The Curious Art of Hand Sketching

Architecture exists in two worlds. The obvious one is that of brick, mortar and steel – the one we inhabit.  But its’ less conspicuous cousin is the plethora of buildings that occupy the world of paper architecture – the realm of imagination.

As much as architects revel in the tangibility of the finished product of our work, drawing allows us to explore the innumerable possibilities before making an idea concrete. Literally.  It is a tool which can be used to communicate a thought which is often too difficult to describe in words. The process of discovering what something could be aids in the process of deciding what it should be. Even as the world becomes more obsessed with technology the humble sketch still plays a key role for many architects in the conceptualisation and development of a building’s design. To follow are some of our favourite pieces of paper architecture by various contemporary architects.

Lord Norman Foster
This architectural giant is the principal architect, and founding partner, of the distinguished firm Foster + Partners.  With buildings on six continents and a Pritzker prize on his shelf, this 81-year-old architect is arguably the most successful practitioner in our field.  Although famed for high-tec architecture Foster still encourages the use of sketches throughout the design process to explore potential solutions.

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© Norman Foster

“Architecture is as much about the fine print as the headlines – the tactile details, which are literally close enough to touch. Sketching, for me, is a vital way of exploring these concerns.”

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© Norman Foster

O’Donnell Tuomey
This Irish husband and wife duo, Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey, founded their practice in 1988.  Their body of work focuses mainly on cultural and educational buildings, which is apt as they are both professors at the University College Dublin.  They were pushed into the international spotlight when they won the competition for the Saw Swee Hock Student Centre at the London School of Economics. Last year they received the Royal Gold Medal from RIBA.  Both architects keep extensive notebooks where they record, through sketches, both their reflective and reflexive thoughts.

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© O’Donnell Tuomey

“The watercolours allow the ideas to be condensed and distilled – because the nature of the medium it isn’t possible it isn’t possible to show detail but it is possible to show the hierarchy of intention – while the context is reduced to a kind of abstraction.”

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© O’Donnell Tuomey

Ben Emmett
Emmett’s drawings are inspired by his hometown in the west country of England where he likes to emerge himself in the landscape by going on camping trips.  Here he goes on long walks and where he sketches in an attempt to capture the genius loci, or the spirit of the place.  He blends these drawings with a sense of myth and narratives to create large-scale monochromatic drawings of pen, ink and graphite.

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© Ben Emmett

“The energy of mark-making describes a latent atmosphere of mystery and rawness, gained only through time spent walking the land.”

© Ben Emmett

Laurie Chetwood
Laurie is the founder of the London-based firm Chetwoods Architects which specialise in creating innovative, iconic structures which support a sustainable agenda.  He considers sketches as a way to interpret informal thinking which gives one the opportunity to consider multiple options in a non-formulaic manner.  His drawings are jammed packed with organic lines and otherworldly forms which he mainly creates using a digital sketchpad as it allows for further manipulation.  Chetwood believes that his architectural style is influenced by the fluid nature of his drawings.

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© Laurie Chetwood

“The sketch is really important to me and should be to all architects.  It is particularly relevant to an organic style of architecture: the more informal and relaxed your style, the more beautiful, more inspirational your work.”

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© Laurie Chetwood

Luke Pearson
Pearson is an architect, artist and researcher who teaches The Bartlett School of Architecture in London. His one studio, Unit 4, focuses on the relationship between architecture and drawing and explores what this means is our current age of digital media.  Concurrently he is obtaining his PhD which considers architectural arguments formed through delineation. His work blends art and architectural research to create fascinating drawings.

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© Luke Pearson

“I admire the production of a quick but convincing drawing of a space through the movement of the hand, […] my working methods embrace the simplicity and at the same time the myriad possibilities of the interface between hand and pen and substrate.”

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© Luke Pearson

Narinder Sagoo
This year Sagoo celebrated 20 years of working with Norman Foster. He is the head of the firm’s Design communication team which is fitting as he firmly believes that drawing is a language. In which case, he is definitely a polyglot – fluent in many mediums and drawing styles – tailoring his communication to suit his audience. Although, he does prefer drawing on tracing paper as the disposable nature of the material removes the pressure of perfectionism.

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© Narinder Sagoo

“I believe that drawing is a language. Sometimes sketches are a ‘quick chat’, an illustration of a thought or a discussion over coffee, and sometimes they are longer, more considered dialogues – more like paragraphs than sentences.”

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© Narinder Sagoo

Steven Johnson
After graduating from the Architectural Association the American-born Steve Johnson remained in London where he eventually set up his own studio in 2002 called The Architecture Ensemble. The firm’s key concern is the exploring the possibilities of timber architecture. Johnson’s drawing style is specific rather than gestural which helps reflect the physical traits, construction and material of the building.

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© Steven Johnson

“I’ve begun writing narrative descriptions of projects taken from the viewpoint of a fictional character walking through a site or building. It’s like producing a verbal sketchbook.”

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© Steven Johnson

All images and quotes are taken from the inspirational Architect’s Sketchbook by Will Jones. [Thames and Hudson]