A century on, the compelling idea that Modern architecture emerged like some blindingly white, crystalline and disruptive phoenix from the darkness, death and destruction of the First World War is, perhaps, a familiar one. And, yet, the charcoal sketches and chiaroscuro montages Mies van der Rohe made during and after the epochal competition for the Berlin Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper of 1921-22 retain the power to catch the eye, provoke and disturb in our own era of overwhelming imagery much of it produced by and with computer programs.
What is so very remarkable about these century-old visionary drawings is that they portray a future building type - verging on the ethereal and more or less impossible to realize at the time - in the earthiest of drawing materials. It had been a stroke of genius to use charcoal to evoke an architecture of lightness rising from the embers of the trenches that would revolutionize the way we shaped tall buildings and with them our city streets. Such is the power of drawing by hand.
In her new book, Single-Handedly: Contemporary Architects Draw by Hand, the New York architect and writer Nalina Moses, has collated some two hundred hand drawings by contemporary architects from around the world that have at least something of Mies’s power to stop us in our visual tracks. However slick and clever, computer drawings, she argues, cannot yet approach let alone match the “formal intelligence, assertive sensuality and emotional immediacy” of hand drawing. Where the former has proved to be largely indispensable in the construction process, they remain geometric constructions no matter how cleverly they are programmed. Hand drawings are constructs of the imagination.
“A hand drawing”, writes Moses, “because it is linked to centuries-old traditions of picture-making, has a powerful imagistic potential”. Unmediated, it can also “move as swiftly as a stream of thought” while “setting the architect at the center of a building’s mythology”. And, for Moses, summing up the rich catalog of entries to her book, hand drawing returns the building to an organically conceived, yet freely formed, whole. “The empty page is an unregulated space, a field with infinite imaginative potential. It makes possible all architectures, whether rigidly pragmatic, unquestioningly traditional, or disruptively innovative.”
Any architect wondering if they should put their head above the CAD parapet and show their ability to draw and to think about architecture and individual buildings through hand drawing and so make a last-minute entry to The Architecture Drawing Prize, might want to turn the pages of Single-Handedly to witness the sheer range of techniques and styles and ways of seeing through the hand their peers from the around the world are capable of.
The book is also a reminder of what juries look for in competitions like The Architecture Drawing Prize. As Moses notes of the many beautiful drawings that came her way while compiling her book, “Of these some also possessed an expressive energy” - as, of course, did Mies’s Friedrichstrasse competition drawings - “as if they needed to be drawn. It was these, whether rendered in pencil, acrylic paint, coffee, ink or correction fluid, if not charcoal, that made their way into the book.
For more on The Architecture Drawing Prize curated by Make, Sir John Soane’s Museum and WAF visit https://thedrawingprize.worldarchitecturefestival.com/
Extended deadline Friday 4 October 2019