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The Death of Disegno

November 5, 2011

Is architectural drawing dead? Perusing student work on the walls of an architecture school or flipping through the pages (or scrolling through the screens) of the latest trade journals might convince you that hand-drawn representations of architecture are, indeed, a thing of the past. Slick, and often dazzling, digital images dominate contemporary architectural design, making the occasional hand-drawn sketch or measured drawing seem quaint or crude by comparison. The ascendancy of electronic media in the production of architecture, it seems, has left little room for traditional drawing by hand. Will the next generation of architects be incapable of drawing with a pencil or pen? What will this mean for the art of architecture?
It’s no exaggeration to say that the modern profession of the architect was founded on the art of drawing. In Renaissance Italy, where the profession was born, drawing was equivalent with what we now call, “design.” Indeed, the Italian word, “disegno” means both design and drawing. Our understanding of design has been shaped by such institutions as the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in Florence (1563) and its chief theorist, Giorgio Vasari, who proclaimed that disegno was the “father of our three arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting.” Vasari’s theory of disegno has shaped artistic and architectural practice and education for nearly half a millennium. The vital connection between drawing and design was famously expressed by the premier architect of America’s Gilded Age, Richard Morris Hunt, who told his students “to draw, draw, draw, sketch, sketch, sketch! If you can’t draw anything else draw your boots, it doesn’t matter, it will ultimately give you a control of your pencil so that you can more readily express on paper your thoughts in designing. The greater facility you have in expressing these thoughts the freer and better your designs will be.” Drawing by hand continued to delineate the architectural design process in twentieth-century modernism, postmodernism and even deconstructivism—think of the drawings of Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, Michael Graves and John Hejduk–but now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, drawing seems to have become estranged from design.
What would Richard Morris Hunt say to architects today? What would John Hejduk say? Can design survive without drawing? Or, is architecture entering a new phase? These questions motivated the creation of a paper session at next week’s meeting of the Southeastern College Art Conference (SECAC) here in Savannah, entitled “Drawing and Design Method in Architecture.” The Session will feature papers by Robin H. Prater (Georgia Institute of Technology) on “The Architecture of Peter Harrison: Two-Dimensional Translation;” Michael Kleeman (Art Institute of Atlanta) on “Hejduk’s Icon(s): Mediating Habitation Through Drawn Construct;” and Mikesch Muecke and Miriam Zach (Iowa State University and University of Florida) on “Drawing Architecture and Music in Contemporary Rome: How to Be an Academic Tourist.” If you’re attending the SECAC meeting please come to hear these papers on Friday, November 11 at 8:00 am and join us for a lively conversation about the role of drawing in architectural design. If you haven’t registered, on-site registration will begin in Savannah at 7 am on Thursday, Nov. 10 at the registration desk in the DeSoto Hilton. http://www.secollegeart.org/annual-conference.html

2 Comments leave one →
  1. dgobel permalink
    January 6, 2012 6:46 pm

    The Yale School of Architecture must have been inspired by our little SECAC session, they’ve organized a symposium on the same subject. It should be a very interesting event: Is Drawing Dead? Thursday–Saturday February 9–11, 2012 http://www.architecture.yale.edu/drupal/events/symposia/spring2012

  2. Tyler Frazier permalink
    May 24, 2012 4:52 pm

    I recall the translation for the Italian word disegno, lost part of its meaning in the root concetti or concetto (not sure of the exact spelling), when the text was translated from Italian to English (not sure of the date, perhaps 17th or 18th century). This would lead me to believe that the root of the word equally emphasized “the concept” or idea born in the architects mind prior to its creation as a two dimensional drawing. I wonder how much the ancients used to employ “drawings” in constructing the great pyramids, the temples of greece or other antiquities. Perhaps instead they mostly built scaled representations (sculptures) and depended on their ability to communicate and manage subordinates in order to realize their concepts. If this is true, then perhaps the tendency towards computer generated models (graphical representations as one example) is more similar to the same methods used in ancient times.

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