Drawing and Experiencing Architecture
A Book Review
Considering Drawing and Experiencing Architecture by Marianna Charitonidou, its content implicitly suggests the following two reasons for the topicality of drawing for contemporary architecture. First, since L. B. Alberti’s theorization of designo (design), the two-dimensionality of drawings and the fact that it is smaller than the building has made architects to think their identity through proper notations. Second, because of the dissemination of digital techniques of representation architects and historians – including this reviewer – have felt the necessity to address the subject.1
Text: Gevork Hartoonian
Discussing the “metonymic” narrative structure of Wyndham Lewis, an early 20th-century British novelist, and painter, Fredric Jameson writes, “No one is better placed than the draughtsman to sense the exchange of forces generated between the observer's point of view and the object contemplated, between the model and the eye that takes its inventory.”2 During Renaissance and since then, the perspectival regime has assured a congruity between the architect's eye (the so-to-speak “creator”) and the observer. This visual technique was extended at times to include the spatial experience of the city as depicted in what was called the Ideal City, commissioned by the court of Federico da Montefeltro sometime in late 1400. With the rise of mechanical reproducibility, modern urbanization, and fragmentation of the old cityscape, the visual rapport between the architect and the spectator and the latter’s scope of inventory was dramatically transformed. Moreover, it was one reason why Le Corbusier wrote a chapter entitled “Eyes Which Do not See” in his most theoretical text published in 1925. It was also why architecture and abstract and fragmented modern paintings were not popular then.
Marianna Charitonidou’s allocation of almost half of the volume of her book to discussing Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe prompts recalling a photographic image appropriate to start this review.3 The image is a famous one. It shows Le Corbusier's gaze monitoring a crafted three-dimensional model of his entry proposal for the Palace of the Soviets (1928-1931). Lowered to the model's height, arms almost hugging it, the architect's posture rising to ask if he was inspecting whether the model matched the painterly and sketch drawings he had explored at the schematic design stage. Or was he trying to see what the absent spectator would see after the project's construction? The complacency between the eye of the architect with that of the spectator, on the one hand, and the spectator's vision, or better to say, expectation that today is informed by the reified and fragmented space of the contemporary city, on the other, is what also the book concerns.
Charitonidou’s book contributes to an understanding of the suggested discrepancy that has directly and indirectly influenced the work of a handful of contemporary architects. Moreover, wisely enough, she ends the book at a date when digital reproducibility and the commodification of urban space had begun by the late 1980s. While one leg of this latter transformation has changed the perceptual apparatus of drawing, the other leg has assured the production of subjectivities at a global scale that takes the wall-to-wall commodification of the urban space and architecture for granted and cool!
Representational Techniques Between Universality, Individuality and Humanization
One of book's benefactions is the specific notion of periodization that does not indulge with style issues. The theoretical underpinning of her taxonomy is well established though recorded with a unique call to weave aesthetics with each individual or group of architects' choice of a representational strategy mapped along the socio-political state of the western hemisphere. Thus, breaking down the above suggested two major reproductive schemes into three periods; two are assigned to the post-war era, and one is concerned primarily with Mies and Le Corbusier. According to the author, specific to these two modernist architects was the conflict between “universality and individuality.” Furthermore, while Le Corbusier used diverse representational techniques for the design and presentation of his early villas to communicate with the client, Mies juxtaposed the abstract perspectival grid with conceptual collages that most often delineated and placed in a spatial void as if seen by the observer4. By the end of the war, however, the idea of “universality” was dusted by history, and “individuality” was replaced with the “man in the street” and a perception of everydayness associable with the American consumer culture that landed in Europe and reached out for new markets in developing countries. Accordingly, “the conflict between the protagonist figures representing different national contexts became an engine of regeneration of architecture's scope, revitalizing the architect's role in the transformation of post-war societies.”5 Charitonidou plots this transitional period across the work of three generations of architects exploring the emergence of the “user” and the spectator with a common interest in the “communicative” dimension of architecture's language and the “appropriateness” of mass housing for middle-class consumers. However, what remains undeniable was the presence of the ghost of Le Corbusier and Mies, to a lesser degree, for the praxis of architecture in the early decades of post-war architecture. The Miesian collage experience was recoded in the presentational drawings of Smithsons' Golden Lane Housing project and architects' take on “New Brutalism.” Le Corbusier's shadow, however, remained armlong for the user’s inclusion issue evident in his and Pierre Jeanneret's Plan Opus project. Kenneth Frampton writes, “[t]his provision of a pluralistic infrastructure for individual appropriation was destined to find further currency some twenty-five years later among the architectural avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s.”6 Using the Dom-ino frame system, the architect's drawing suggests that the users could occupy the given volume as they wished. One is also reminded of the Dutch architect N. J. Habraken’s Support: An Alternative to Mass Housing, published in 19727. The text highlights the importance of the user's participation in the design process. In chapter eight, Charitonidou extensively explores the importance assigned to “the role of inhabitants during the different phases of the design process,” exemplified in Giancarlo De Carlo’s design for Nuovo Villaggio Matteotti in Terni (1969-1974). The shift of attention from functionalist agenda to a well-designed macro environment was broader than European architects. It was also taken on board by Hassan Fathy (Egypt), Kamran Diba (Iran), and Alvaro Siza’s 1970s design for the social housing project SAAL Bouça.
Autonomy between Formality and Typology
Still, much to be said is Le Corbusier’s contribution to the post-war tendency for the idea of “humanization.” We are reminded of Wittkower’s contribution in promoting the idea that the humanist proportions also underpinned the planimetric organization of plan libre contemplated in most of the architect’s early villas. Out of this early postmodernist stage, the author highlights the work of a group of architects with a mutual tendency for the concept of autonomy, be it formal (Peter Eisenman) and/or typological (Aldo Rossi), to mention two important figures whose techniques of representation shifted from semantic to the syntactic aspects of the structuralist theorization of language. By the late 1970s, however, both ideas of humanization and the user – which, by the way the latter was already had become central for the “do it yourself” architectural tendencies – were replaced with the Rossian discourse on architecture and the city accompanied with exclusive diagram drawings that announced, among other things, the fragmentation of architecture and the failure of the historical avant-garde's drive to integrate architecture with everyday life. This opening questioned the validity of space and the program for architecture project. Rossi’s drawings for the Cimitero di San Cataldo (1972) and La Città Analoga (1976) announced the end of architecture inherited from the Humanist culture. It was, I would add, a homage to the Miesian notion of silence and nothingness. However, the reader would not dismiss the author's sympathy with representational techniques and notation drawings (diagrams), tagged “post-autonomy” and championed by the work and theories of Bernard Tschumi and Rem Koolhaas.
Theorization of Architecture
In retrospect, we should say that essential to Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi and Steven Izenour’s recoding of themes identified with modern movement architecture and its popularization in the famous Learning from Las Vegas (1972)8 were two: firstly, the concept of autonomy, including the colorful postmodernist pastiches that most often simulated classical architectonics. This linguistic model, writes Rosalyn Deutsche, “places the image in a viewing situation, examining how the relationship among image, spectator, and spatiotemporal context constructs meaning and identity”9; secondly, the tendency to reinterpret the program with conceptual notions best demonstrated in Koolhaas’s and Tschumi’s competition entry for the Parc de La Villette. The former's diagram strips, drawn from the architect's manifesto titled “The Surface,” remains ambiguous even today; how does it connote “programmatic indeterminacy … as the very potential of the architectural design strategy.”10 The same can be said about Tschumi’s scheme, which was conceptualized using abstract points, lines, and planes11. Even with all her good intentions, like the rest of us who have been sympathetic to their work, the author could not explain their architecture and design strategies without referring to the architect's explanatory remarks. This was a fundamental problem with the advocates of autonomy and post-autonomy because their theorizations benefitted from disciplines such as structuralism and the Derridian deconstruction theory. No one can fully comprehend Eisenman’s work even today without reading what he had read and taking the architect’s theorization of architecture for granted, even though site and program remained two essential issues to be conceptualized. However, Mies and Le Corbusier's vision of architecture, the important variations of the Dom-ino frame, sectional cut, and circulation remains, to this reviewer, essential for their work regardless of whatever philosophical ideas they chose to theorize their architecture through novel notations. It should also be added that the writings of Rossi, Eisenman, Koolhaas, and Tschumi will remain essential for future research and assessment of the period.
Different Architects, Different Modes of Representation
What is novel in Charitonidou’s take on periodization is combining five consecutive generations of architects across three periods and demonstrating the mutations “concerning the modes of representation that are at the heart of architectural practice and education,” as discussed throughout the volume. Of further interest is the unmentioned retrospective view of historiography implied in Charitonidou’s observation that “there is a time lag between the elaboration of new conceptions of fabrication of space assemblages and modes of inhabiting the constructed assemblages, and their theorization of through written discourse.”12 It is not far fetching to say that the suggested gap is widened today partly because of the global dissemination of capitalistic modernization. Finally, aside from a few minor typos here and there and the book’s lack of an index, the volume’s discussion offers an appropriate reading textbook and reference for teaching a handful of ideas and concepts that have been essential for the formation of contemporary architectural praxis. The book is also a significant contribution in clinging drawings and notations with praxis at a time when digitalization of architecture has checkmated architects’ attempt to theorize architecture anew using notional systems inherited from pre-digital state of reproducibility. This latter observation is important because technology was rightfully so the central issue for the emergence of modern architecture that, unfortunately, was dismissed by the immediate post-war architects and critics, focusing their sharp criticism instead on a generalized idea of functionalism.
Gevork Hartoonian is Professor of the history and theory of architecture at the University of Canberra, Australia. He was born in Iran, 1946, and received a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, USA, and has taught in a number of American universities, including Columbia University.
> A book launch event of Marianna Charitonidou’s book entitled Drawing and Experiencing Architecture: The Evolving Significance of City’s Inhabitants in the 20th Century will take place on 26 April 2023 between 6 and 8 pm at the AA Bookshop, 32 Bedford Square (Door at No.33), London WC1B 3ES. The event will be open to the public.
1 Gevork Hartoonian, “Bernard Tschumi Draws Architecture!”, Footprint, no. 7, 2011, and, “The Drawing Position,” Architectural Theory Review, vol. 14, 3, 2009, 248-259; Mario Carpo, The Alphabet and the Algorithm, Cambridge 2011, among his other publications.
2 Fredric Jameson, Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis the Modernist as Fascist, London 1979, p. 36.
3 The book's first four chapters are almost equally dedicated to Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier: Marianna Charitonidou, Drawing and Experiencing Architecture: The Evolving Significance of City’s Inhabitants in the 20th Century, Bielefeld 2022, pp. 31-154.
4 For Mies van der Rohe, see Charitonidou, Drawing and Experiencing Architecture, pp. 95-103; for Le Corbusier, see Charitonidou, Drawing and Experiencing Architecture, p. 20 and pp. 79-84.
5 Charitonidou, Drawing and Experiencing Architecture, p. 156.
6 Kenneth Frampton, Le Corbusier, London 2001, p. 109.
7 N. J. Habraken, Supports: An Alternative to Mass Housing, London 1972.
8 Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour, Learning From Las Vegas, Cambridge 1972.
9 Rosalyn Deutsche, Not-Forgetting: Contemporary Art and the Interrogation of Mastery, Chicago 2022, p. 3. Her focus is the impact of the 1970s linguistic image on feminism as a political event.
10 see footnote 6, p. 25.
11 On Bernard Tschumi, see chapter 10, Charitonidou, Drawing and Experiencing Architecture, p 25.
12 see footnote 6, p. 15.