Wednesday, March 18, 2015

TALKING HEADS AND WAVING HANDS - THE ART OF DRAWING


The monthly talk for March at the Abedian School of Architecture at Bond University on the Gold Coast, Australia, was to be different. It was promoted as an 'Australian premier (sic: premiere) screening’ of a movie: Drawing on Life. This event was going to be given a local touch by a panel discussion after the showing. The immediate, offhanded response to this promotion was that it would be an event one could miss. So no particular plans were made for the evening of 12th March 2015.


Curiosity taunted the mind. One wondered what the movie might be about and returned to the promotional material to read it in more detail. It was a movie on architects and drawing - Irish architects. It sounded fascinating. Drawing and its role in creativity has always been an interest. The demise of the workings of the intimacies involving the feel and image of thought in design work has been a concern for some time. Engaging with computers and CAD involves a completely different experience. It has distractions that concentrate thoughts, feelings and effort into other more prescribed, regulated matters that override pondering, contemplation, making things that are naturally and necessarily vague, crystal clear, crisp; demanding this certainty. Doubt and hesitation have no place here. When a eye/hand might search for the right line by making several tentatively gestured passes over the page, a computer demands that the prescription, description of the line be inserted immediately, once, now, for instant admiration. Even the freehand finger or stylus creates markings in light that amaze and startle beyond their usefulness when the mind is seeking some unknown outcome, feeling for an unknown possibility.


This concern with computers has nothing to do with any phobia or hatred of technology. Computers, as we know them generically, are marvellous to use for text, for filing, and for precise drawing and detailing, as a tool. CAD can be a wonderful revelation and is able to quickly highlight a true failure of any ambition that freehand drawing might allow one to indulge in. Facts do not get fudged in the digital world without one knowingly cheating. Fantasy is judged very quickly.


The title of the movie was typed into Google. The results piled up. The revues were good. The film had been shown at the Belfast Film Festival. It was decided that a trip to Bond on this Thursday might be interesting after all. The usual prelude of cheese, crackers, chat and champagne followed by the late start eventuated. The movie was started without any technical problems after its introduction. The head of school spoke about how drawing was seen by some architects to be mystical. He told the story of Utzon, who apparently always drew a caricature of himself with his pencil poked into his brain, as if to suggest a linkage, an immediacy between the pencil marking paper and thought. The story of how the film came to Australia was then told. While browsing the AA bookshop, an interesting reference was seen and followed up. This led to a contact in Belfast and to the film. A copy of the film to show at Bond was requested, and one arrived: hence the evening - the 'premiere.' It was not really a Hollywood event. There was no red carpet here.


Small white text appeared centrally to one side of the dark rectangle: Drawing on Life hesitantly appeared as if peeping through a curtain. It looked very architectural. Then the heads appeared. It seemed that they might be in an architect’s office. Two ladies were chatting and waving hands while sliding drawings around over the table, occasionally lifting one quickly for the camera. Why were the drawings ignored? The most important thing seemed to be the heads and the endless, aimless words. The screen faded into the name of the office that appeared where the title had been, and then faded back to the heads that seemed very pleased with themselves and their statements. This was to be the format for the whole movie: full-screen heads and hands with general chit-chat surrounded by marks on paper. The ‘in your face’ style of filming always made one aware of the camera and the person/s behind it that could never be seen.


The talk was interesting in parts. It was noted how drawings can aid thought and how different materials, like charcoal, have particular properties that can be of assistance in the malleable process of discovery. Still the frustration grew. The chat was frequently about material that was out of the frame or otherwise located so as to remain vague, illegibly obscured. Why? The camera doggedly concentrated on the heads with the hands occasionally filling the screen as if to suggest meaning, perhaps to emphasize expression. The drawings seemed to be incidental. They were flashed about out of any particular coherent context, as remote visions: artworks. There was no chance for the viewer to contemplate the drawings that appeared, and disappeared just as quickly. They were referred to as arty objects: art, rather than working explorations, while the heads spoke on randomly, rambling in front of the camera, self-consciously trying to be seriously momentous and occasionally funny with no script to follow but the gist of the subject. One got the feeling that there was something forced here that sought to be free and immediate in a contrived manner. It was like watching half of an interview. Something was missing. Drawings became precious items, icons of possibilities, revelations. They were handled as if being assessed for gallery display. In a way this is exactly what was happening here. Was this the first opportunity these folk had had to be in a movie, to display their work to the public?


The problem here is that the drawings are all seen as objects, anticipated artworks, if not preconceived; never as an essential working part of the design process. They are not the results of incidental musings to aid thought and feeling, for testing and discovery, but things in themselves with potential artistic merit. They become self -conscious creations but are spoken about differently, in fact, in two ambivalent ways. Yet it was the aesthetics of the drawings that remained the core highlight as the subject, not the drawings as an ordinary working tool, even though there was the suggestion that this might be their role.

Scarborough College

The danger of self-conscious drawing, the making of a work of art, can be seen in the story of John Andrews International. It was only after Scarborough College in Canada had nearly been completed, that it was observed that the huge drawing that had been the initial sketch, the primary working diagram that was a reference for the whole project, was indeed a very nice drawing, and a very large and interesting one too. It revealed thinking as graphics, a haze of lines and notes searching for the sense of what had materialized around one. It was decided to present this to the client who had it mounted in the main lobby of the college. It is indeed a wonderful document, a true working drawing. Here the working out and the development of ideas for the college were made explicit as tentative, thinking lines. Unfortunately this gesture of gifting the ‘inspirational’ drawing of the scheme set the scene for other projects. There was always the ambition in the office to have a preliminary, loosely sketched drawing that could be presented to the client for framing and display. The word in the office was that “this could be the drawing we give to the client,” even at the time when the drawing was being worked on. The creation of the image for display became a very self-conscious making of a ‘significant’ sketch that might be worthy of display, rather than the ad hoc discovery of some neglected, unconsidered scribble at the end of the project. This preconception is the latent ambition behind every intention to make a drawing that might become an artwork to be put onto display. The naive, native potency of the exploratory working aspect of these documents is lost when the objective to make something arty, pretty and presentable takes over.


This is the weakness of the movie. Drawings are considered as nice-looking, artful things instead of thoughtful discoveries. While the ladies displayed sketches on butter paper and other apparently ephemeral, disposable materials, the drawings all looked contrived to be suitable for display. Surely they had not been made just for the film? They might as well have been for they all were singular efforts, perhaps ready to be framed if pretty enough. ‘Real’ working drawings, sketches, are messy in their layered multiplicity. One is reminded of Nicholas Harding whose working sketches of Margaret Olley on rough, torn paper, are covered with splashes and cigarette ash: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/01/quilty-harding-and-accents.html  Working sketches are palimpsests, where thoughts are randomly superimposed and reworked endlessly until they require a fresh start for clarification, to record the outcome for reassessment. The primary effort is in the seeking not in the making. One thinks of Charles Rennie Macinstosh’s work where detailed studies of building parts are layered as an ad hoc process of thoughtful revelation in lines carefully formed for the sake of a precise understanding and resolution, not for any appearance.


The second architect displayed his lovely work in sketchbooks that were all ordered and neatly arrayed and selected. His subjects were on separate pages – no mess here. Each sketch was ready for mounting if it could be sold – or so it seemed. His work, even though made in the cliché coffee shop, was similar to the nineteenth century ‘shadow’ drawings, where shade defines picturesque Victorian form in the void of the page. I was reminded of a colleague who always gave his children quality paper to draw on in case they might ‘crack a work of art.’ This fellow appeared to have the identical ambition. These were arty observations.


The next couple displayed a bit of everything. Here one saw the very worst case of dialogue describing drawings that no one could see or place in any context. The chat just carried on regardless. It made the whole act appear very self-indulgent. Yet later the male hand displayed a working scribble for the camera as the blurb continued to talk about involving people in space through tension, distortion and the harassment of the plan. This pair had to tell us that they taught students and insisted that drawing was part of this tutoring. It was all very tense and uncomfortable, awkward, as one was required to participate in such a pseudo-hagiographical enterprise almost as an interloper. One was left hoping that this might be the last in the series of chats; that the image would fade and the hoped-for text might finally appear in the black: THE END – but no.


The next fellow spoke hesitantly about his work, as though he was under some poetic stress, suffering some intimately meaningful struggle at being asked to be involved in this film and expose and explain his efforts. His work was interesting, but it appeared to have no relation to architectural outcomes other than as drawings for their own purpose. They were nice drawings. No one told the viewer just what the role of this speaker might be. Yes, the chap can draw, but to what purpose - self-indulgence: ‘Wherewithall,’ as the window said?


The theme dragged on punctuated by the dark voids, with one architect or someone else talking on and on, just as the first ladies had done. It was unplanned chat, with unplanned drawings being poorly exhibited if at all. The next fellow was more a working, hands-on professional. He admitted to hating computers. Why? He had developed a process of recording matters in his little black books, all of the same size and dated. They were set out carefully for all to see as though this was important. The drawings were wonderfully ad hoc and informative. He said that he used the drawings as references for his work, a little, so it seemed, like Alexander’s Pattern Language that could be used as a source, a reminder. His little books were interesting as they gathered together anything and everything, even children’s scribbles; but were they too self-conscious? He seemed happy to be able to flip through these books for the camera, pausing at the pretty, the arty and the dramatic, eye-catching images. It reminded one of Le Corbusier’s notebooks, and how every architect would love to buy the same French sketchbooks and fountain pen and do likewise: if only!



Then another female architect was introduced. It was indeed interesting to see that there are a number of senior women in the architectural profession in Ireland who are intimately involved in practice. This lady introduced us to her work at Trinity College, its new library. A few drawings were shown, but the core presentation seemed to be her new building at Trinity. Where were the rough drawings? The structure reminded one of the Ahrends, Burton , Koralek  1960’s building, but this was never mentioned. Everything was her genius. It was all about light and no walls. Great effort went into showing the detail of the clever folding wall, its operation. Why? There was very little about drawing and how it might have played a role in this project. Only a few formal sketches were linked to the project. The concept of ideas in discovery, in progress was lost. There was merely the display. Only some developed, pretty sections and detailed studies that looked to be specifically selected for their appearance in the movie were shown: then on to the next person, for more of the same.


The surprise was that Ireland had such sophisticated, skilled partitioners capable of producing such nice drawings and such elegant buildings, and being able to talk about them. They were articulate and informed practitioners, with projects that stretched well beyond their little island. One had expected this after seeing the beautiful new visitors’ centre at the Giants Causeway: see -  http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/giants-causeway-gateway.html  Yet in spite of this eloquence, the vision of architecture was always of ‘Architecture’: grand and especially aesthetic, described in classic clichés intermingled with many worn truisms. There is a history of intellectuals in Ireland; and of poets – Celtic poets, Joyce, Thomas. There was still energy and creativity in this country that has suffered so much. It was good to get a sense of this depth. It reminded one of the book on Irish architecture that recorded the Georgian period. The surprise was not only the quantity of building, but its quality and inventiveness.



There were still more architects and others to ramble on about their works, sauntering through ideas, all with the same certain, concentrated effort and ironic disregard seen previously; and still more after these. The film was too long. The expectation of the anticipated end was continually frustrated by a new head with new hands; a new voice, talking about new, unseen or over-purposefully presented drawings in a random, unplanned manner: just on and on. The seat was becoming very uncomfortable. Architects should not make films, just as film producers should not be architects. The film needed heavy editing. It seemed that, as a first, everyone wanted to say everything possible in this one production, and no one said “No.” Every effort appeared to be made to keep the head/s in the frame as the voice/s rambled on importantly, endlessly, without any plan for a compact presentation - no cohesiveness distilled the essence of the subject. The drawings were the background for talking heads and the waving hands that attempted to be equally momentous by being presented as close ups of the fingers near the paper, or otherwise manoeuvring to enhance expression and emphasize commitment. The core item was ‘ME;’ the drawings were all incidental art works: MINE.


The final speaker was an enigma. Who was he? What was he? No one said: or did I miss this in my growing aggravation? His ‘sketch’ books were all text in his distinctive, scrawled, illegible style. The camera unbelievably panned in on page after page of what could have been cuneiform script, such was its abstracted patterning. What was the message here? This ruddy person, with Corb-like glasses, leaned back a little arrogantly, superciliously, as he pontificated on and on as the hour and a half approached. While previous speakers had left a couple gems: “Never trust an eye witness's account” – apparently an old Russian saying; and “There is energy in a sleeping cat;” this final voice told us that “No one gets out of here (the world) alive.” I was at the stage of believing that he might have been referring to the audience at Bond University, such was his belligerence with time, so the exit was quickly reached once the film had finished rolling the credits. The panel discussion would only have extended the frustration.


P.S.
A colleague who had not had the chance to greet me earlier had followed me out. We chatted about old times. He informed me that he had been involved in the school’s beginning and asked me what I thought of the building, as he gestured over his shoulder to the foyer void behind him. I had to admit that I thought that schools of architecture should not be grand architectural statements. I took the opportunity to ask him about the workshop, after noting that there were some beautiful models on display. “Where is the workshop? Is it in the new building?” I couldn’t really understand how it might fit. The advice was that it was “out the back.” “What? Is it that shed off to one side?” “Yes.”

Floor plan of the Abedian School of Architecture.
There is no workshop in the new building

The workshop is in an adjacent tin shed. 

My response was: “Why could the school not have been a series of ad hoc sheds clustering around various random, perhaps skewed spaces if desired, not pretending to make any grand architectural statement that the Irish seem to like: just providing an amorphous, insignificant place for real discovery – not a theatre in which performances can be viewed?" It is a terrible example that suggests that architecture is ‘something grand and special’ created by a unique, creative genius, as the Irish seem to promote. I think that the Bond building sets a poor example for its students, just as the Irish film has done: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/08/is-architecture-just-grand.html and
http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/what-is-school-of-architecture.html Drawing is much more vital than a pretty, arty, display thing. Its involvement in architecture is something mystical as the head of school, and Utzon, suggested. It is never self-conscious. It is always working for outcomes, never its own appearance or purpose: see - ON DRAWING - A PERSONAL NOTE that explores this matter further: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2015/03/on-drawing-personal-note.html


The shed is rarely, if ever, photographed in its context.

The shed has not been included in any rendering of the project.

Why was the evening so poorly organised? The standard promo times were left unchanged. Did anyone know that the movie was over one and a half hours long? Did no one ever think that by starting at 6:45pm the movie would finish well after the advertised 8:00pm closing time for the evening’s presentation? Did no one think of starting at 6:00pm? By the time the movie, the ‘Australian premier,’ had finished, the frustration with the unedited, indulgent chat was so extreme that any panel discussion would only have aggravated matters. So it was that we left, getting out while still alive. One hopes that the panel discussion was informative.

Sir Peter's grand learning space - a touch of St. Peters?


For more on the film see - http://drawingonlife.com/
For more on the Sir Peter Cook building see -


THE PROMOTION




Invitation to attend Abedian School of Architecture Lecture #4
– “Drawing on Life” Film Screening and Panel Discussion
Date:                     Thursday March 12, 2015
Arrival:                  6:15pm for a 6:30pm start (Light refreshments will be served)
Presentation:         6:30pm – 8:00pm
Venue:                  Architecture School Forum, Building 3B
                             Bond University, University Drive, Robina QLD 4229 (Map attached)
Parking:                PG4 – see map reference
Cost:                     Free
Join us for the Australian premier screening of Drawing on Life, a film that follows a series of Irish architects in their studios and the places they like to draw in. It eavesdrops on their discussions and thoughts in order to explore and reveal their use of drawing. We see them drawing in cafes, over the drawing table and sketching out their ideas as they talk about projects. The film frames eight short portraits of architects and practices as cinematic windows that look into this very individual world of drawing.
From the meditations on use and the travellers’ tales of Grafton Architects; the building of the drawing by O’Donnell+ Tuomey; writing as drawing by the architect and critic Shane O’Toole; through to the Belfast architect Michael Doherty’s vivid pencil studies – why architects draw is evocatively captured and documented in this film.
Chair
Professor Adrian Carter – Head of School,
Abedian School of Architecture, Bond University
Panelists
Suzie Wiley – Surroundings Architects
Ingrid Richards – Richards and Spence Architecture
David Kirwan – Cox Rayner Architects
Brian Toyota – ML Design
Registration
To register, please follow this link. Please note that registration is preferred.
The 2015 calendar for the Abedian School of Architecture Lecture Series will be released in the coming weeks.
For more information about the series and to view past lectures, please follow this link 
If you would like to receive notification of upcoming presentations, please follow this link.
Please contact Assistant Professor Chris Knapp via cknapp@bond.edu.au if you have any questions. 




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