|Rooftop view from Arnhems Buiten
In January 2020, I was invited to ArtEZ University in the Netherlands to conduct a three day drawing workshop with a group of architecture students in the city of Arnhem. The three day workshop guided students through a series of exercises that engaged with drawing as a fundamental tool and process for exercising thought in action. Structured around three core themes of: BODY, SPACE and PLACE, the workshop was delivered in response to the situated thinking body in space. Below features some images and the introduction I wrote for a book that is currently being published about the workshop.
|Fadia working on a sensory drawing
I’ve always been curious about architecture and from a very young age I would draw endless floor plans on scraps of paper then spend hours (sometimes days) making elaborate structures out of driftwood, cardboard, Lego, etc. I was constantly envisioning architectures and constructing them. My explorations were part of an ongoing conversation between the world in my head and the world experienced and manipulated through my body and hands.
At art school this spatial curiosity continued as I explored the relationship between self and world further through drawing and sculpture. The slippery edges of distinction between the two genres presented the most interesting and opportune territory for investigation. So, my practice evolved into an exploration of how we use forms of two and three-dimensional drawing to investigate, describe and communicate encounters with the world beyond our head.
On occasion, I have wondered, ‘what if I’d gone to architecture school instead of art school?’ So, as a somewhat confused wannabe architect (of sorts), being asked to teach a group of architecture students was a dream come true. I was excited at the prospect of interdisciplinary exchange, but for this to be really useful, to extend thinking and challenge assumptions (of all parties concerned), I thought carefully about what I could offer a group of architecture students specifically because I am a visual artist and not an architect.
|Exploring the site using frottage.
My research focuses on drawing as a process of thinking in action, rooted in direct, embodied experience. I consider drawing in the broadest of terms as a process that incorporates a variety of approaches, tools, technologies and materials stemming from an active, participatory negotiation between our imagined and perceptual worlds. It sometimes results in documents and records translating and communicating experience through marks upon a surface, but can also be just the process itself - the act of reconciling self and world through a range of material and immaterial ‘markings’ i.e. walking down a street, expelling air out of the mouth or sending someone a text message.
Exchanges between self and world are likewise integral to architectural design. How these reciprocal interactions are materially articulated presents the possibility and challenge for architecture to transform how human beings understand and experience the world.
Material articulation involves the processes employed to develop ideas and thinking (methodology), the material form that ideas are communicated through (material language), the influence of environment upon the realisation of those ideas (context) and the resulting effects of how those ideas are practiced upon human and non-human entities (outcomes). Each part of the process presents a unique set of circumstances and qualities that shape the physical, social, cultural and political architectures we create and are created by.
Drawing in its plethora of forms plays a significant role in the way that these exchanges are practiced and communicated.
Drawing, in one way or another infiltrates nearly every aspect of our lives from the satellite navigation on our smartphone that tells us where the closest good coffee shop is, the design that creates the takeaway coffee cup we hold in our hand, to the bright yellow line marking on the road that tells us we parked our car in a ‘no parking zone’ in our early morning pre-coffee daze. Drawing is part of how we design our world and how our world consequently designs us. With drawing such an important part of our encounters with the world through material articulation, exploring how drawing-based methodologies could be used to investigate a site and reimagine its physical, social, political and cultural architectures therefore seemed to be a logical focus for the workshop.
To begin, I posed a series of questions to help direct my decision making when preparing the skeleton framework for the workshop. These acted as speculative wonderings to examine and interrogate what exercises, examples and experiments would be best suited for eliciting key ideas. The questions were also at the forefront of my mind when thinking through tasks and discussions during the workshop’s implementation in partnership with the students and other facilitators. The two questions which seemed most important and from which all other trajectories travelled out from were:
· What do process-led, material-based, exploratory forms of speculative inquiry offer (architectural) design thinking?
· How do manual drawing methodologies enable corporeal and conceptual understanding to develop in tandem to extend (architectural) design thinking?
My aim wasn’t to arrive at definitive answers to these questions, but rather to facilitate a variety of activities and discussions where all participants (facilitators included) could think through, enact, and refine a range of open-ended strategies and processes to explore these questions and potentially pose others.
|Collaborative measuring of space using the body as a measuring tool.
At its core the aim of this workshop was for students to develop an understanding of drawing as a fundamental tool and process for exercising thought in action. Focused on approaches employing manual drawing and structured around three core themes: body, space and place, the workshop was delivered in response to the situated thinking body in space. Students were asked to explore the three themes through a guided series of exercises engaging with key elements such as mark making, gesture, line, shape, texture, movement, scale, figure/ground and composition. These elements were not only explored through conventional drawn approaches, but also through embodied, performative and experimental methods. It was my hope that students would take away a ‘tool kit’ of new manual, embodied, perceptual and speculative drawing strategies to extend their architectural design process.
The 3 day workshop began by recognising the primacy of the body itself within the drawing process. A series of sensory exercises focused on tuning in the body as a receptacle for experience. Students became increasingly corporeally self-aware and the physical body became foremost in the drawing process. Developed further through a number of tasks the body became a site for both receiving and transmitting – a conduit between the students’ physical and conceptual worlds. This played out through a variety of drawing tasks presenting drawing as an action, where students explored connections between verbs such as ‘to drop’, ‘to pull’ and ‘to stagger’ with gestural mark making. Useful collisions between conceptual understanding, materiality, technique and embodied knowledge enabled students to develop new fluencies in mark making and clarify conceptual distinctions between descriptive, symbolic, didactic and embodied forms of communicating ideas.
Day 2 continued with thinking about the body in relation to consider how we encounter, describe and define space through haptic experience. Students investigated surfaces, textures and spaces with their eyes closed. By removing sight, to instead preference sensorial experiences involving sound, smell and touch highlighted the blinding dominance of vision upon our conception of the world. Exploring a physical space without sight emphasized the visceral impact of the other senses and their power to influence physiological responses and heighten psychological understandings of space. Students drew their ‘blind’ impressions from memory as well as incorporating frottage that was used to collect direct traces of the site. Relationships between media, support, figure and ground were investigated and considered as drawn haptic exchanges. The body was again engaged as a drawing tool to measure the site producing a number of amusing and compelling performative examples exploring scale, time and measurement reiterating that the body fundamentally influences how we physically and conceptually define space.
|Exploring space with eyes closed.
Body + apparatus measuring space. Video courtesy Maaike Besselink
Day 3 introduced a conceptual dilemma for students when they were asked to define and differentiate the terms ‘space’ and ‘place’. A lively discussion over coffee ensued before students tackled the problem selecting from the collection of drawing-based strategies introduced over the previous 2 days. Revisiting an original site plan of Arnhems Buiten from 1938, students were asked to reimagine the drawing by colliding conceptual and embodied strategies to think about how drawing-based methodologies might be enacted as a form of ‘ground-truthing’.
|Arnhems Buiten site plan 1938.
Challenged with re-imagining and re-drawing the site plan students were tasked with creating a new type of site plan to better reflect their individual and collective interactions with Arnhems Buiten. Performative, objective, subjective, site specific and site responsive approaches were tested and trialed. The play of previous days soon turned into a serious interrogation of the most appropriate drawing-based methodologies and media to communicate individual personal experience. Students honed their approaches to really consider drawing as a form of inquiry and communication. They faced the challenge of reconciling conventional architectural drafting language with embodied and perceptual approaches to successfully redraw a site plan considerate of the physical, social, cultural and political architectures they encountered throughout the workshop.
The drawn responses the students came up with emphasized that exchange and relation sit at the very centre of the design process and define how body, space and place are realised and understood through various architectural frameworks. Their drawn interrogations over the three days revealed the discrete interactions that occur between tools, materials, bodies and environments that ultimately determine and influence creative production. The spin-off trajectories the students followed marked thinking in action and created useful frictions that enabled them to more closely scrutinise conventional disciplinary assumptions and come to know themselves as critical agents.
|Reimagining the site plan, Jordi working in situ.
|Before (above) and during (below) the workshop.
So, why go through such a process? If we are to communicate successfully with other participatory agents through design (in all its forms) then we need to have a deeper understanding of the architectures we create and are created by. Process-based methodologies exercised within manual drawing practices have much to offer by way of increasing our awareness of these contextual frameworks and open up the potential for genuine reciprocal exchange between them. The way that bodies, tools, technologies, materials, sites and processes interact influence our understanding and ultimately inform how we communicate ideas and generate new knowledge. Understanding this reciprocity is important when attempting to bring something new into the world, as in the case of all creative production.
|Students working collaboratively demonstrating dialogic exchange in action.
I can’t stress enough how crucial the dialogic aspect of the workshop was to its successful implementation. This was perhaps most profoundly impactful on my interactions with the students. As I mentioned earlier conversation is reliant upon a two-way exchange and a willingness to engage. The ArtEZ students demonstrated a fearless commitment to get in and have a go and were generous in their capacity to make themselves vulnerable and respond truthfully and honestly in what was a very challenging and confronting process. Many of the students mentioned to me that they had never participated in this type of drawing activity before. For many, thinking and making through experimental, embodied, perceptual and abstract forms of material exploration were totally outside of their spheres of prior experience. The results they produced and the images you will see in the following pages are testament to their courage, their curiosity and their inventiveness.
|Creative play = Body + apparatus measuring space.
The rigor and concentration of the students’ investigation was truly phenomenal. Looking back now it’s hard to believe all of this happened in only 3 days! The workshop provided a space to test ideas and thinking, to interact with a diverse group of critical agents and explore the possibilities of site-responsive drawing-based inquiry within the challenging and fascinating environment of Arnhems Buiten. The conversations we had, the laughter, the drawings that were made and performed, the site explorations, the meals we shared, the cross-cultural confusion we delighted in and the absolute explosion of creative energy that was generated will continue to shape my thinking and approaches well into the future. I hope it does so for the other participants too.
Too often, the design processes we engage with focus solely on endpoint outcomes resulting in derivative and unimaginative solutions rather than focusing on the journey that is taken. If the purpose of all design is to open up the possibilities of original and innovative thinking then speculative, provisional and experimental forms of material thinking must be considered as essential components of the design process. Focusing on approaches that allow freedom for material exploration, time for speculative inquiry and space for provisional thinking is of utmost importance. This is where visual arts practice and drawing-based research methodologies can contribute significantly to broader design practice, including architecture. The value of such interdisciplinary exchange should not be underestimated and so I am indebted to Ko Jacobs and Gerard van Heel at ArEZ for inviting me to contribute to their programme. I also can’t forget that it was a conversation with ArtEZ alumni and past lecturer, Miranda Nieboer here in Tasmania that began all of this. Thank you, Miranda for introducing me to the ArtEZ family.
Utilising dialogic forms of exchange that enable reciprocal, contingent interactions such as those provided through process-led, drawing-based methodologies opens up potential new pathways for thinking and doing. It is this type of exchange that will lead to innovative solutions to the complex problems the world faces. For quality design we need to engage with and invest in processes that provide space for embodied types of knowledge production to develop in concert with conceptual understanding. Practice-led approaches employed by visual artists that focus on process have the capacity to provide the necessary skills, sensibilities and deep critical thinking required for innovative design. Such approaches provide the necessary breadth to expand the ways that critical creative thinking is developed through material experimentation and serious play. Nowhere is this more critical than in the spaces where we train and educate our creative practitioners - in the spaces where creativity itself is nurtured.
Including embodied, performative, dialogic, material negotiations as an essential part of design education will generate new ways to think about how we design the architectures that shape us - architectures which humans are a fundamental part of – not just as users, but as active agents.