Architectural drawings are conventional. I mean this literally. They are structured through a series of abstract rules developed over the history of the discipline, used to regulate interpretation ensuring the communication of an architectural design. But, this does not mean that an architectural drawing cannot be articulated in an unconventional manner. It may even be necessary to use alternate conventions in order to disturb the interpretations a drawing may produce. This practice is more common than one may think, the history of representation is full of slips between different disciplines, techniques and desires.
One of the conventions that still strangely lingers in architecture is the reliance on the flat plane of orthographic projection. This flat plane remains even though the majority of architecture today is designed through digital models, which are more accurately described as points in space, not lines on planes. The flat plane is still operative not because of the techniques and methods for producing a drawing, but for the aesthetic playing field that it allows. It supports the diagrams of geometric figuration, the data of the metrically discrete, the text of linguistic specification, the tones of perceptual phenomena, and the abstraction of cut matter. The histories of these notations range from disciplines as divergent as mathematics and painting, shipbuilding and sundialling, anatomy and geography, land surveying and legal ledgers, computational diagrams and battlefield tactics, structural engineering and astronomical charts, scientific management and Dada collage. The flat plane is an incredibly promiscuous locale upon which to order disciplinary conventions.
Bruno Latour drew similar connections in his seminal essay “Drawing Things Together”. For Latour, the inscription on the flat plane is an example of an immutable mobile:
“New inscriptions, and new ways of perceiving them, are the results of something deeper. If you wish to go out of your way and come back heavily equipped so as to force others to go out of their ways, the main problem to solve is that of mobilization. You have to go and to come back with the “things” if your moves are not to be wasted. But the “things” have to be able to withstand the return trip without withering away. Further requirements: the “things” you gathered and displaced have to be presentable all at once to those you want to convince and who did not go there. In sum, you have to invent objects which have the properties of being mobile but also immutable, presentable, readable and combinable with one another.”
An architectural drawing is exactly such a “thing”. It is the means by which an architect convinces a client to spend large sums of money on a future reality, persuades a planning department that a future building will comply with the health, safety and welfare of the population, articulates a spatial design of material assembly to
a builder in another location at another moment, and structures an argument within a past and future disciplinary history. I’m stressing here the mobility in time and space that a representation participates in. Alluding to aspects from a past and speculating on a future is what architectural representations do, this is their mobility. The conventions of architectural representation are the cultural constructs that attempt to secure their immutability.
Latour finds that inscriptions on the flat plane gain their power from nine qualities. It will be beneficial to paraphrase them in brief summery.
1. Inscriptions are mobile.
2. They are immutable when they move.
3. They are made flat.
4. The scale of the inscriptions may be modified at will, without any change in
their internal proportions.
5. They can be reproduced and spread at little cost, so that all the instants of
time and all the places in space can be gathered in another time and place.
6. Since these inscriptions are mobile, flat, reproducible, still and of varying scales, they can be reshuffled and recombined.
7. One aspect of these recombinations is that it is possible to superimpose several images of totally different origins and scales.
8. The inscription can be made part of a written text.
9. The two-dimensional character of inscriptions allow them to merge with geometry.
What Latour is discussing in this essay are the background conditions for a relationship between aesthetics and politics. He attempts to answer how sets of notations, drawings, inscriptions gather ideas, people, economies, and material, mobilizing them into new relationships. These observations describe how representations in every discipline re-distribute sensible information to build new constituencies, allowing aesthetic qualities to produce political impacts.
What would it mean for architecture to organize its efforts regarding representation towards the speculations of recombination and redistribution, rather than towards the securing of disciplinary identity through the stability of conventions. It is a cliché, yet true, to state that one needs to know the rules to break the rules, but architectural representation has never been completely stable, is a continually evolving set of practices, and is at its most provocative when it draws together multiple alternate audiences for its arguments regarding future realities.
There are two drawings attached to this text. One is the plan drawing for a future building, the other the documentation of a future condition as if it has already occurred. The first is Young & Ayata’s winning entry for the Bauhaus Museum in Dessau, Germany. It is drawn to show the primary programmatic circulation, the design’s formal geometry, and the building’s contextual relations to the city park and urban corner. The second drawing is from a fictive science organization documenting the conditions of the Dessau Electromagnetic Refuge Center in 2036. It is drawn to show the interior inhabitation through furniture layout, contour lines indicating electromagnetic energy fields, and a grove of electrically networked trees numerically coded and symbolically tagged for scientific data management. Both drawings indicate speculative realities. The Bauhaus Museum will be built in 2019 to the design of another architect, locking Young & Ayata’s plan into a representation for a future reality not chosen, it’s speculation becoming more speculative after the fact. The Dessau Electromagnetic Refuge Center on the other hand is a reimagining of this plan as if it had been built. It is a recombination of architectural conventions with notational systems from electrical engineering, magnetic resonance imagery, landscape design, interior design, and surveying metrics. These multiple notations are not used to draw these specific disciplines towards the design, the conventions are by and large misused in regard to their sources. The recombination redistributes sensible information, suggesting alternate social and political scenarios. It is a defamiliarization of the plan through the aesthetics of shuffled conventions.
Bruno Latour in H. Kuklick (editor)
“Visualization and Cognition: Drawing Things Together”, Knowledge and Society Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present, Jai Press vol. 6, p. 7
Bruno Latour in H. Kuklick (editor)
“Visualization and Cognition: Drawing Things Together”, Knowledge and Society Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present, Jai Press vol. 6, pp. 19-20
Michael Young is an architect and an educator practicing in New York City where he is a founding partner of the architecture and urban design practice Young & Ayata. Michael is an Assistant Professor at The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at the Cooper Union.