Printer Friendly

Lines of inquiry: diagrams, in whatever visual form they take, represent a threshold moment in the creation of successful architecture, argues Alan Phillips.

'First I think, then I draw my think.'

Amanda K. Coomaraswamy (1877-1947)

It is very difficult to think of complex things being expressed in simple terms without the use of diagrams. As an example we could take the nineteenth-century mathematician and philosopher John Venn, who introduced the Venn Diagram in 1881. Although starting its life as a means of organising mathematical sets and logical relationships (and similar to the diagrams of Johnston and Euler which were applied to truth values and propositional logic), the Venn Diagram remains famous in using two or more overlapping circles to examine the similarities and differences in language arts instruction; as an enabling system to help students organise thoughts particularly in pre-writing activities, where common conditions can be understood visually.

The American physicist Richard Feynman gave his name to a series of seminal diagrams--also known as Stukelberg or Penguin diagrams--which have been described as types of book-keeping devices for performing calculations in quantum field theory. The diagrams illustrate the often tortuous calculations required to unstitch and then reconfigure the various phenomenologies that comprise the abstract world of theoretical physics. They are simple as graphic symbols and often represent a narrative that has a more complex mathematical formula.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Equally economic is the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, used in astronomy to describe the way stars live out their lives as reflected in changes that occur in their temperature, size and luminosity. Like Venn in education and Feynman in physics, the diagram alone allows the mysterious and magical world of space to be understood and read by a much wider audience, through the use of graphic symbols which provide universally understood representations or visual shorthand. The diagram establishes itself as a democratising device and a conduit through which complex worlds can be described to the lay observer.

This is also true for complex definitions. For example, DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is a chemically-linked chain of nucleotides--a long polymer that encodes sequences of the amino acid residue in proteins. The DNA is borrowed from both parents and is responsible for the genetic propagation of most inherited traits. To understand the definition, and in turn the DNA, still requires a foundation knowledge of molecular biology and a great deal of imagination that, if misdirected, can transfer understanding into confusion.

So two things came to pass. First the book What is Life (1944) by Erwin Schrodinger, in which he described chromosomes as containing 'hereditary code-script', explaining that 'the term code-script is, of course, too narrow. The chromosome structures are at the same time instrumental in bringing about the development they foreshadow. They are law-code and executive power--or, to use another simile, they are architect's plan and builder's craft--in one'.

When Crick and Watson in Cambridge, Linus Pauling in America, and the Wilkins Franklin group at King's College London were racing to find the form and structure of DNA, the diagram to emerge--the great diagram of life, a double helix connected by a series of horizontal bridges or rungs--must have proved itself by being (among so many other things) so close to the tectonic structure in Schrodinger's simile of an 'architect's plan and building craft'. In fact, the first sketch of the deoxyribonucleic acid double-helix diagram, made by Francis Crick, is very much an architectural sketch, with soft lines swimming in space, an authoritative representation of geometry, and a confidence in delineation that could easily have come from the hand of Louis Kahn or Eero Saarinen.

[GRAPHIC OMITTED]

The diagram is, therefore, a maeutic and hermeneutic device--a form of intellectual midwifery that brings complex ideas into clear consciousness, through interpretation.

In science there is a primary type of representational diagram, engineered to clarify, symbolise and signify function. In architecture, there are many types of thinking shorthand including the representational and the abstract diagram. The representational diagram is designed to be interpreted relationally, visually, geometrically and topologically. The bubble diagram is an example where the architect is released from the strictures of the plan but may still freely manipulate a series of functional relations that are beginning to represent a strategy for planning arrangements. The bubble diagram can be made quickly, changed constantly, interlaced with text and collaged over images. For the rational architect it is an essential representation for thinking that can also be used as a substitute for sketching.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Composite diagrams are the stuff of computers and have been sitting in the wings waiting for the digital third machine age to tantalise the observer with a cut-and-paste world of architecturally graphic revelry. These composite diagrams are also available as tools to explain an architectural intention that can cross information fields from tectonic detailing, context, scale, proportion and composition. In these circumstances the computer becomes a wizard, delivering a magical world of layers and application. Although there remains a soft-line world of bubble diagrams, used at the start of the design process to unlock a complex brief into an organisation of primary, secondary and tertiary relationships, the computer is a quicker diagram management tool, replacing hundreds of detail paper overlays with a click-on-click-off layer process intrinsic to computerised draughting applications. In masterplanning, where the bubble diagram needs to present a multivalent collection of information, including organisational elements, physical elements, demographics, climate, transport and so on, the bubble diagram is at its most complex and therefore best achieved by digital means in order that the message is at its clearest and cleanest. It can be argued that the same digital method is employed in flow and system diagrams; architectural drawings representing explanation and communication of problems that need to be solved in order to make the building concept function.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Flow and system diagrams present architectonic issues that are temporarily removed from theoretical and conceptual considerations, and are focused on the effects and forces of sun, wind, rain and consequentially ventilation, heating, cooling and sustainability. Whereas the bubble and composite diagram--after initialisation--are tools for communications, the flow and system diagram helps the designer observe and understand the critical components that make up the problem-solving condition.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The flow and system drawing comprises the full set of graphic symbols, including arrows, lines, dots, hatching and dashes, making up a language for the diagraming of architecture. Because architects think through the end of a pencil, the freehand sketch is still widely used for its quality of immediacy and can transform representational diagraming, be it bubble, composite, flow, system (or any other) into a hybrid type which is both symbolic, sequential and operational. It brings together, examines and then illustrates the complex levels of thinking implicit in the architectural design process, then presents them back to the architect for consideration. During this 'thinking' time, the freehand sketch diagram can perform other functions.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The referential sketch encourages the designer to diagram past influences, historical precedents and previous experience. It can serve either as a communication tool, illustrating how the architectural idea has been fixed back to an authoritative typology, idiomatic device, or an informational tool for the author of the drawing, where intellectual comfort can be obtained by introducing a successful historical model. It is not sufficient simply to photocopy or scan-and-paste the reference. It needs to be drawn again so that the 'thinking' is dualistic, running backwards and forwards between 'what has been and what may be'. The referential sketch provides a moment for reflection. By drawing the reference again--reinterpreting the original image to a lesser or greater extent, architects are reminded that their subject is both an intellectual and a scholarly activity.

Other forms of retrospection can also result in diagrams such as the doodle that normally results from engaging with one thing and thinking about another. Also the polemical sketch--sometimes presented as an irritable grouping of marks born of frustration, disbelief, or awakening, or a point of view previously held but not previously examined through drawing.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Drawing, like teaching, is a replenishing activity. If an architect does neither regularly, there is a tendency to descend into aesthetic prejudice. At the very beginning of a project, the idea is born in the imagination. (Architects prefer to keep it there for as long as possible because it is at its purest.) Once the idea is drawn it is limited by the skill of the draughtsman. If the drawing fails, it can lead to long periods of melancholy.

The first diagram is made in the mind of the author, and because architects are obliged to think three-dimensionally, the diagram is appropriately complex--not only comprising form and function, but also filled with light and sound. The beauty of the diagram 'as imagination' depends on the way architects conduct themselves. Because the mind-diagram contains a moral and ethical fingerprint, as to how the eventual building will provide the greatest good for the greatest number, the first drawing will not be good if it is thought of badly. Therefore, the first drawing is as much an expression of the author as it is of the author's idea. During the early stage of sketching, the diagram is required to fold the 'self' into the drawing, so that the link between the physical work, the imagination that draws it and the ethical responsibility that regulates it, are one and the same thing.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The first meaning of the French verb partir--'se separer de quelqu'un ou d'un lieu' (to part from someone or from some place)--promulgated le parti as a noun representing a second meaning viz 'Conception d'ensemble une oeuvre architecturale ou picturale': an overall architectural or pictorial concept. During the process of diagramming architecture, especially at the conceptual stages of drawing, there is a necessary separation or parting. This is when the concept becomes clear enough to develop its own identity, or when the first drawings have choreographed the idea to produce a sufficiently confident parti.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The word parti passed into architecture (via l'Ecole des Beaux Arts) to represent that freehand sketch diagram that was at the tangent between idea and imagination. The parti is the threshold sketch. If the parti--the first critical diagram--is not made well, it will be difficult for architecture to follow. If there is no parti, there will be no architecture, only (at best) little more than the utility of construction. Buried within their early sketches is the germ of a narrative or language. The early diagrams are reflective conversations with the language of architecture.

They are also cultural moments. An English architect will think in English, speak in English and therefore draw in English. The sketches will say in lines and marks what the author would also express in language. The drawing becomes a philosophical and dialectical illustration of what the author would also say in writing. Writing architecture with drawings at the stage of le parti is the ultimate manifestation of imaginative consciousness heading for realisation.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Qualitative judgements are commensurate to the clarity of the language. The better the parti, the more quickly architects are able to consider folding into the sketch the notation of materials, structure and mechanics. The architectural language will evolve simultaneously with the language of the drawing. If the drawing is in English, English architecture will be made. If the drawing is in Finnish, there will be a Finnish building.

Admittedly this may not be true for the Rationalists. Architects who depend on pre-set/pre-cast ideas, which are based on catalogue systems and predefined pre-tested methodologies put together on production lines, do not need le parti. But despite all the phenomenologists and poetical architects in a century where complexity triumphed over comprehension, the drawing or diagram is a quintessential moment which comes with a caution. If at first you don't succeed, you don't succeed.

Alan Phillips is an architect and teacher based in Brighton, UK
COPYRIGHT 2006 EMAP Architecture
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Phillips, Alan
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Words:1972
Previous Article:Fumihiko Maki.
Next Article:Bernard Tschumi.
Topics:


Related Articles
Picture programs; programming a computer may eventually be as simple as sketching a diagram or drawing a flowchart.
Representation: from Ruskinian drawing exercises to advanced mathematics--with architecture, painting and sculpture in between--representation of...
The language of architecture.
Design essence: David Dunster, who co-edited this issue of the AR, introduces its theme, the diagram. In the pages that follow, architects describe...
Donald Bates.
Stanley Tigerman.
Foreign office architects.
Lawrence Nield.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters