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.

Q: Is Architecture Inclusive? A: No.

In my part of the galaxy architecture is in a dire state. I think this is the same everywhere. Most architects are either individual scavengers or living in tribes scrabbling to survive on scraps from the big tables.  In sociological terms an institutional logics of survivalism reigns. Architectural knowledge is being increasingly commoditized in a global system. This commodification will eventually erode design knowledge to the point of where it’s domain and practices will have merged into other networks of knowledge.

For many architect’s architecture still remains a coherent and unified discipline. It certainly seems like it might be if you have the privilege of being able to access and pay your social media subscriptions. Everyone on Instagram is doing the Architectty influencer thing (me included). The digital viewpoint — all the images, the hashtags, the digital spin, the groups, the likes, — can easily seduce us into thinking that architecture is a multi-faceted, idealistic, humane, reformist discipline.

But when I think further I am not sure any more. There is something monstrous at the heart of architectural practice. The fundamental issue that hampers architecture’s survival, despite digital appearances, is that: architecture is not inclusive.

If architecture is to survive then it must embrace diversity and envelope in our ecologies of practice: gender, LGBTQIA, first nations and indigenous peoples; different ethnicities, minor literatures and the Subaltern; the disabled and the insane. As architects we need to have this conversation. But it needs to be a broad conversation and one fostered, but not dominated, by our professional associations; or by the new associations and networks that will replace them in response to architecture’s current lack of diversity.

This lack of diversity is killing the profession and exhibits itself in myriad seen and unseen ways. Mostly, it is an exclusion through quiet and passive silence. The woman who goes to the robot-in architecture-conference where there are not peers like her, the gay person who can never quite make the Associate Director grade, the transgendered person who is shunned from studio teaching, the indigenous person whose seemingly radical views are wanly smiled at by the senior management academic but never truly engaged with, the study group of international students that no one wants to join at architecture school. Of course, I myself can’t speak for these other voices. But how often do we as architects silence them? It’s our role as architects to make our design research, networks and practices inclusive so that these other voices are prioritized.

Architects need to understand intersectionality, the idea that intersecting identities compound to make a whole, in order to understand how regimes and flows of power have structured our discipline and the symbolic capital that circulates within the global system of architecture. An intersectional approach is different to the diagrammatic description, segmentation and distinctions made by the taste-makers of our discipline. As Gary Stevens notes in The Favoured Circle: The social Foundations of Architectural Distinction. “Taste is the primary notion by which privilege groups can maintain their cohesion and separate themselves from outsiders.”

It never ceases to amaze me that even in the field of Construction Management, a seemingly “backward” field, for architects that extensive research has been undertaken in notions of inclusiveness, identity and ground up ethnography. All we seem to talk about is Design Research. There are of course some glimmers of hope as last year’s November 2016 AHRA conference in Stockholm indicates. At the conference the aim was to address “connections between architecture and feminism with an emphasis on plural expressions of feminist identity and non-identity.” There were some notable papers from local colleagues Gill Matthewson questions the existing notions of “meritocracy” in architecture and the need to forge new modes of practice and identity in architecture. Janet McGaw questions, what I call the Boyo-ness, of recent biomorphic inspired digital production in architecture. She asks to what degree digital experiments and design research in architecture are “simply new practices of anthropogenic subjugation of non-human material systems that continue the environmentally destructive modernist industrial project.” Nicole Kalms examines, so-called safety technologies, their corresponding digital apps and sexual violence in the city.

The lack of diversity shapes both architectural history and the current dilemmas of architecture’s global system. A system dominated by a charmed circle of masculinities. As Martin Hultman has suggested this charmed circle — of tribes, warlords and transformers as I have called them– are intimately involved in the production of the contemporary city. The production of new and renewed cities, and the ecotopian dreams associated with them, are intended in theory at least, to be our salvation in the face of environmental catastrophe. Yet, as Simona Castricum noted at the same conference our current cities are riven by fear and a lack of safety for those who are different. Fear is embedded into the core of our cities. Cities have largely been designed through privileged masculinities that have produced spatial configurations that now need to be challenged; and in any case, hasn’t it always been the subaltern at the centre of the cities actual history.

Architects need to recognise they are a long way from being an inclusive profession. The silence of the smile that elides and silences difference is not really an option nowadays.

The full image of Leigh Bowery in this post can be found here.