Etudes is a rare thing amongst architecture books. Its subject is neither built nor unbuilt projects but instead imaginary places and abstract compositions by San Francisco architect John Marx. Rendered in delicate watercolours, Marx’s places are dreamlike and akin to the structure and sentiments of his taut poetry that sits alongside pages of his paintings.
Curiously, the quiet streets and vacant landscapes of Marx’s imagination speak to us in an acutely timely fashion as we find ourselves in a new world of empty cities closed for business, a world that feels as if it has come to a standstill.
A window into John Marx’s world, Etudes is also a more general discourse on the art of drawing and architecture. Curator Owen Hopkins’ chapter “Drawing Critically” discusses architectural draughtsmanship as “a distinct, autonomous mode of architectural production”. He writes, “If, when contemplating and working out design, drawing operates essentially as a tool, when it is used in this quite different sphere as a device for representation, interrogation, and speculation, its role is rather different.”
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Architect and writer Pierluigi Serraino relates the story of drawing to the times in which it is produced observing, for example, how, “Late 20th-century watercolors emerge from the ashes of the Beaux-Arts aesthetic, taking a leap from the artistic avant-garde of the 1910s. Lacking a unified code of representation, they display their ad hoc originality in the hands of their creators within the confines of the medium”.
Of Marx’s work, Serraino observes, that he “coaxes the viewer into an impressionistic visual narrative filled with references of the vaguely familiar, as opposed to literal links to specific landmarks”.
Some of Marx’s watercolours are paired with freehand sketches and diagrams that read as studies for the main illustrations and are charmingly printed on gridded paper. The range of visual devices employed in the book is itself inspirational in terms of communicating the scope of expression of traditional media, especially in an increasingly digitalised world.
In many ways, the handcrafted feel of the publication is like a cri de coeur for a more considered, artful and slow pace method of production in publishing. And so the book tells its own story, a strong and cohesive narrative alongside the essays, watercolours, sketches and poems.
The book has been designed as an art object in its own right and this is heightened by the choice of a heavy watercolour paper. The 84 watercolours and 40 short poems laid out by graphic designer Jeremy Mende give a strong play between visual form and semantic meaning.
Marx’s arresting de Chirico and Hockney inspired dreamscapes are summarised astutely on the back cover by architect and Royal Academician Ian Ritchie,
“There is a sense of condensed observation and acceptance of life, and humility in the face of beauty, in his poetry which accompanies John’s abstracted and refined watercolours – words flowing in space as thoughts journey across the pages – perhaps reflecting the architect’s loss of free expression as his internal imagination and artistic soul face the grinding realities of the world of construction.”