On Pushing the Boundaries of Architecture Representation

Architecture students arrive at the task of representation with a mounting sense of urgency. There is a lot to learn, and quickly. Plans, it turns out, are not merely arrangements of rooms and hallways on a page, but a particular way of conceiving buildings. Perspectives prove to be trickier to master but are less esoteric, maybe. Then there is a multitude of instruments, drawing media, modeling materials, software, and digitally mediated apparatuses to grasp. Even the basics of architectural representation reveal that there is more than skill involved in mastering its tools and techniques.

From the first it becomes clear that in representation the hand and mind interact in complex ways. Architects think, create, and communicate through representation, but the conventional techniques insert their own agendas. They carry traditions, place demands, shift motives, shape communication. Unsurprisingly, architects challenge and circumvent these techniques, even as they exploit them. So learning about representation does not entail merely gathering a set of handy skills for studio, it is the dawning realization that representation is the central task of architecture and one of its most daunting challenges—which takes more than a few weeks to figure out.

Even the term “representation” becomes uncertain. At first, re-presentation seems conceptually transparent: it obviously involves presenting something—again. But what gets presented, to whom, and why more than once?

Black and white axonometric of structure with three floor
The first exercise in “Representation 1: Origins, Originality” was an experiment beyond typical parallel projection drawing that asks: How can we hack the techniques of singular parallel projection by introducing a second parallel projection; from 1-way to 2-way? Can this methodology shift reveal aspects of design intent otherwise invisible in traditional orthographic drawing? Image courtesy of Elle Gerdeman.

Fundamentally, the process of representation in architecture starts with ideas and moves toward substance—from construal to construction, as architectural theorist Marco Frascari expressed it. Typically, it originates with the designer and ends with the builder. The first mark of drawing or the earliest glue joint in a model begins to give form to a thought, putting it before the designer for consideration, testing, and reconfiguration. The design takes shape in its various representations. It grows through new versions of drawings and models. These eventually mediate conversations between designer and critic or client, which lead to alterations and alternatives. At some point, usually after protracted exchanges with colleagues, contractors, and consultants, a designer must offer a provisionally complete set of representations for municipal approval. Finally, a more developed version serves as exhaustive, contractual instructions to builders. There is a many-linked chain between initial construal and final construction, and almost nothing an architect does happens independently of representation.

Value-laden tools of representation underlie the conception and realization of architecture.

Alberto Pérez-Gómez & Louise Pelletier

Deeply embedded biases lurk in this process, however. Representation is not transparent. In the flow of design, drawing and modeling techniques fortify and contaminate the work. Architectural historians Alberto Pérez-Gómez and Louise Pelletier explain that, unavoidably, “value-laden tools of representation underlie the conception and realization of architecture.” Design necessarily moves through established methods of drawing and modeling, but every technique carries a historical legacy and an already-formed intellectual orientation. Representation in design thereby constitutes what anthropologist Edward Robbins refers to as a “cultural practice” that binds architects to a set of historical ideas and habits. It also serves, he explains, as “an instrument of social production” that mediates virtually all communication in architecture. To expedite the flow of information and avoid confusion, architecture relies on conventional techniques of representation, which are crucial but limiting. They facilitate design but also constrain it.

The most basic and ubiquitous architectural drawing convention that students must learn is orthographic projection, which carries historical vestiges of an old branch of advanced mathematics. Along with elevations and sections, modern plans arose from descriptive geometry, which involves the casting of parallel vectors from imagined objects to imagined planes in imagined space. Orthography lives in an abstract Cartesian expanse, best viewed these days in the pixel arrays of digital modeling viewports. It implies omniscience, infinity, homogeneity, and mastery over space and form.

Perspective, by contrast, emanates from the eye. Its Renaissance origins in painting point to its fundamentally humanist orientation, and terms used to set up a perspective drawing—ground line, horizon, station point—hint at an earthbound conception of space and the objects in it. Complicating this, the standard interfaces of Rhinoceros and other digital modeling tools blandly combine these conventions, presenting orthographic and perspectival views simultaneously. They imply control over both realms, while also staking a claim on the practice of modeling. Modeling, however, has its own conventions, which computer programs can’t quite replicate. These reside in the contraction of scale to accommodate the hand and the substitution of paper, cardboard, and wood as surrogates for construction materials. For architects, all of these tools can be relevant and useful.

However, one challenge with learning these conventions, valuable and fascinating as they are, is understanding where to find the intellectual space for creativity around them. Two Harvard GSD courses offered last semester—Elle Gerdeman’s short module, “Representation 1: Origins, Originality,” and Jennifer Bonner’s more advanced course, “Representation First (!!!) Then Architecture”—frame an attitude toward conventions of representation that helps students open their design process, shift entrenched biases, and build their creativity. The courses push students to question traditional techniques, import representational strategies from other disciplines, and undertake their own experiments.

“Representation 1: Origins, Originality,” a six-week introduction to architectural representation, starts, Gerdeman explains, “by investigating the origins of conventional representational techniques.” But it quickly expands beyond these techniques. Each lecture topic pursues “a tie between historical background and contemporary interpretation and pressures.” Her approach to this, for beginning students, is both instrumental and intellectual. She repeatedly brings together two basic questions about representation technique: “How do you do it, and what makes it theoretical or conceptual?”

In the first lecture on orthographic projection, for example, students learn the systems of projection and cutting that are essential to creating plans and sections but also learn that there can be “misreading and slippage” within these conventions. This opens an opportunity to challenge them. So an associated exercise responds to the presumed need for “a multiplicity of views to describe a single object” by shifting the requirement. Instead, students stitch together two projections in a single image. This exercise demonstrates how “thoughtful mis-use” of conventions might open space for new ways of thinking about design. Another lecture, “Temporality, Scale Figures, and Stuff,” essentially bypasses conventions by focusing on those aspects of architecture that standard representations often don’t depict—occupation, furniture, weathering, impermanence, maintenance. Through these examples, Gerdeman encourages students to imagine “buildings as environments, as places of performance, of ritual, of behavior” and to envision new ways of developing and depicting these aspects of architecture.

In “Representation First (!!!) Then Architecture,” Bonner extends this kind of thinking by stepping almost entirely out of the conventions of architectural representation. During the first course meeting, she offers the students a standard list of final review requirements—plans, sections, elevation oblique, axonometrics, wall sections, models, diagrams, and so on. This is something they are used to seeing, “But,” she argues, “that’s not the way we should be thinking about representations—like dressing up your building in the last weeks of the semester.” The primary goal of her course is to move way beyond this list, and to realize it is a tiny subset of possible representation techniques. She wants to expand architectural creativity through “novel representational techniques,” and to “push architecture in a new direction.”

Digital collage of distorted cake and pink frosting
Frost a Cake Assignment for “Representation First (!!!)” by Sam Sheffer (MArch I ’22)

In the first weeks of the semester, Bonner delivers a series of precisely formatted lectures “with the majority of sources located in art practice and popular culture.” These might include cake decorating, text redaction, 80s bubble lettering, main stream music videos; the range of possibilities is endless. Sometimes these images might develop unexpected associations that “leak into architecture,” she says; other times, they may be more practicable. For example, in Bonner’s own practice, Mall, she considered sandwich design when looking to change the typology of a midrise tower. The firm’s “Best Sandwiches” research project yielded Office Stack, a bold new office building for Huntsville, Alabama.

During the last weeks of Bonner’s class, the students take over. Employing the same prescribed lecture format Bonner uses, they each explore six themes, often seemingly unrelated, and the class becomes “like an open source for visual imagery . . . it’s like a conceptual ideas generator.” Bonner admits that it’s a bit humbling. “What happens,” she says, “is that the students find more interesting things than you. . . .” But that is precisely the point: representation becomes wide-open, intellectually expansive exploration, out of which entirely new architectural ideas might (or might not) emerge.

Video: Make a Collection of Scale Figures for “Representation First (!!!)” by Sam Sheffer (MArch I ’22)

“Representation 1” is manifestly for students at the beginning of their educations in architecture, whereas “Representation First (!!!)” is most useful for students thinking about their thesis work, or who might be envisioning academic careers for themselves. In both courses, though, an urgent sense of discovery seems remarkably consistent. An initial effort to acquire the skills for creative work in architecture brings a realization that conventional techniques might not be adequate to the task. Searching around—and past—these methods reveal new sources of creativity. Beyond architecture, the alternative representation strategies that art, music, and popular culture have to offer are abundant, varied, mind-expanding. Three exclamation points say it well: there is a lot to learn, and quickly!!!