How Drawing Got a Bad Name: The sketch performance as ritual.

The Alpha male star architects gave drawing a bad name. This is because these Mofos see drawing in all its forms as foremostly a performance. It is never about design. No wonder architects have flocked to the illusory certainties of the computer and and have fled the sketch and the drawing. 

What I contest, is not drawing and sketching itself, but the uneccessary perfomances that sometimes go with it. These perfomances have nothing to do with creating design knowledge and everything to do with the actor. With a few flourishes the actors, or architects, who see drawing as performance end up belittling and demeaning the worth of design drawing and sketching. 

There is nothing worse for any architect or architecture student to have to sit down and watch someone draw in front of you. Usually this performance arises as an effort to tweak, meddle and fiddle. To know best. It is rarely the result of any methodical thought in relation to a design process. Whatever drawing, or image maybe on your screen, the drawing performance involves an intervention that involves a number of ritualised steps. These drawing performers will hover and attempt to solve design problems that don’t exist. In a design studio, they will take your printouts and then intervene with their own pen or pencil. The important thing for these so-called architects is the performance and the pomposity of this performance never ceases to amaze me.

The ritual

Firstly, there is the earnest discussion and then the actor performer steps in. Secondly, they reach for the holy instruments and sacraments of drawing. These are often at hand, the fine liner pen, the pencil of various grades, sometimes coloured pencils, a scale ruler, the tracing paper and of course the holy yellow trace. The drawn gestures are often crude but imbued with meaning and there is normally an associated commentary that has always struck me as being slightly creepy. A constant refrain in this ritual is ” let me try this” or “it needs to be bigger” or “we need more of a shape here” and of course there is the  “yes, thats almost it, hmmm, yes a bit more, yes, thats good.”

The gathered throng of observers, architects, students, sometimes clients are forced to watch this onanistic ritual as they watch each gesture, each line each tweaking of the elevations or plans, each seemingly mind blowing solving of a particular design problem. The more sycophantic of the onlookers will um and ahh. The less intelligent will unquestionably subscribe to the solutions which, despite the trivial nature of these gestures, are after a few minutes set in stone.

The horror of poetic ambiguity

Some architects will do a few conceptual drawings and gestures and then just hand them over to the adults and grown-ups in the studio to implement. I know one architect who has created an entire career out of a few flexible sketches produced in the early to mid 90s. These sketches are now enshrined in an archive that shall remain nameless. In tectonic terms these sketches are barely legible, expressionistic scribbles which may have taken perhaps 30 seconds to a minute to have produced. They are of course poetic with a capital fucking-P (apologies to my more genteel readers). This is poetic ambiguity at its maximum. A creative impulse directly translated from the deeper consciousness of the architect’s brain to the appendage of the hand grasping the holy pencil that squirts its line of graphite or ink onto the yellow trace. Remind you of anything? It is uncomfortable to watch. Give me the safe refuge of the computer screen any day.

The digital outline


But sadly, the computer screen has itself also succumbed to the crude gestures of performance. Of course, what is really disturbing is that these often careless and trivial gestures seem to be linked to and transformed into the norms and forms of parametric culture. The parametric computer generated diagram has now supplanted the hand drawn sketch. But the performance around the screen is little different. It’s like in front of these screens everything is new again and the sketches and biomorphic forms of Frederik Kiesler, Pascal Hausermann, Chanaec and Archigram never existed.


 The sketch has been supplanted by the printout of a generic and outlined parametric diagram usually with a honeycombed or diatomic, geometry. All you have to do is use the computer to fill in the detail between the lines. Its called form-finding optimisation. What would happen, if Scarpa-like, you started designing from the parametric details up rather than from an overall all outline down?


Working in an office or studio and having to watch this performance is excruciating. It really is. I think drawing is both an analytical, investigative and generative tool. The best design architects know this. They know when to employ a hand sketch or drawing, employing different modes. They are interested in the design and not the flourish and the poetic mystery of the performance. They work to produce a design once the sketch is done. The initial sketch generates further sketches. The original sketch is not enshrined as art representative of male genius. Less infantile architects use drawings to observe as well as solve problems and develop a design. Simply put, design drawing and sketching is work. 

Yellowtrace fiddling

Once built you can tell the buildings that have been designed via this type of yellow traced performance. You can see the little tweaks and fiddles that have been added to the Revit or Microstation model. The adjustment and shifts in facades and window elevations. The added bits of architectural figuration. The big ideas, first conceived as sketches, that remain as vestiges in the built form, around which an underling has desperately tacked on the rest of the spaces. The shaping and skewing of plans that are knee jerk reactions to the immediate urban or heritage context. The problem is you have to walk through this slop.

Maybe that’s why I like Rossi’s drawings because they are the same elements and forms repeated and re-presented over and over again. Rossi’s drawings are in obvious contrast to those architects who create poetic art each time the squirt the graphite onto the yellow. Maybe thats why Rossi writes about the process of “forgetting architetcure.” John Hedjuk’s drawings represent a different and more subtle kind of poetry than the crude performances described above. There is a humility in the best architectural drawings and design sketches where it is less about the gesture and the performance in place of an almost animistic presence in the drawing itself. Hedjuk’s sketches contain an Archipelago of ideas not content or seduced by their own gestures of making. I think that there is a kind of frenetic desperation in Hedjuk’s, or even perhaps Alvaro Siza’s, sketches. At least Siza looks like he is trying to work some things out. But, the performers and actors in architecture always make it look oh so easy and individuated to their own personality.


I am not sure if this is true but, I always had the idea that the great, and syphilitic, architect Adolf Loos burnt all his papers and drawings. I think that to forget architecture is probably best and most courageous thing any architect can do. All architects have to do that at some point.