Architecture Drawing: Presenting Ideas

Sketches, Renderings, and Architectural Drawings

abstract drawing, black triangle pointing to white obelisk on the green horizon
Maya Lin's Concept for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, Shadowed by the Washington Monument. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Architecture drawing is a two-dimensional presentation of a multi-dimensional brainstorm. Architectural drawings can also be used as teaching tools to help students envision and communicate ideas. Long before construction begins, architects sketch their visions. From casual pen and ink doodles to intricate architectural drawings, a concept emerges. Elevation drawings, section drawings, and detailed plans used to be painstakingly hand-drawn by apprentices and interns. Computer software has changed all that. This sampling of architectural drawings and project sketches shows, as architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable put it, "architecture as it comes straight from the mind and the eye and the heart, before the spoilers get to it."

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Black angled geometric form sketch against blue-green background with light-colored top
Competition Entry No. 1026 from Maya Lin's Poster for Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (cropped)

The big, black wall in Washington, D.C. was the idea of student architect Maya Lin in 1981. Her abstract drawings may seem obvious to us now, but this submission to the Vietnam Memorial competition baffled and intrigued the deciding committee. Lin has said that it took her longer to write the verbal description than make the sketch of this "rift in the earth."

Transportation Hub at the World Trade Center

dark-haired man with glasses sitting next to an easil with white pad on which is drawn a squiggle
Santiago Calatrava and 2004 Vision for WTC Transportation Hub. Ramin Talaie/Getty Images (cropped)

In 2004 Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava sketched his vision with an abstract squiggle. The computer renderings for the WTC Transportation Hub rival the photographs of Calatrava's actual design, yet his presented sketches seem like doodles. Computer-driven architecture can be detailed and extravagant, and the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) rail center in Lower Manhattan is all this — and expensive. Yet look closely at Calatrava's quick sketch, and you can see it all there. When the Hub opened in 2016, it didn't look anything like the sketch — but there it was.

WTC 2002 Master Plan

sketch of skyscrapers of descending heights, with black line like a ribbon showing the tops of the buildings falling into the center ground
Maki-Designed Tower 4 Integrates With Libeskind's Master Plan.

RRP, Team Macarie, courtesy of Silverstein Properties (cropped)

 

The vision of architect Daniel Libeskind became the Master Plan for rebuilding Lower Manhattan after terrorists destroyed a major chunk of real estate on September 11, 2001. Architects around the world competed to be part of the design for this high-profile project, but Libeskind's vision dominated.

Architects of the skyscrapers built at what once was called "Ground Zero" adhered to specifications in the Master Plan. Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki and Maki and Associates presented a sketch of how their design for WTC Tower 4 would conform to Libeskind's Master Plan. Maki's sketch envisions a skyscraper completing the spiral composition of the four towers in the new World Trade Center Complex. Four World Trade Center opened in 2013 and is now part of the Maki portfolio.

Sydney Opera House, 1957 to 1973

drawing of Sydney Opera House seen from top next to typed narrative
Competition Drawing and Report by Jørn Utzon for the Sydney Opera House, 1956.

State Archives and Records Authority Image, New South Wales, Australia (cropped)

The high-profile opera house project in Sydney, Australia was put out for competition, with a young Danish architect named Jørn Utzon winning. His design quickly became iconic. The construction of the building was a nightmare, but the sketch in Utzon's head became a reality. The Sydney Opera House Drawings are public records held in the archives of the New South Wales government.

Chairs by Frank Gehry

Architect Frank Gehry, with dark hair and a bushy mustache, displaying his sample of corrugated paperboard material and his chair design
Frank Gehry in 1972.

Bettmann/Getty Images (cropped)

 

Way back in 1972, before the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, before the Prizker Prize, even before the middle-aged architect remodeled his own house, Frank Gehry was designing furniture. No ordinary furniture, however. The corrugated cardboard Easy Edges chair is still being sold as the "Wiggle" chair. And Gehry's ottomans? Well, they come with a twist, just like his stainless steel architecture. Architect Frank Gehry has always been known for his wiggles.

The Washington Monument

An illustration of projected improvements in Washington DC, depicts the Washington Monument with a proposed circular colonnade built around the base, also shown is a suspension bridge over the canal adjacent to the monument, 1852.
Proposed Washington Monument, 1852. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images (cropped)

The original idea that architect Robert Mills had for the Washington Monument called for a type of pedestal — a circular colonnade at the base of the obelisk. The 1836 temple-like structure was never built, but lighting that tall structure has been problematic well into the 21st century. Mills' design remains the high-profile landmark of the Washington, D.C. skyline.

The Farnsworth House, 1945 to 1951

rough sketch of horizontal structure, a modern home, with a background of trees
Concept Sketch for Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. Chicago History Museum/Getty Images (cropped)

Architect Mies van der Rohe may have had the idea before anybody else — to build a house made of glass — but the execution was not his alone. Architect Philip Johnson also was building his own glass house in Connecticut, and the two architects enjoyed a friendly rivalry. Johnson may have had the better client — himself. Mies was eventually sued by his client, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, after the Plano, Illinois house was completed. She was shocked, shocked that her house had entire walls of glass. Both residences have become iconic houses that exemplify the best of modern architecture.

Griswold house (Newport Art Museum)

watercolor skietch of mansion with steeply pitched roof, clipped gables and half-timbering
Sketch for Griswold house, now Newport Art Museum), Newport, Rhode Island.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (cropped)

Early in his career, architect Richard Morris Hunt (1828 - 1895) made sketches for the newly married John and Jane Emmet Griswold. The home he designed was innovative for the 1860s, as he suggested medieval half-timbering for decoration instead of structural. This "modern Gothic" design became known as "American Stick Style," but it was new for a home near Newport, Rhode Island.

Hunt went on to design many more mansions in Newport during America's Gilded Age, as well as the largest residence in the United States — the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.

Richard Morris Hunt is also well-known for his public architecture, especially a very famous pedestal. Hunt didn't make the iconic Statue of Liberty, but he designed a place for her to stand tall. The copper clad sculpture was made in France and shipped in pieces to the United States, but the design and construction of Lady Liberty's pedestal has its own design history.

St Paul's Cathedral, 1675-1710

detail of a cross-sectional plan for a domed building
Detail of Plan for St Paul's Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren, circa 1673. Topical Press Agency/Getty Images (cropped)

Architecture drawing is not a process invented by American architects. Visual representation of structures and events came well-before the invention of words, so it could be considered a primitive art. Nevertheless, it is a great tool of communication, especially in historic times of limited literacy. British architect Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) rebuilt much of London after the Great Fire of 1666..This detail from his plan for St. Paul's Cathedral shows some tricky aspects of building a domed structure.
 

About Architectural Drawings

Two drawings of churches, exterior and interior floow plan
Sketches by Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1472 to 1519. Print Collector/Getty Images (cropped)

The notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci are world-famous. Really, they are a collection of his ideas in sketch format. Leonardo's last years were spent in France, designing a city that was never built. Only his drawings remain.

Ideas spring from the mind, in a soup of energy, chemistry, and firing neurons. Putting form to an idea is an art in itself, or perhaps a god-like manifestation of crossing a synapse. "In fact," writes Ada Louise Huxtable, "one thing that architectural drawings make abundantly clear is that the architect worthy of the name is an artist first of all." The germ of the idea, these drawings, is communicated to a world outside the brain. Sometimes the best communicator wins the prize.

Sources

  • "Architectural Drawings," Architecture, Anyone?, Ada Louise Huxtable, University of California Press, 1986, p. 273
  • Stacie Moats. "Teaching with Architectural Drawings and Photographs." Library of Congress, December 20, 2011, http://blogs.loc.gov/teachers/2011/12/teaching-with-architectural-drawings-and-photographs/