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Strategic Plotting

 

STRATEGIC PLOTTING

Perry Kulper

pkulper@umich.edu

 

Strategic Plotting, Abstract

 

The current roles of the architectural drawing are simultaneously exhilarating and daunting. Its histories established and waiting to be written. Once an inviolate ally in the architect’s practice the traditional realization of architecture through drawing has lost some of its practiced and disciplinary value. Notably, its latent capacities, its mediating roles and the potential for creative engagement with diverse ideas in a design project are on the wane. Arguably, this has led to the homogenization of architectural thinking (technique application) and to increasingly homogeneous architecture. It’s time to reassess the roles of the architectural drawing by augmenting the particular roles of conventional drawing types, reestablishing its speculative cultural and spatial agency.

 

Robin Evans claimed that architects don’t make buildings but representations of it. Drawing on the work of Evans (Translations from Drawing to Building), Manuel Lima (Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information) and James Corner (Representation and Landscape), Strategic Plotting will specifically scrutinize the agency of architectural drawing through an examination of the strategic plot- a speculative temporal score where ambient surfaces tease coded, or indexical marks and descriptive recordings are crossed with notations and provocative language toward a synthetic, but incomplete and strangely familiar whole. Akin to puzzles, geographic matrices, or taxonomical collections, the strategic plots establish a range of relationships known, discovered and lost, probing the ‘drawing out’ of architecture and what it is about architecture that the architect might dare to draw.   

 

In framing strategic plotting I will consider the ethics of architectural drawing, the distances between the architect, drawing and architecture, the temporality of drawing (its reminiscent and speculative potential) and the dimensions of experience that elude the conventions of drawing. I will focus on structuring the strategic plot, its varied levels of information transference, its latent potentials and its speculative capacities. Here, the drawing is a visual register of rational and irrational lines of communication aimed at avoiding ideational and spatial reduction, or homogenization. I will suggest new capacities for the architectural drawing in an age of rapid change and fluctuating cultural intent.

 

In the drawing of space and the space of drawing might we momentarily forget the scenic surface of the drawing, rather thinking ‘through’ the drawing, acting more like forensic detectives in the ‘x-rayed’ surface of a drawing. Might we come to terms with the relational dynamics of the drawing in addition to the static appearance of architecture toward more effective cultural agency through the development of spatial settings?

 

Introduction

 

Recently, architecture and its educational arm, schools of architecture have been motivated by problem solving approaches, the ever-present authority of the metrical program, (the default and uncritical ghosts of functionalism), formal techniques and fleeting fashionable regimes. Articulated through myriad vocabularies of modernism, late modernism, high-tech, deconstruction, folding, field thinking and more recently topology, affect, technique, contemporary processes and all things ‘post’ these developments have configured recent discourses in the discipline of architecture. A rethinking and projective positioning of the architectural drawing might augment these spatial developments, or at least raise the possibility of alternative footnotes to these more dominant histories by offering another scope for architecture.

 

Operating in the margins of current architectural debates the critical location of architectural drawings has frequently been relegated to the blind spots of spatial production, academically and professionally. Flows of capital, information networks, questions of sustainability and technological advances are challenging static notions of architecture suggesting that we raise our individual and collective awareness to more effectively negotiate the surge of dynamic changes, worldwide. In education, where materiality is arguably conceptual, temporality malleable and gravity sometimes missing, we might increase drawing breadth toward training greater spatial dexterity in the midst of these explosive cultural changes. It might be time for conversations surrounding the speculative agency of the architectural drawing to reappear on the horizon of critical discourse.

 

Arguably, as the range for architectural expression grows the architect’s tool kit for moving from ideas to architecture is shrinking, or perhaps becoming more homogeneous. Partially a result of the formal preoccupations of Modernism, key shifts in cultural paradigms, the displacement of manual drawing by keyboard procedures and the increasing links between software applications and material fabrication the capacity of the architectural drawing has seemingly atrophied. Strategic Plotting suggests that the strategic plot may be an alternative to increasingly specialized techniques of both visualization and spatial production, or the design of architecture.

 

The Legacy of…

 

Once an inviolate accomplice of the socially and subjectively constructed figure of the architect (and by implication the design of architecture), the surface of representation, or mediation, the architectural drawing is an increasingly complex affair, tricky business to say the least. Historically, the architectural drawing has been motivated by ideas, or conception on the one hand and by a projection of material make up, or construction on the other. We make assumptions that relations exist between the surfaces of speculation, or drawings and the space of construction, or building, but what those relations are, how they might be changing and what they mean should not be taken for granted. As the roles of the architect change so too may the roles and status of the architectural drawing.

 

Drawings in general and architectural drawings specifically are located in deep cultural and architectural strata. They span a wide array of definitions and interpretations- this is their legacy. While their conventional status in the practices of design is undergoing change they remain primary to the work of the architect. Her, his, or their accomplice, the roles of architectural drawings, visualizations and images continue to ground the confluence of cultural import, circumstance and the identity of the architect. And while prevalent, they are not innocent- they protect a range of biases and conceits and patrol and occasionally transgress ethical, political and material terrain. However, while highly visible our representational ‘partners in crime’ remain in the blind spots of the profession often accepted and deployed instrumentally.

 

Arguably the space of the drawing, or visualization is a psychological risk, an authorial vulnerability. Engaging the white drawing surface and now black, or empty computer monitor is an act of violation. Carried out in the conceptual daylight of the blank drawing surface, or empty screen this face off, or confrontation is feared by the drawing, by the computer screen and by the architect alike. The act of drawing, or of keyboard operations is an assault on whiteness once started, destined to finish- a radical expanse of mark making, or imaging where the agendas of a personality face the possibility of coming out into the public arena of social, spatial and creative accountability- a day of ethical, cultural and spatial reckoning.

 

In some ways the architectural drawing is a virtual machine and ours has been a kind of shotgun marriage to it. The drawing is a primal trace of the body’s creative trance in search of the transformation of ideas to a material destiny, architecture. Like an enigmatic sea, remembering and forgetting at the same time, the space of the drawing is at times a wild and untamed medium. On the one hand it provides moments of coordination and landmarks for navigation for the architect, while on the other it is a metaphorical Bermuda Triangle for the secret sojourns and lost wanderings of the creative mind. The architectural drawing is a virtual archive, or creative prosthetic, a personal cartography, a plotting of musings and curiosities on a pilgrimage to creative identity- an alchemic cauldron for untold and emergent stories all in a quest for meaningful engagement and psychological metamorphosis with a world.

 

Some Drawing Stakes

 

Making drawings and teaching about the making of them, has enabled reflections on the histories of drawing, the roles they play and the potential of various types of drawings, visualizations and images. Some considerations have included: the ethics of imaging, visualizing and drawing; the biases and preferences of drawing types; distances between drawings and built architecture (a nod to Robin Evans); spatial temporality envisaged through the act of drawing; and the conditions of conception and experience that elude the conventions of drawing.

 

The ethics of drawing, visualizing and imaging might be framed by questions of public responsibility and relevancy for the larger good- a responsibility toward role modeling who we are through representational strategies, through interactions with our peers to develop representative opinions and by maintaining a care for the public good through the framing and enactment of drawing and visualizations. Establishing a representative representation of those that are to be represented through drawings as an interconnected politics of communication are part of this conversation.

 

Within this realm of representative representation is the question of what drawing types protect and what they reveal. Inevitably, each drawing type enables certain values, supports particular relationships and disallows others. Drawing types are not benign- they are politically and operationally charged, emphasizing certain things and not others. In the work of framing drawing types it’s important to understand a number of characteristics including: the origin, or etymology of the drawing type; preferences, or biases of the type; the roles of the author with respect to making drawings; the directness, or not, of drawing types in relation to spatial production, or design; developing the characteristics, or traits of the type so it can be deployed- a kind of template for operations; and precedent studies and critical reflection on them.

 

The varied distances between the drawing and the holy grail of its anticipation, the building, cannot be overlooked. In his seminal essay ‘Translations from Drawing to Building’ Robin Evans (1) spoke of the architect never actually working on the thing itself, the building, but always through a mediating medium, frequently the architectural drawing. Unlike other disciplines that work directly on the fruits of their labors, poets and poems, filmmakers and movies, sculptors and sculpture, architects seldom work directly on the destiny of their efforts- the building. In ‘Representation and Landscape’ (2) the landscape architect and theorist James Corner suggests that distances occur between the representational practices of the landscape architect and landscape architecture- analogous to those kinds of distances between the architect, representation and architecture. Sympathetic to Evan’s argument, he speaks about the difference in medium of the drawing and the medium of landscape itself, the abstraction of drawing in relation to the embodied complexities of a landscape and the anticipatory and of the generative roles the drawing might play. In parallel I think we can confidently say that what differs for architects in relation to painters, poets and sculptors is the fact that the architect does not work with the direct medium of her, his or their projective endeavor, materialized spatial settings. It becomes increasingly important to identify those distances so they can be integrated and capitalized on relative to the potential of architecture to contribute to a world thick with possibility.

 

If architecture has been conceived as static, then technological developments, global interconnectedness (a shift in emphases for the here and now to the then and there) and material relations to natural processes suggest a reassessment of both how we represent and build. Partially a result of the duration of the making of strategic plots all kinds of temporal possibilities emerge. The construction lines in a drawing might suggest materializing them, rather than the architecture itself, for example. The different drawing languages might also imply multiple temporalities, or even stranded temporalities, plotted as durations. Or, the phases of the drawing construction process might suggest that things, or events change disposition, location and relations to other things. And, partially a result of the shifted levels of communication in the drawings there exists the possibility of holding both retentive and projective spatial and representational tendencies in play at the same time exists. Here, the language of representation enables the possibility of multiple temporalities co-existing in the space of the drawing.

 

Importantly, the strategic plotting enables the possibility of things that elude status in conventional drawings- relations that cannot be immediately, or finally instrumentalized, or equivocated. Metaphorical prompts, fictional narratives, latent communications, split temporalities and so on can be supported and driven by the possibility of the strategic plot. Here, the margins of architectural and disciplinary conscience are literally and figuratively expanded, indulging in the possibility to extend what the architect might endeavor to consider.

 

Strategic Plotting

 

Strategic plotting is linked historically to the techniques, or lineage of collage making. They operate as mediating design drawings that structure, or plot relations over and through time- relational drawings in which the kinds of relations are multiple, the possible temporalities differentiated and the degrees of formal and material certainty, unknown. They are spaces in which to materialize thought, visually. They challenge the certainties of perspective and orthographic constructions and are open, curious and prompted- sites for unrefined and probative explorations, drawing sites for speculative design work that rehearse design conditions in their own right.

 

Inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s combines, curiosity cabinets, collage techniques and all manner of collections, the strategic plots are made of layered materials and layered ideas. By developing additive and subtractive working techniques through the use of differing representational languages (words, notation, index, material analogs, imagery, drawing conventions and so on) the strategic plots accrue value, both latent and explicit over time, or through the duration of their production. Moving between the subjective and gestural efforts of the architect to more traditional ways of thinking and drawing the strategic plots are a cryptic, or glyphic, language of proto-architectural and landscape marks, words and images, developed as a generative vehicle to establish some primary topics, goals and possible outcomes for a project. The various contributions of Edward Tufte (London Underground) (3) and Manuel Lima (Inner Mind of a Brand Geek) (4) on visualizing information have helped clarify the terms of engagement with the strategic plots, both conceptually and visually.

 

Strategic plotting is world building, or visualizing thought towards constellations of relational potential unimaginable in traditional architectural drawings. Varying degrees of commitment to, and understanding of, the ideas for spatial proposals co-exist in the space of the drawing. Metaphorical impulses and linguistic tropes can easily dance with information and factual accounts. Ambient surfaces tease coded, or, indexical marks and instrumental practices cross provocative language toward a synthetic, but incomplete and strangely familiar whole. Akin to a puzzle, geographic ma(p)trix, or, taxonomical inventory, the drawing type emerged as a way to circumvent a ‘crisis of representational reduction’, lodged in many traditional architectural drawings. The strategic plots broaden the bandwidth of understanding about the relational make up of a design proposal. Initially, my work on them attempted to develop particular representation techniques appropriate to the phase of development of a project. Quests for productive knowledge intermingle with imagination and illusory projection, loosening the authoritative grip of quantitative information and analytical domination quite prevalent in most drawing types.

 

The medium of the strategic plots is multiple, the duration and latent structure of the drawing type crucial. Akin to the work of farming, the drawing and its tendencies, accumulations and distillations accrue and develop over time, enabling tacit and latent knowledge to fuse with cognitive and reflective practices. Figurative and instinctual marks are composited, thoughts confirmed as gestures instigated through and between micro-assemblies, complemented by the fleeting presence of regulating lines, repetitions, and structures that drift into the background. There is a feeding frenzy of movement between different levels, or families of communication- fusing the language of architecture with the language of representation, or visualization. Notably, the drawings latent capacities, its mediating roles and the potential for creative engagement with diverse ideas in a project typically emerge with a vengeance.

 

Strategic Plotting resists the construction logic of flattened collage and the communication through joinery rather offering a thick surface of embroidered references, known and discovered. More akin to an archaeological field the strategic plotting is a radically different synthetic operation than assemblage. These works are drawn in mixed languages of communicative potential, hybridizing the traits of information transfer, descriptive geometry and analytical findings with the distinctly separate traits of episodic relational vignettes, non- causal meanderings and flat out shots in the dark. These accumulations aspiring to a new species of cultural and spatial vision, that when drawn appear like episodes from a single vast choreographed daydream with ethical and participatory aspirations.

 

These drawings, nuanced dislocations, incomplete thoughts and approximate moments operate as resistance to the fixation of known figuration, or as typological reinforcement- they offer a thickened space of possibilities of growth through multiple, or manifold of relations. The intricacy of the erratic interruptions performs not as errant trajectories, but as oriented, as structurally foundational. These drawings are hybridized and appear to evolve along both rational and irrational lines of force, opening the creative channels of the designer(s) and corroborating known and factual accounts with unborn and emergent characteristics and possibility.  The drawings are akin to cabinets of curiosities, cultivated to reap the benefits of a triggered imagination and a curiosity that is born out of the relations within and enabling the possibility for the architecture to critically practice what it is about architecture that she, he and they might dare to draw.

 

Conclusion

 

Operating somewhere between the worlds of a metaphysician, forensic detective, tinkerer and information hound an ethically inclined design effort suggests an engagement with intelligences in front of, behind and through the intersection of society, circumstance and the architect. To operate effectively in a dynamically changing world, the architect, increasingly, might need to be many architects, a kind of cyborgian character- a hybrid species, agile and capable of mutating over and through time, populating multiple value structures and temporally occupying split ‘points of view’ while envisaging cultural, disciplinary and personal calibers, ethically located.

Whether in the space of drawing, erasing and redrawing on sheets of paper, or in the keyboard commands of varied digital interfaces, the work of design still largely happens in the space of the drawing, or its computer counterpart, the digital model. Peter Cook refers to drawing as the motive force of architecture (5). Robin Evans said that architects don’t make architecture, but representations of it (1). And in his exhibition catalogue, ‘Perfect Acts of Architecture’ (6) Jeff Kipnis identified three roles for the architectural drawing- as an innovative design tool, as the articulation of a new direction for architecture and as the creation of consummate artistic merit. Arguably, the architectural drawing, digital, or manual, or combinatory, remains an operational compass for the work of the architect- its legacy and status, stable and vulnerable at the same time. Its histories established and waiting to be written.

 

The capacity of drawing remains powerful. Technically precise, strategic plots enable relational visual design thinking while accumulating potential by being worked on over time. Representational borders are opened with the hope of sustaining more fluid ideological, critical and material design possibilities. Communicatively, the drawings move between vague hunches, near certainties and flat out shots in the dark toward cultural, institutional and disciplinary agency. This alternative species of architectural drawing opens up both the role of the drawing in the process of discovering architecture (designing architecture) and the question of what it is about architecture that the architect might dare to draw out.

 

In Text References:

1. Robin Evans, ‘Translations from Drawing to Building’ AA Files 12, Architectural Association, London, 1986, pp 3-18

2. James Corner, ‘Representation and Landscape: drawing and making in the landscape medium’, Word & Image, Vol 8, No.3, July-September 1992, pp. 243- 275

3. Edward R. Tufte, ‘Envisioning Information’, Graphics Press, Cheshire, CN, 1990

4. Manuel Lima, ‘Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information’, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, NY, 2011

5. Peter Cook, ‘Drawing: the Motive Force of Architecture’, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, West Sussex, England, 2008

6. Jeffrey Kipnis, ‘Perfect Acts of Architecture’, MOMA, NY, NY and Wexner Center for the Arts, the Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, 2001

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