obstacles in comparison to the emancipatory and seductive technological means. Yet, contrary to prevalent belief, technological means, or succeeding software programs, do not necessarily facilitate the expansion of artistic freedom, nor the quality of architecture, nor graphic precision. Irrespective of how precise computer graphics can be, they offer no guarantee for a precisely built edifice. But then, how necessary and useful is the precision of computer graphics if the result is the production of buildings as fragments, shards and out-of-scale skyscrapers? Manual graphics and traditional building techniques have produced some of the most remarkably precise buildings in history. Suffice it to mention the eurythmic adjustments and curving stylobates of ancient temples in Egypt and Greece and the remarkable aesthetic and technical sophistication required to achieve them, or the exacting precision of dry-set stone work in Inca buildings in Sacsayhuaman and Machu Pichu, all realized at a huge scale. These and many other examples surpass any claim to technical superiority by modern architects and builders.

<i>Installation for Fondazione Prada</i> by Rem KoolhaasClassical architects face some nearly insurmountable difficulties in expecting other architects to continue to be animated by the Renaissance while being simultaneously inundated by technicist images, using software that is inexorably connected to the technical system, and conforming to efficiency-orientated means. Computer graphics acquire an aura of inevitability and necessity because they are part and parcel of a technical system that has become the aggregate of all means and all ends, forming an infinite continuum without closure, without limit. Computer graphics coordinate well and they attune the mind to the technological society’s relentless pursuit of utmost rationality and efficiency. Yet, for all their versatility, computer graphics do not allow for the subtlety, the nuanced expressions of manual drawings, while hand-made drawings always appear different because they express directly the personalities of their makers. That is why, after admiring a painting, we look at the painter’s face and almost invariably look at his or her hands. That is why we associate image, face and hand. Computer graphics almost always exhibit sameness, requiring much effort to personalize them. Still, one does not have to use computer graphics in order to produce drawings that are totally integrated into the technical system. Daniel Liebskind’s drawing Micromegas is one such example, and yet paradoxically, he (as well as Peter Eisenman) has recently come to defend manual drawing.

In their motion pictures, directors Francis F. Coppola, Stephen Spielberg and Christopher Nolan insist on using film (mostly) rather than digital technology; they do so not because of an attachment to an older and obsolete technology, but because film allows them to achieve a certain aesthetic that, despite its flexibility, digital technology does not provide. The same applies to some architects who are adept at both hand drawing and painting as well as computer graphics. Their preference for manual drawing has less to do with backward technophobic sentiments and more to do with an artistic sensibility that is attained by the mind-eye-hand dialectic, even if the perfection of manual drawing may take longer to achieve. The most accomplished architectural renderers today who use computer graphics have begun their careers as perspectivists and painters, having been formed on the foundations of great art. But their numbers are diminishing considerably, and the new generation of architectural renderers have largely been exposed only to the world of computer graphics, cinematographic simulation and the imagery of advertising empires. For the near future, the most accomplished architectural renderers have recommended temporary “hybrid” drawing methods based on knowledge of great art as well as the more expedient aspects of computer graphics.3 These are temporary measures, implemented because the rapid disappearance of manual drawing has led concerned architects into unchartered territory. And when one recalls the remarkable cathedrals that were built with very few drawings and almost no written architectural theory, one may conclude that all is not lost.



1. Ellul elaborated on these characteristics in his Le système technicien (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1977).

2. For more on this concept, see

3. See Gil Gorski, Hybrid Drawing Techniques (New York: Routledge, 2015).