The Changing Role of Architectural Drawing

Architectural drawing underwent a twofold change: in an historical sense, like every other artistic technique, genre and art form, and also in terms of the series of metamorphoses during the design process from the sketch to the working drawings. This essay is structured to reflect this duality: it will examine the traditional functions of architectural drawing and the typical changes of its role in the design process (1) and investigate some of the historical background to these changes. First, the late medieval traditions of architectural thinking and communication primarily through drawing will be discussed (2); then its Renaissance roots will be explored (3); after which – in deliberate contrast – it will be shown how conventional thinking was gradually relaxed in the 20th century and in the present time (4), and further specifics of architectural drawing will be highlighted.

“Drawing both produces architectural knowledge and is a production of that knowledge,” wrote Edward Robbins 1, pointing out the strange qualitative duality, or two-directional nature, which appears to be one of the main peculiarities of architectural drawing. He suggests that architectural drawing is always more and always different to the pure documentation of a phase in the design process: the multifaceted role assumed by drawing as the primary tool of architectural thinking, concept forming and the intellectual process of design not only demonstrates its complex functions but also its peculiar traits that make it unambiguously identifiable and “architectural.” At the same time these roles, as we shall see, all carry within them – albeit varying to some extent and differing in form – the Robbinsian duality, from the early sketches, the various types of drawings preceding detailed plans, the preparatory drawings and the drafts to the working documents and presentational images.
Despite the changes in approach and the profound impulses of the digital world that have come into play in recent decades, the above mentioned traditional order of architectural drawings is still generally valid even today: based on this one would think that each type of drawing – and in a certain sense even the first sketches – are all preceded by an earlier design phase; however, the close observation of the architect’s work shows that this “ideal order” very rarely manifests in its pure form. Not for a single moment does architectural drawing lose its role as a medium of perpetually changing ideas and the mediary in the dialogue involving the site of the future building, its functions, materials, the clients and the users.
Sketching is perhaps the most complex act in an architect’s work: during the gentle movements of the hand holding the drawing instrument a complicated interaction begins between the images and ideas conceived in the architect’s mind and the associations that spring from them, the patterns of thought acquired through learning (the traditional systems of building design), the architectural experiences recorded in memory, and the elements that originate from the intellectual trends and styles characteristic of the given period of architectural history. The type of drawing (plan, cross section, elevation and their combination) and projection selected (orthographic, perspective, axonometric, and a combination of these) as well as the graphic technique applied and the drawing skills of the designer (his training in drawing, technical experience) significantly influence the drawing process and the course of the conclusions made while drawing. However, for most architects early sketches are not induced by simple mental impulses and the various drawing instruments but also by external references linked to the given task, as referred to just now, such as the characteristics of the site, the exchanges of ideas between colleagues, and the information obtained through communication with the client. However powerful the effect of external factors, the multifaceted aspects, previous information and knowledge, the design method, personal motivation, technical, functional, topographical and material constraints are in the end woven together by the architect’s inner dialogue, gathering the strands together into an increasingly clear system. In this respect the sketches, drafts and draft plans elaborated to various degrees of depth have a key role, since beyond giving tangible form to the visions that appear before the architect’s “spiritual eyes” they carry out the analysis of the aforementioned factors through the medium of drawing, and extract the information from them. Thus, when an architect draws he not only records the rapidly dissipating inner images but in addition to his own intellect and emotions he filters them through a series of traditional types of architectural representation, interpretive templates, technical and practical checks, i.e. – in reference to Robbins – he sifts them through his preliminary, inherited architectural knowledge and the specifics of the given task; he carries out a form of research. On the one hand, this act becomes absorbed in the mind of the architect and, on the other hand, reveals the factors and possible solutions connected to the object of design. In summary, therefore, the method and technique of drawing relate back to the architect’s thinking, and the prevailing interpretation of the architect’s drawing per se in any period influences the architect’s thinking and the design process. 2
The architectural drawing also has the role of being the mediating domain for translating concept into material (the constructed building). Robin Evans believes that it is precisely this aspect that highlights the dependence of architecture as a creative activity and art on drawing; the architect can only connect directly, personally and physically in a restricted way with that at which he directs all his intellectual energy and professional knowledge, i.e. with the entirety of the work itself: he can primarily contribute to the physical creation of the building as an operator. Thus, while in fine art a preliminary drawing only provides the definitions and the directions for the start of the actual work, in architectural drawing all the elements of the building to be are specified and determined as precisely as possible; yet, no matter how “final” a plan is, an immeasurable distance separates it from the actual building. 3 The completion of the final architectural plan for a building and the completion of its construction do not necessarily overlap: it is the graphic development of the concept and not the construction of the building that represent the most intense moments of the creative process. Therefore, the architectural work will, to a certain extent, remain on a conceptual level from the perspective of the architect who creates it since the exact translation of the architectural plan into material is virtually impossible and the construction is not directed by the architect, thus the intimate connection between the original idea and the completed work is severed. Fine artists constantly rethink ideas during the material development of their concept, modifying a number of tiny details, which means that here the creative process is dynamic, open to change and tied to the person of the creator to the last moment. It is an exaggeration to say – somewhat disagreeing with Robin Evans – that for the architect the creative process ends when he draws the last line on the sheet because most architects insist on doing the site supervision. Even though the opportunity to make changes during the construction phase is far more limited than it was in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, a lot of architects said that participating in the construction was a profound experience that helped them to place the materials and the site in a new context. In addition, working together with the contractor is like an extension to the graphic process and virtually creates the impression of being part of the physical implementation of the building.

Thus, architectural design for the “outsider” is a memorable and organic process with new starts, feedbacks and mysterious turns. The sea of sketches made during the design work provides a pool of possible solutions and unreal ideas, and the opportunity to compare the diverse forms and collect the experience required to outline the framework for the given project. The series of sketches link up into a homogenous process: one drawing emerges from, is layered on or destroys, alters and reinterprets another; the drawing is hence the “place” of constant change and transformation. This is also proven by the fact that architects apply sketching even in the advanced stages of design, regarding it as the most reliable tool to shape and change their concept. Kendra Schank Smith says that the architect draws in order to see, to render the mental images tangible and to open the floodgates for the impulses that urge him to shape the world around him, enabling him to interpret them from the perspective of the physical world. 4 While drawing, the architect wants to explore through seeking the right forms and through peaceful contemplation. However, the visualisation of inner images and concepts in architectural design is fundamentally different from that in all other graphic arts. This might provide an explanation to why seeing and making others see play such a unique role in architecture.
Robin Evans asserts that the object of architectural design does not originate from physical reality (unless an exact replica of an already existing building is made), i.e. an architect’s drawings do not reflect, cite or transform reality but instead create a new reality truly fulfilled outside the drawing, far beyond it in space and time (in the building). 5 The architectural drawing never imitates the visible but mediates the spatial and formal visions of the mind and embodies them as the image representing the pre-existent state of a future, visible entity. In other words, while drawing the architect interprets, defines and places into a logical context something undelineated, intuitive and impressionistic (which is partly built on previous experience and learnt professional patterns of thought and design) which is woven from the various demands of the client – not necessarily in line with architectural criteria) and at the same time proposes and compares its possible three-dimensional manifestations (different ways of constructing). 6 This leads us back to the issue of architecture’s graphic dependence and the distance that separates the architect who thinks through drawing from the completed work, i.e. the building: the architect records his work in a state “prior to its existence” and – in principle – regards this state as being the most complete and completed form of the work. However, this “perfect”, or “ideal”, form is bound to undergo certain changes due to the unexpected, special situations that arise during construction, and what comes into being is actually another work (a modified version of the original plan).
Another highly important and multifarious function drawing has in design, as a process of seeking and exploration, is communication. During their work architects share their ideas with their colleagues through sketches, more or less detailed drawings or even the final draft, and explain the rationale of their suggestions and the scheduling with the help of diagrams; they also use these tools in their communication with the contractor. Lucid drawings and CAD designs provide information for the client and the social groups affected. The architect, who translates a far-reaching change in the physical environment into a project makes a set of drawings that need to be easily understood for thousands of people. These drawings do not serve the sole purpose of mediating an architectural idea as they must also reflect the developer’s intentions and the impact the facility-to-be will have on the environment; they must also explain and mediate a cultural message embodied in the design. 7 This role of the architect already leads to the genre of the presentational drawing, which is mostly independent of the planning process and will be expounded on later in the essay. Through its sign system that can be precisely interpreted by entire social groups and professional communities this communicative quality of architectural drawing clearly forms a unique semiotic system, or, as defined by general linguistics, a so-called secondary language highly dependent on natural languages and akin to other non-verbal art forms. 8 It must be stated here that the nature, purpose and technique of the architectural drawing make it suitable to be organised into a large number of semiotic systems. The initial, highly imaginative drawings are barely decipherable to the layman, appearing to be virtually coded and only to be decoded by the draftsman who developed his own, personal semiotic system. Although the architect makes his intimate and idiosyncratic graphic language understandable for his immediate colleagues through annotations and “translations”, those coming from outside the world of his studio can only guess the meaning of such sketches. 9 In the next design phases drawings increasingly approximate sign systems determined by professional conventions: they become “comprehensible” for more and more people as the drawings initially imbued with fresh, personal intentions are gradually more and more strongly shaped by factors such as technical elements, the design and architectural traditions of the given place, the functional programme, the financial conditions and the expectations in terms of the client’s style as well as other practical considerations that – if there is sufficient intellectual focus – do not hinder the original idea. In other words, the drawings themselves become impersonal and the initially mainly intuitive rather than intellectual concept shifts towards being more intellectual. During the drafting phase the pictorial quality and expressivity of the sketch is replaced by an abstract sign system: while we can generally talk about a picture plane in the case of light sketches (they have a kind of anatomy as pictures), every single element of geometrically precise plans become simple instructions for implementation “attached” to the paper’s surface to give directions instead of suggesting an idea. However, it must be remembered that from the first sketch to the last working drawing the architect’s work includes a kind of professional investigation linked to the task and is independent of drawing. Nothing is done only on a whim. All the more so since the final plans are also affected by the local architectural authorities that deal with the projects: the approval procedures and consultation mechanisms (the specified order of the various phases) significantly vary in different parts of the world.
Architect Mihály Balázs described with great sensitivity the transformations and the non-conventional and non-linear streams of thinking in architectural design, while also referring to the characteristics and special changes in the role of architectural drawing: “…the sketch facilitates the articulation of the architectural idea. During construction drafts you encounter the fact that the earlier loose little line or bulk sketch becomes proportionate when you draw it using a ruler; what was correct in terms of concept and image becomes geometrically correct. The next shock is drawing the application for the construction permit; this is the phase when the social aspect of the idea becomes apparent. The next level is the representation of the »execution order«, then comes the phase of documentation, photography and the compilation of the portfolio. It seemed logical to build a class on it. But it didn’t work out. I was wrong because the process does not follow the schedule of a class; it is more hectic. (…) You might raise conceptual issues in the phase of execution and you may already think about a certain detail at the very beginning. (…) Our work is more like a large set, which contains everything at the same time. (…) The way I put it in one of my writings was that an architectural drawing can be precise in two ways: in an emotional and an intellectual way. The initial sketches reflect the feelings of the architect: moods, dispositions, attitudes. A good sketch is inspiring. In this phase geometric precision is the death of the drawing… However, after the critical moment of construction, geometric precision becomes increasingly dominant, and together with the texts, the drawing becomes a special “execution order”, yet it still retains its unique character. These two kinds of precision are inseparable.” 10 Hence, an architectural work, in a graphic sense, is the product of a continuous dialogue in which external factors and the architect’s inner intuitions are woven together, and, in a physical sense, are implemented through an “execution order” and not by the architect’s hand. In a mysterious way the architect codes into this order the intellectual surplus resulting from “the two ways of precision”, thus ensuring that the building has a unique spatial quality, vibe and “power”.
At the same time, the impressions created in the viewer by the autonomous composition by a fine artist’s hand can be seen as identical to the work itself; in contrast, an architect’s drawing – no matter how powerful an aesthetic effect it has – is primarily a mediating tool to articulate an idea and to present a vision in which a multitude of factors are fused. An architectural drawing forms part of a larger whole but is far from being the fulfilment of the artist’s intent. 11 This point brings us to the genre of the presentational drawing. These spectacular graphic pieces made for presentations are only part of the design process in a certain sense: they function as the embodiment of a complex proposal, as images imitating the visual perception a planned building will create in the viewer. Their aim is not to reveal anything about the design process or the “execution orders” for the building but much more to demonstrate the results of a project that – in a certain sense – is complete and to show the outcome of an architectural prognosis, or the final product of the architect’s instructions, i.e. they create the illusion of the artist’s intent having been realised. In Robin Evans’s view, the presentational drawing is a dead end since it does not depict an existing building but creates the unreal impression of some sort of “possibility”. 12 The complex aesthetics of presentational images is further enriched by the manner in which the building’s environment and the natural elements are presented. These drawings are no longer informative sheets but definitely compositions with a style shifting away from geometric precision and moving towards a pictorial quality, creating the impression of a veduta or even a landscape. However, despite their affinity with the manner of depiction typical of the fine arts, presentational drawings always include a perspective and a depth of technical detail that make the functional, technical and structural solutions clear to laymen. This duality of the illusionary-pictorial and the technical is one of the main characteristics of the genre. The makers of presentational drawings use “visual knacks” in the hope of triggering reactions in viewers which will then help them implement the key external elements of the project (in regard to the expectations of the future users and developers, aesthetic criteria, environmental requirements, etc.).
Architectural fantasies and visionary architectural works show even more affinity to the fine arts. In the past centuries these two genres produced countless subgenres ranging from cityscapes of real places complemented with imaginary buildings through fictitious evocations of the ancient and medieval world based on the depiction of existing ruins all the way to fantasies, idealised images and utopias of imaginary buildings. The analysis of the peculiarities and the intellectual history of these works is a deviation from the central theme of this essay since they cannot strictly be defined as architectural drawings – as understood in our context – but rather as pieces mediating architectural principles and abstract architectural “policies”, or ones conveying fundamentally non-architectural contents and sentiments through architectural means. In recent decades in particular, a number of architects have turned their attention to creating a unique world transforming the tools of architectural drawing in search of an autonomous, “ethereal” architecture that primarily functions as a medium for visual architectural philosophy. The numerous forms of the so-called “paper architecture”, which enjoys growing popularity in contemporary discourse on the mediality of architecture, are rooted in similar aspirations.
Architectural fantasies, i.e. designs that could be implemented but are made only as illustrations for works on architectural theory and philosophy and not on a project basis, are a borderline genre. Applying the traditional means of architectural drawing, they formulate sets of architectural principles with formulaic lucidity and generally offer formal and structural solutions that provide guidance in regard to technical data and not only ones regarded as correct in the intellectual context of the given period. They are as precisely detailed and technically elaborated as any design made to commission (since they carry the role of an “authentic model”) but lack the practical aspects of a specific project (which often hinders the exact recording of the principle). Since architectural fantasies provide a form of concentrated architectural knowledge, they undoubtedly exert a significant influence on architects in relation to the initial ideas and sketches to the working drawings, thus underlying the Robbinsian declaration that drawing is a product of architectural knowledge.
Before anyone would jump to the wrong conclusion thinking that, despite its ultimate openness in terms of concept forming (i.e. it accommodates the ways of thinking of users, clients and builders and is adaptive to different places and materials), architecture is art rendered in drawing, a few words must be said about the other side of this activity which cannot be formulated with graphic means yet largely depend on the architect. In relation to the “two kinds of precision”, quoted from Mihály Balázs, we have already touched upon the uniqueness and intellectual-qualitative surplus which is found in good plans from the first idea all the way to the last “execution order” and, beyond that, during the construction of the building, to finally manifest itself in the complete work and impress itself upon the people who enter it as the ultimate experience. In a physical sense, it is the constellation of light effects, contrasts, forms, scales and materials (the constellation representing the intellectual intent of the architect) which, when rendered graphically, only appear as a collection of lines but reveal nothing of the essence. The few graphic signs are but the coded form of the spatial qualities desired to be achieved and can only be decoded during the construction process and by the on-site instructions of the architect. 13 Certain areas of architectural thinking and creation – as Robin Evans would argue – are in semi-darkness and cannot be lucidly formulated even with graphic means, i.e. they penetrate the territory beyond drawing. Perhaps this is the point where the drawing leaves the medium in which it is defined as a secondary language.

Today it is evident that drawings specifying all the details of a design are an absolute precondition for constructing buildings and that sketches are the key tool in the formulation of an architectural concept. However, drawing was not always assigned such a prominent role in architecture. For example, in ancient Greece construction was so closely defined by formal traditions and canonised proportions that drawings were perhaps not needed at all (only detailed sketches if anything), and instead small-scale models were used. 14 At the same time, Vitruvius, who lived in Imperial Rome, emphasised that an architect “must have a knowledge of drawing so that he can readily make sketches to show the appearance of the work which he proposes” and he went on to describe sophisticated drawing techniques: in relation to the category of dispositio he mentioned the triad concept of a plan (ikhnographia), front elevation (orthographia) and scenographia (a form of depiction in perspective that partly overlaps with the Renaissance method of perspective. He adds that “all three come of reflexion and invention” in that reflexion is “directed to the agreeable effect of one’s plan” while invention is “the solving of intricate problems”. 15 Vitruvius’s books did not sink into absolute oblivion but disappeared from the scope of architectural thought 16 and were replaced by new design systems providing an entirely different understanding of drawing. Clearly, it was not overnight that drawing attained its new, defining status which it then retained for centuries; “architecture through drawing” emerged over the centuries, and the process probably started in the 14th century with its roots stretching back to the 12-13th centuries.
The scarcity of available records makes it virtually impossible to formulate a clear picture of medieval architectural drawing and its role in the act of building. Since the principle of scale did not exist at the time, it can be assumed that drawings played a minimal part in the communication between the designer and the builder. 17 It seems, however, that the importance of drawing increased in early and classic Gothic architecture as compared to earlier periods. 18 Underlying this change is the growth of geometrical knowledge which enabled designers to draw accurate architectural structures that were difficult to do with the previously used drawing tools. This development contributed to a significant expansion in the repertory of descriptive architectural techniques. 19 Nevertheless, it is likely that no complex, highly detailed preliminary plans were made prior to the construction of the buildings, only drawings of certain parts and key elements; the projections of comprehensive concepts and entire spatial systems were outlined. 20 Some scholars suggest that buildings were to a great extent designed over the course of their construction, i.e. the final designs based on the sketches were made on the site and were communicated by the architect to the builders with the help of instructions or small-scale models. 21 In other words, the architect worked directly in space, and a construction project was not fully based on the design concept he recorded in drawing. In all probability, the greatest emphasis in the construction process was placed on geometry: since neither a complete system of dimension and scale, nor the presently used tools of delineating the plot to build on existed in those days, plans were drawn on the site, to a scale of 1:1 and based on the architect’s concept sketched with relatively simple geometrical methods. 22 Triangulation – a method which, due to its nature, did not require a large number of drawings specifying every element of a building since it was suitable for the creation of a building’s entire system of dimensions, the interrelation of parts and details, and even their forms – is also an example of this geometric approach and the contemporaneous practice of primarily using architectural drawing as a construction tool. 23
In defining the exact role of architectural drawing, the few model books that survived are of the greatest help. These books were mainly used as technical guides and instructions for craftsmen. They contained drawings of structural elements as well as facade- and detail forms condensed into formulas and examples providing architects with model solutions and types that could be copied and combined. Similar significance was attributed to the study of famous buildings and to using them as models, i.e. the practical application of architectural knowledge via “copying”. That is, the medieval architect primarily relied on these references and the geometric systems applied; hand-drawn sketches most likely played a negligible role. It can clearly be seen from Villard de Honnecourt’s famous model book that drawing was seen as a craft and the applied knowledge of geometry and statics used in design. 24 His book included three drawing types, namely cross-sections, plans and elevations – in the case of the latter two orthogonal projection appeared in a mature form, which indicates that this technique had been used for a long time. 25
Orthography soon became hugely popular and was exercised at an extremely high level in large-scale construction projects. In regard to the changing role of architectural drawing it is significant that the first, seemingly conscious steps taken to comprehend depth of space can be found in some orthographic drawings in the 14th century. A kind of subjective perspective is found in the most well-known such example, the drawing attributed to the plan of the campanile of the Duomo (dating from before 1334). While on earlier orthographies the artist regarded the surface of the drawing paper as being identical to the plane of the elevation, the two are separated in this drawing as a result of the two orders of the projection lines meeting and forming a “space” between them; thus, the picture plane came into being. 26 In all likelihood, this development was linked to the intellectual and artistic change that occurred in the Late Gothic period as a result of a trend towards an increasing subjectivism. 27 Panofsky states that this subjectivism was most typically manifest in the perspectival representation of space which redefined the material surface of a painting or a drawing and transformed into an immaterial projection plane. This new approach in graphic representation not only effected change in the two-dimensional arts: sculptors and architects no longer saw the forms they created as isolated masses but began to think in terms of the pictorial articulation of space. 28 The arrested development of previously flourishing construction and design practices in the late Middle Ages is reflected in the buildings themselves: it is likely that these processes also contributed to the spreading of ideas and approaches that led to the subsequent major change in the role of architectural drawing.

Within the confines of this essay it is impossible to detail at length how architectural thinking – and, thus, architectural drawing – in 15th-century Italy was influenced by the change in the general artistic approach of 14th-century Italy, the emergence of drawing as an independent genre around 1400 and its increasing prominence in theoretical works, as well as by the perspective of the Trecento, the increasingly frequent use of Brunelleschi’s linear perspective, the gaining ground of Humanism and related systems of thought, the new inventions of mathematics and geometry, the growing importance of antique models and the rediscovery of De architectura by Vitruvius. However, some interesting points are worth examining in regard to our theme.
Over the course of more than one hundred years in Renaissance art theory it was established that architecture, painting and sculpture form part of the same category since all three use visual representation techniques to create their works and they all originate from the drawing, as stated by Vasari – as a kind of conclusion of a process – in a single thesis sentence in Le Vite (1568). 29 In this period these three branches of art gradually became independent of other forms of social representation, and, in accordance with the high scientific standards of the time, its tasks, aesthetic principles and the acceptable representational techniques of the new concept of space were formulated. 30 Thus, the position and function of architectural drawing also underwent significant change: during the 15th and 16th centuries it fulfilled its role in the development and visual representation of the architectural idea in an increasingly systematised form. 31 It can be presumed that in reaction to medieval convention a drawing practice developed – over a long period of time – paving the way for a planning process from early sketches to working drawings with geometrically precise dimensions, proportions and details. However, as will be pointed out later in the essay, the Renaissance architect did not follow a rigid, linear work process at all: he actively worked during the construction phase (in this sense following his medieval predecessors) and even though drawings became one of his main tools in this, he used models on an equal ground. The new role played by drawings and models must have had some practical reasons too. On the one hand, Renaissance architects did not have such a large body of reference works available to them that would have provided a solid foundation and guidance for their medieval predecessors. On the other hand, a large number of drawings and models were obviously needed for the study of the antique architectural records and the treatise by Vitruvius 32 – the illustrations of which did not survive – and the research into the harmonisation of old-new forms and contemporaneous functions. 33 In addition, the organisation of work also changed in the 15th century – the acts of design and construction separated – so architects used detailed drawings and models made to scale to communicate their intent to the building workshops which mostly followed medieval work practices. 34
Some lines taken from Leon Battista Alberti’s hugely influential treatise De re aedificatoria reveal a lot about the relationship between the various functions of architectural activity and drawing as well as the early Renaissance understanding of architectural drawing: “I have often conceived of projects in mind that […] but when I translated them into drawings, I found several errors and quite serious ones; again, when I return to drawings, and measure the dimensions, I recognize and lament my carelessness; finally, when I pass from the drawings to the model, I sometimes noticed […] further mistakes in the individual parts, even over the members.” 35 Therefore, by employing the tools of drawing and modelling Alberti continuously returned to his sketches in which he recorded his initial ideas and mental images to correct, perfect and “test” them in regard to mathematics, geometry and the right proportions.
Alberti’s theoretical explanations about the essence of design are also of great help in our exploration. In Ryckwert’s interpretation Alberti clearly distinguishes the concept of lineamenti (most generally translated as plan, drawing and form), which is highly debated in scholarly literature, from that of structura (structure) in architecture. 36 In Alberti’s approach the building is a kind of body composed of the lineamenti which are conceived in the mind (the product of thinking), and the materia which comes from nature. 37 “… the whole matter of a building is composed of lineaments and structure,” he says. …“All the intent and purpose of lineaments lies in finding the correct, infallible way of joining and fitting together those lines and angles which define and enclose the surfaces of the building. It is the function and duty of lineaments, then, to prescribe an appropriate place, exact numbers, a proper scale, and a graceful order for the whole building.” 38 Then he adds, “It is quite possible to project whole forms in the mind without any recourse to the material, by designating and determining a fixed orientation and conjunction for the various lines and angles.” 39 He also points it out that the lineamenti are the “precise and correct outline […] perfected in the learned intellect and imagination.”
Hard as it may be to exactly define the meaning of lineamenti, presumably, as suggested by Pérez-Gómez and Pelletier, it was linked with the concept of architectural drawing. If that is the case, Alberti talked about architectural drawings as a comprehensive and complex system recording the whole building and capable of transposing the internal images conceived in the architect’s mind into the external world and of making them mathematically and geometrically authentic.
Although Alberti considered it important for an architect to be trained in painting, he said: while a painter’s aim is to highlight parts from the canvas with exact shading, an architect places emphasis on the plan since he does not regard perspective as the measure of his work’s value but rather a real division of space based on reason. 40 Decades later Raphael, who in his architectural principles was a follower of Alberti, wrote about perspectival representation as one that through its graphic capacity helps viewers to better understand the architect’s intent as compared with a plan, since, in his view, masses cannot be represented on a plan if those parts that should be seen as being further from us do not get proportionally foreshortened. 41 He added that drawing in perspective is important, among other things, since it renders visible the graceful proportions and harmony of the future building. 42 Thus, placed in an architectural context, Raphael saw perspectival drawing – i.e. the pictorial representation of a concept as opposed to drawings recording instructions for the construction of a building – primarily not as some kind of painterly imitation or illusionary copying of reality but rather as a practical tool aimed at the comprehensive understanding of the architect’s concept, the exploration of spatial and dimensional relations as well as the connection between the building and its environment. It was perhaps this very function of perspective view that made it increasingly popular in architecture from ca. 1500, despite Alberti’s reservations 43. The drawings that have survived attest to the use of perspective in all the important phases of the planning process from the initial sketches to the working drawings and even in the presentational material prepared for the clients; in some cases it was used in a complex way combined with plans, elevations and even cross-sections. 44
Some data and sources that have come down to us from 16th-century Italy document that architectural sketches and freehand drawings with more or less depth of elaboration were held in high esteem and played an important role in design. 45
This might be related to the fact that the sketch was regarded in the 16th century as the “signature” of a widely recognised artist, the manifestation of his personal invention, a fresh outline (schizzi, abozzi) capturing his concept (concetto) and the free expression of his genius, but it was never forgotten that drawings only have a mediating function for the artist to realise his objective and complete his work. 46 In mannerist art theory (which already make a reference to the three graphic arts) the concept of designo is not simply used to denote drawing as the practice of the eye and the hand but also refers to an artist’s concept: Vasari writes that a drawing is none other than the formulation and visual representation of a thought that resides in our soul, is conceived in our mind and created in the form of an idea. That is, as interpreted by Panofsky, Vasari believed that the ideas conceived in the mind were formed by the artist based on his personal experience and created in his imagination while also drawing on reality. 47 An experienced eye and a practised hand were essential to capture all of this. This concept also influenced the formulation of the concept and function of freehand architectural drawing: the long process – already present in Alberti’s theory on architecture – during which drawing gradually assumed a role as a tool for research and testing, i.e. a role it fulfils in the process of finding the right solutions to realise the ideas conceived in the mind of the architect and based on his personal experience, was thus specifically supported by art philosophy. 49 Raphael’s views on perspective as a revelatory and exploratory tool must have also given a boost to the practice of sketching, since perspectival sketches were an excellent means to continuously “test” and shape an initial concept.
As previously mentioned, drawing did not enjoy a primary role in the formation of architectural concepts at the time: evidence shows that Renaissance architects used models along with drawings in virtually every phase of design and construction, ranging from the initial “three-dimensional material sketches” to the large, built models. These were aimed at the examination of questions pertaining to structure and engineering as well as aesthetics. Some scholars propose that models were used to record whole buildings, while drawings were employed to elaborate parts of buildings and particular details. In connection with this, certain scholars call attention to the fact that the function of plans in the construction process cannot be fully ascertained from the sources and data available to us. 50 This need for spatial design was previously touched upon in relation to perspectival architectural drawings.
The use of models was gradually pushed into second place as the new architectural design matured, the system of its visual representation became transparent and the larger body of model examples (functioning as a kind of reference base) developed. In the 17th century the function of models was reduced to being spectacular, true-to-life visual aids the purpose of which was to inform and convince clients. Simultaneously, the architectural drawing embarked upon a grand “career”: its wide repertory included brilliant sketches, perspectival designs abundant in painterly details, orthographies and prints reflecting geometrical ingenuity, and illusionary drawings of details. 51 Drawing became the primary tool in design with its own “language”, and functioned as a comprehensive communication system determining virtually every aspect of design from the first idea to the last phase of construction. Hence, the first steps were taken towards “architectural thinking and communication primarily through drawing” introduced in the first chapter of this essay.

The convention of architectural drawing that formed in the Renaissance and became prevalent in design was not in the least rigid and closed, and definitely not exclusive: it underwent numerous modifications and often profound changes depending on the styles that dominated a given period, the technical solutions, the architectural, social and philosophical trends as well as the new concepts of drawing that appeared in art theory. For example, the illusionism and picturesqueness of Baroque stage designs brought about significant change, and the same is suggested by the spectacular perspectives with dramatic chiaroscuro in illustrations of 17-18th-century architectural treatises as opposed to the simple orthographies from the 16th-century. A strong influence was exerted on the practice of architectural drawing by the imagery of visionary architecture that flourished in the 18-19th centuries, engineering design during the industrial revolution and the developments related to the institutionalisation of architectural education (e.g. the rules and traditions of drawing in the École des Beaux-Arts, an institution that acquired a dominating influence for itself for a long time). 52
The phenomenon that appeared at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries suggests that the graphic conventions were somewhat relaxed. In the first third of the new century the ideas introduced by abstract art theory about the autonomy and the basic elements of the image – lines, dots, plane, geometrical forms –, as well as the impact of scientific research into the relationship of space and time on art, and the “exiling” of perspective transformed architectural thinking. Early modern architects regarded perspective and painterly modelling as the main characteristics of 19th-century architectural drawings and as tools to create false impressions. 53 They gave preference to axonometry, which they believed to be a mode of representation suitable for functionalism since due to its lack of a distorting “human perspective” it provided a more objective picture. 54 In this context, the sketch was often reduced to being the mere medium of abstract geometric relations and an impersonal mediating tool to represent pure, formulaic systems. 55 At the same time, a more imaginative approach embracing the expressivity inherent in drawing also existed, as shown by the highly influential sketches of Erich Mendelsohn. The tradition of using models was revived by avant-garde architecture, most probably as a result of the new theories of space and form encouraging architects to do three-dimensional studies of buildings. The period was abundant in individual practices: Gaudì, for example, did not draw at all but instead made large-scale models together with sculptors 56, Eero Saarinen returned to Michelangelo’s method by making clay models at the beginning of the design process, and Le Corbusier virtually worked like a medieval architect when he once pasted a detail design to the scale of 1:1 on the wall of his office. 57 As far as freehand drawing is concerned, the 20th century was characterised throughout by a multifarious practice ranging from strict perfectionism to a completely intuitive approach.
The gradual relaxation in drawing was manifest in the last third of the 20th century in far more forceful aspirations than ever before, and now with a theoretical foundation. Quoting just a few examples well demonstrates the significance of these ideas. The radical division suggested by the semiotics of deconstructivist architecture also meant the “explosion” of the drawing (drawing signs), which it regarded as a linguistic system. In connection to the designs of his Parc de la Villette complex in Paris, Bernard Tschumi spoke of a “disjunctive, dissociating and disintegrating” influence as being similar impulses to Derrida’s deconstruction. 58 Tschumi’s diagrams create the impression of dispersed building fragments, thus demolishing even the relationships between form and function, sign and meaning. Instead of drawing a – customary – close relationship between the vertical and the horizontal, he applied the principle of superpositioning, i.e. the positioning of spatial and linear layers over one another. In the Tschumi diagrams, reflecting the concept of the La Villette park complex, the perspectival representation of the individual pavilions, the plans and elevations and the constructivist-kandinskian lines of force evocative of the aforementioned explosion are projected over one another, consciously confusing the points of reference traditionally used in drawings. The previously firm belief in the traditional duality, or “chronology”, of drawing and building was thus shaken, and since this superpositioning was apparently manifest in the finished work the conceptual dichotomy of “architecture” and “architectural” was also blurred.
However, the methods applied by deconstructivism and the post-modern, which were primarily – albeit in different ways – aimed at the recombining, quoting, montage-like “retayloring” of traditional forms and strove to “amplify” differences, inherent contradictions and diverseness soon became empty for many architects and architectural theoreticians. 59 Therefore, they started looking for new reference points that could lead out of dogmatic modernism based on typifying mechanisms and propagating set logical and conceptual systems as well as speculative postmodernism. In this period the issue of drawing was mainly affected by the application of diagrammatic thinking in design and the desire to conquer radically new “domains” of creating form and space. The explosion in computer technology and the growing popularity of software-integrated design provided new impetus and further opportunities for the former and became one of the main sources and driving forces of the latter.
At first it was theoreticians – mainly Somol – who called attention to the diagram as a potential design method, stating that diagrams are able to render a graphic visualisation of interrelations between sets of data and their mechanisms of change with the help of figures and graphs 60 since they provide a dynamic and open framework that enable architects to replace their earlier (modern) independent-directing role with a multidisciplinary and co-operative one 61 in extended systems. For architects working in increasingly complex systems diagrams are helpful in mapping interrelationships between elements while being free from ideological control; diagrams develop architects’ sensitivity to the “everyday” aspects of design and enable a realistic approach to philosophical issues. It is likely that architectural diagrams were brought about by the social phenomena connected to the activity of building, a thus far unprecedented complexity that resulted from the newly emerged functional and technical problems, the relativisation of facts and the overwhelming information flow.
In contrast to the traditional design- and function analysis of drawings influenced by the imaginative-intuitive creative energies of architects, diagrams offer a starting point for design which is built not on the pictorial but rather on the inherent qualities of systems and derives typological elements from relations, possibilities, time and movement. The most well-known figures of diagrammatic architecture are Peter and Alison Smithson, Christopher Alexander, Ben van Berkel and Peter Eisenman, who each took an individual approach to this method of design but evidently supported Somol’s argument that in regard to “concept-forming techniques” architecture is gradually moving away from drawing and shifting towards the diagram in the second half of the 20th century. 62
In the late 1990s arguments were put forth more and more audibly suggesting that architecture was far from having exhausted its formal opportunities and only a fresh geometrical-formal approach could offer a way out of the dead ends of the Modern and the Post-modern. 63 One of the strongest examples of this was Greg Lynn, who sees the chance for rejuvenation in topological geometry, formerly completely neglected in architecture. While orthogonal geometry is composed of dots and lines, topological geometry works with vectors, which means that entities are given vectorial qualities that act in force fields where they move in a sequence of continuous and dynamic phases and freely evolve in time. Essentially, in place of the neutral timelessness and static space of orthographic models in architecture, topology offers a design space allowing for a multiplicity of times and dynamic interaction. Greg Lynn argues that it is time for architecture to leave behind the age-old assumption according to which force and motion are diametrically opposed to the essence of architecture (since – as conventionally maintained – architecture is defined by stasis, static space and timelessness). 64 Obviously, the predominantly computational techniques hugely differ from the “inactive mediums” of paper and pencil. Lynn’s approach goes way beyond a mere expansion of the descriptive repertory of architecture and enters a radically new domain of thought and design in which architectural drawing is also interpreted anew. His principles are followed by Kas Oosterhuis, who talks about vectorial bodies and uses “force lines”, identical to speed, as a design tool. 65
Diagrammatic thinking and topological geometry are intimately linked with the world of Computer-Aided-Design (CAD), as pointed out by William J. Mitchell in 1998, who stated that it had become pointless for architects to cling to classical architectural geometry since complex bent surfaces can be just as easily modelled as planar, cylindrical, spherical or conical surfaces, and, similarly, there is no essential difference in this sense between the truly 3D and two-dimensional structures. As he wrote, neither plans, nor cross-sections play a key role any more. 66 Nonetheless, software-integrated design has exerted multiple influences on architects’ ways of thinking: the digital medium has generated a series of contradictory phenomena in the past fifteen years or so. The sketch, for example, has attained an unexpectedly significant role, despite it being a genre far removed from ways of thinking determined by the digital medium. Some architects (Frank O. Gehry, Erick van Egeraat) actually started to generate CAD designs based on their intuitively sketched drawings. Transposing sketches into software and digitally “adjusting” structures fundamentally reflect the traditional method of design (or rather keep the traditional order used in drawing), which means that the computer serves as a useful tool for architects to realise their individual concepts. That is, in this approach the sketch is regarded as a quasi-finalised concept. 67 In contrast, there is the practice of not using the sketch at all, or virtually reducing it as a tool used by the architect to provide final instructions, and applying complicated algorithms to create formal projections from various databases, i.e. practically building up concepts through processes based on the principle of genetic mapping. In the latter approach architecture is regarded as a form of artificial life, which, like nature, is determined by morphogenesis, genetic coding, replication and selection. 68 In this design system the visions and formal ideas conceived in the architect’s mind play a minimal role and the testing of the concept through drawing is even less relevant. In the initial stages of work the architect primarily takes part in the selection of data and the coordination of processes within certain constraints. In this case it is difficult to talk about “architecture through drawing” since the structures of lines drawn on paper merely document the long and complex process taking place in cyberspace and reveal little about their essence, which, often delve into philosophical depths.
Nevertheless, it must be noted that the majority of architects still apply the idea-drawing-building scheme in their work and use computers as a practical drawing tool. For them, the opportunities offered by design software programmes are a mere expansion of descriptive architectural techniques and an efficient and spectacular means to simulate traditionally formed concepts (hand drawing, modelling) and new systems of drafting.
Brian McGrath and Jean Gardner developed a digital drawing system in an attempt to bridge the gap between these two worlds. 69 They believe that the monitor’s surface can no longer be treated as a sheet of drawing paper, and, instead of creating designs with lines, dots and perspectival projections appearing on an abstract plane, today’s architects need to explore the “cybernetic duration”. A digital design as an infinitely alterable collective work with an infinite “depth of detail” is not a drawing in the literal meaning of the word, but rather the result of a kind of information and data management. What they call “linear thinking”, i.e. relying on visual perception and expecting it to provide complete knowledge, and its product, the perspective, are no longer a tenable framework for real cognition. The “nature” of software programmes, contemporary functional requirements and technologies are best satisfied in a cybernetic system, which is a medium for circular information flow and feedbacks and cognisable to architects in “frames” (hence the method’s name: Cinemetrics) which can then be put back into motion and serve as a starting point for this new method of drawing. The basic principle reverts back to the age-old opposition: it chooses the circular over the linear, the dynamic instead of the static and offers the space of information as opposed to the dichotomy of plane and space, and as such it resembles diagrams in many respects.
The drawing system of McGrath and Gardner forcefully calls attention to the fact that if what we quoted from Robbins in the first lines of this essay is true, the change in the role of drawing at the millennium also raises the issue of collective architectural knowledge in the future. Conventions are maintained, however, the ever-increasing influence of digital impulses slowly transforms all the areas and levels of architectural activity. It is increasingly difficult to define architectural knowledge as a catalogue of “analogue” drawing techniques, functional solutions, design methods and forms. At the same time, a hitherto unforeseen richness is demonstrated by the freehand drawings of many architects: the new formal dimensions called forth by the digital world exert a revelative impact on the imagination which gushes forth with renewed energy – through the pencil and the hand.
The relationship between architecture and drawing has become inexpressively diverse. General truths no longer apply in this regard. Even the declaration that many architects think less and less through drawing but they have no other means of communication (for building) can be questioned since Computer-Aided-Manufacturing was first used in architecture.

(1) Robbins, Edward: Why Architects Draw, The MIT Press, 1994, 5
(2) Meisenheimer, Wolfgang: The Functional and the Poetic Drawing, Daidalos, 25, 119.
(3) Evans, Robin: Translation from Drawing to Building, in: Translation from Drawing to
Building and Other Essays, Architectural Association Publications – AA Documents 2, 1997, 156.
(4) Schank Smith, Kendra: Architects’ Drawings – A selection of sketches by world famous
architects through history, Elsevier – Architectural Press, 2005, 3-4.
(5) Evans 1997, 165.
(6) Schank Smith 2005, 1.
(7) Robbins 1994, 4-5.
(8) Kelemen, János: Nyelvfilozófiai tanulmányok, Áron Kiadó, Budapest, 2004, 49.
(9) Pierce, James Smith: Architectural Drawing and the Intent of the Architect, Art Journal, 27, 119.
(10) Somogyi, Krisztina (ed.): Balázs Mihály, Kijárat Kiadó, Budapest, 2006, 183.
(11) Schaller, Thomas Wells: The Art of Architectural Drawing – Imagination and Technique, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1997, 120-121.
(12) Evans, Robin: Architectural Projections, in: Blau, Eve – Kaufman, Edward (ed.): Architecture and Its Image – Four Centuries of Architectural Representation, The MIT Press, 1989, 19.
(13) Evans 1997, 157-159.
(14) Coulton, J.J.: Ancient Greek Architects at Work – Problems of Structure and Design, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1982, 51-73.
(15) See: Vitruvius: De architectura, Book. 1. Chapter 4 and Chapter 2, and in: Vitruvius: Ten Books on Architecture (transl.: Morris Hickey Morgan), BiblioBazaar, 2008, 37. and 37-38.
(16) Hajnóczi, Gábor: Vitruvius öröksége – Tanulmányok a De architectura utóéletéről a XV. és XVI. században, Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 2002, 16.
(17) Ackerman, James: The Origins of Architectural Drawing in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, in: Origins, Imitation, Conventions: Representation in the Visual Arts, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002, 31.
(18) Klein, Bruno: Beginn und Ausformung der gotischen Architektur in Frankreich und seinen Nachbarländern, in: Toman, Rolf – Beyer, Birgit – Borngässer, Barbara (ed.): Die Kunst der Gotik, Tandem Verlag GmbH, 2007, 154.
(19) Porter, Tom: The Architect’s Eye – Visualization and Depiction of Space in Architecture, E & FN Spon, 1997, 9-10.
(20) Pérez-Gómez, Alberto – Pelletier, Louise: Architectural Representation and the Perspective Hinge, The MIT Press, 2000, 8-9.
(21) Ackerman 2002, 31.
(22) Marosi, Ernő (ed.), intr., notes: A középkori művészet világa, Gondolat, 1969, 201-202. and Ackerman 2002, 31.
(23) Sódor, Alajos: Gótikus építészet, in: Az építészet története – Középkor, Tankönyvkiadó, Budapest, 1969, 484.
(24) Marosi 1969, 201.
(25) Ackerman 2002, 36.
(26) Evans 1997, 166-167. It must be noted that Villard de Honnecourt also tried to represent depth of space, but his drawings are extremely uncertain and inconsistent in this regard. About this, see: Ackerman 2002, 34-36.
(27) Panofsky, Erwin: Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, Archabbey Publications, 2005, 10.
(28) Ibid. 11.
(29) Vasari, Giorgio: Le vite de’piu ecellenti pittori, scultori ed architetti – Preface to the second edition (transl.: Lontay, László), in: Klaniczay, Tibor (ed.), intr., sel.: A manierizmus, Gondolat, Budapest, 1975, 121.
(30) Hajnóczi, Gábor: A XV. század művészetelmélete, in: Hajnóczi, Gábor (ed.): A reneszánsz művészet történetének olvasókönyve, Balassi Kiadó, Budapest, 2004, 9.
(31) Smith, Schank 2005, 19-23.
(32) Hajnóczi 2002, 15-16.
(33) Porter 1997, 12-13.
(34) Szűcs, B. Margit: Reneszánsz – Az építészet története: Újkor, Nemzeti Tankönyvkiadó, Budapest, 1985, 14.
(35) Alberti, Leon Battista: De re aedificatoria, Book 9, in: Alberti, Leon Battista: On the Art of Building in Ten Books (transl.: Ryckwert Joseph, Neil Leach, Robert Tavernor), The MIT Press, 1988, 317.
(36) For Joseph Ryckwert’s explanations of terms, see: Alberti 1988, 422. Ryckwert lists the translations of the word lineamenti in the most important literature: “plan”, “outlined contour”, “floor plan”, “main features/characteristics”, “form”. Gábor Hajnóczi states that Alberti uses the word to “denote architectural drawing” buti t is also used to refer to the “layout of the details in the drawing”– See: Leon Battista Alberti: Della Pittura, 1436, transl., intro., notes.: Hajnóczi, Gábor, Balassi Kiadó, Budapest, 1997, 138. According to Erwin Panofsky, the word means: “form” – in his opinion Alberti clearly says that “a work of art can only come into being through the »conformatio« of the material, through the mediation of the »lineamenta« (=form).” – Panofsky, Erwin: Idea: A Concept in Art Theory, Icon (Harpe), 1974, note 125.
(37) Alberti 1988, 422-423
(38) Alberti 1988, 7.
(39) Ibid.
(40) Ibid. 20.
(41) Castiglione, Baldassar – Raphael: Letter to Pope Leo X (transl.: Hajnóczi, Gábor), in: Hajnóczi 2002, 198-199.
(42) Ibid. 198.
(43) Ackerman 2002, 51-53.
(44) Ibid. 56.
(45) Smith, Schank 2005, 11-12 and 20-21.
(46) Hutter, Heribert: Die Handzeichnung – Entwicklung, Technik, Eigenart, Schroll-Verlag, 1966, 13.
(47) Panofsky 1974. – see chapter entitled “The Renaissance”.
(48) Ibid.
(49) Smith, Schank 2005, 21.
(50) Szűcs, B. Margit 1985, 14.
(51) Porter 1997, 18.
(52) Ibid. 18-20. Further analysis of the diversity of influences: Evers, Bernd: Der Zeichnende Architekt, in: Schätzke, Andreas (ed.): Die Hand des Architekten – Zeichnungen aus Berliner Architektursammlungen (ex. cat.), Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2002, 110.
(53) Evers 2002, 110-111.
(54) Schank Smith 2005, 14 and 166; Porter 1997, 20; Evers 2002, 110-111.
(55) Schank Smith 2005, 166.
(56) Porter 1997, 20-21.
(57) Porter 1997, 21.
(58) Tschumi, Bernard: Parc de la Villette, Paris, in: Papadakis, Andreas C. (ed.): Dekonstruktivismus – Eine Anthologie, Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart, 1989, 175-181.
(59) Good examples to illustrate this: Kipnis, Jeffrey: Towards a New Architecture, in: Architectural Design, 1993, 3-4 and 41-49.
(60) Bun, Zoltán: Diagram: rajz és elmélet után, in: Kalmár, Ferenc – Kocsis, Imre – Csomós,
György – Csáki, Imre (ed.): 15th Building Services, Mechanical and Building Industry Days International Conference, Debrecen University, 2009, 406.
(61) Ibid. 407.
(62) Somol, R.E.: Dummy Text, or The Diagrammatic Basis of Contemporary Architecture (preface), in: Eisenman, Peter: Diagram Diaries, Universe Publishing, New York, 6-25.
(63) Kipnis 2000, 348-353.
(64) Lynn, Greg: Geometry in Time, in: Davidson, Cynthia C. (ed.): Anyhow, The MIT Press, 1989, 164-173.
(65) Oosterhuis, Kas: Öt stratégia, in: Utóirat (supplement to Régi-új Magyar Építőművészet), issue 2005/4, 13-14.
(66) Mitchell, Williams J.: Antitectonics: The Poetics of Virtuality, in: John Beckman (ed.): The Virtual Dimension: Architecture, Representation and Crash Culture, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1998, 205-217.
(67) For more see: Wesselényi-Garay, Andor: Forma – Alak – Mimézis, in: Utóirat (supplement to Régi-új Magyar Építőművészet), issue 2005/4, 9-12.
(68) Spiller, Neil: Digital Architecture Now – A Global Survey of Emerging Talent, Thames & Hudson, London, 2009, 12.
(69) McGrath, Brian – Gardner, Jean: Cinemetrics – Architectural Drawing Today, Wiley Academy, 2007.