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Unlocked-for-Editing: Architecture and the Image

JH Sketchbook drawingSurprisingly little has been written about the creative use of sketching as a tool for the design process. Particularly the question of how it is possible for the architect to discover something new about the emerging design within the act of drawing. Typically, a vague and half formed idea of how a space could be configured is roughly sketched out on paper using what I think Merleau-Ponty might describe – as indeed he did with language – as a process of ‘coherent deformation of available significations.’ In other words, a tentative outline of a form that is familiar from previous projects is, perhaps unwittingly, being deliberately distorted or deformed to reveal some previously unrealised potential. As Merleau-Ponty might also have agreed, this process relies on the bodily habitus of the designer, a stored ability to recall and deploy a range of spatial and formal elements. This personal library of shapes, forms, and arrangements of spaces can be used to begin the process of both creating and interpreting the emerging design idea according to the ‘as-structure’ of perception (Harman, 2010: 36): a vague shape begins to appear in the drawing among the tangle of lines, shadows and smudges, as something I perhaps had not even realised that I was drawing.

Merleau-Ponty uses this principle to explain how innovation can take place in language, as a way of getting around the problem of having to rely on existing significations in order to be clearly understood. To do this he draws a distinction between what he calls ‘spoken’ and ‘speaking’ speech, where the former refers to the more familiar and well-worn patterns of conventional everyday language. By contrast ‘speaking speech’ describes the more challenging and rarefied patterns of poetic and literary expression, where we often experience a sense of estrangement from conventional meanings as if the writer is deliberately playing with the rules of the system. Sometimes this can literally involve reconfiguring and distorting existing forms of expression as a way of capturing, and to some extent actually producing new levels of meaning. As Merleau-Ponty suggests: “It is just this process of ‘coherent deformation’ of available significations which arranges them in a new sense and takes not only the hearers but the speaking subject as well through a decisive step.” (Merleau-Ponty, 1964: 91)

A key question arises here regarding how this applies in the case of the design sketch, when the designer begins to try and draw something that only exists half-formed in the imagination. There is a sense that the designer is driven to ‘draw it out’ in order to begin to see what it might look like, to allow the act of drawing – as Merleau-Ponty says – to take the idea through a ‘decisive step’, as happens in speaking or writing where ‘my words teach me my thought.’ (Ibid., 88) By drawing on their own personal repertoire of graphic significations the designer seems to be, at least momentarily, categorising or classifying a still vague notion by taking it ‘as something’ for the time-being in order to begin to explore its possibilities. Then, once sketched out they can stand back and inspect it, often only to realise that what has appeared in the drawing was not quite what they had in mind. So, the process is then repeated in another tentative drawing, perhaps this time based on a different previous ‘model’. More positively, the designer might also see some new possibility in the original drawing, perhaps a way to make it more like or more different from the conceptual model they’d initially adopted. In this way they might be able to exploit some new potential for variation that had not previously been considered, or might even have been discovered by accident.

The question that remains is how do these ‘coherent deformations’ actually come about in practice? Is it simply innovation by more-or-less random ‘copying errors,’ like the genetic mutations of DNA, or is there something more controlled and intentional going on in the bodily actions of the working designer? To address this question it is worth considering how the drawing provides a mechanism to radically reimagine the world, in a way that would be extremely difficult for the designer to do without it. To illustrate this the diagram in Figure 1 shows how the drawing acts as a kind of experimental medium, allowing a process of testing and observation rather like a chemist’s flask or a Petri dish.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Drawing as ‘Extended Mind’

The diagram is based on the kind of design exercise common in schools of architecture, where the project begins without any preconceptions about the final programme or function of the building. Rather than following a detailed brief or schedule of accommodation students are instead asked to undertake a series of basically observational exercises aimed at recording the existing conditions of a place – a process summarised in the diagram as simply ‘drawing the site’. It is also vitally important, as students often need reminding, to draw the site by hand rather than simply photographing it. It seems as if the very inaccuracy of these initial analytical drawings is what allows for a series of judgements to take place about what is most interesting or distinctive about a particular site. In this way the designer is already – and often unwittingly – beginning to make some design decisions, selecting aspects of a site that seem most useful to inform the new proposals and thereby avoiding the potential distraction of otherwise irrelevant detail. So, it is here where the emerging gaps between the image and reality begin to create a productive space for the designer’s imagination to inhabit – a space in which to identify new possibilities and for new configurations to gradually emerge.

As the diagram is also intended to suggest, without the aid of the drawing the space for innovation seems greatly restricted. If the designer attempts to move directly from ‘site’ to ‘site-plus-building’ there is nothing to assist and record the complex thought process involved in developing the design. [1] This situation is reminiscent of the way that pre-modern vernacular buildings were produced, where the designer and the builder were more likely to have been the same person. In this case the function of the drawing is effectively replaced by a ‘model’ taken directly from a previous building, were only minor adaptations would be made to try and satisfy any new requirements. This is what accounts for the relatively slow pace of innovation and change in many historic settlements, where there is often a remarkable consistency of building patterns which were sustained over hundreds of years. Previous buildings acted as prototypes which served as examples ready to be imitated, augmented only by the ‘working memory’ of the designer/builder which usually resulted in only incremental changes in design – and these were often only minor innovations at the level of construction detail. The diagram above therefore also illustrates one of the key consequences of the professionalization of the role of the architect, a gradual separation of the ‘conceptual’ process of design from the hands-on process of building.

While accepting that the ‘over-drawn’ construction drawing can stifle the creativity of the builder, the design drawing offers a freedom to the architect to engage in a more radical level of invention. By providing a safe way of simulating and testing of new solutions – without the expense of building at full-size to find out how it might actually work – the drawing provides a realm of exploration and experiment that would otherwise be unavailable. And to return to Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of innovation in spoken language, we could even think of the drawing as a kind of poetic conversation with reality. In the give-and-take exchange of ready-made responses which are constantly being tweaked and ‘coherently deformed’ to adapt to ever new situations, those often makeshift or stumbling attempts to reproduce familiar figures of speech result in the kind of accidental and surprising realisations that new possibilities can begin to emerge.

So, to return again to the diagram and to the act of simply drawing the site-as-it-is, it is clear that this process somehow opens up the world for change. In other words, the drawing seems to ‘loosen the joints’ of reality and to put everything into flux, allowing things to begin to move relative to one another before settling into a new configuration. Or to use a perhaps more familiar CAD software analogy – it is the drawing that allows the world itself to be ‘unlocked-for-editing’.


[1] As ‘active externalist’ philosophers have even gone as far as to suggest, removing these technical props is as damaging to the cognitive process as removing a part of the brain. (Clark and Chalmers, 1998: 11)


  • Clark, A., and D. Chalmers, “The Extended Mind,” Analysis, 58.1, January 1998, pp. 7-19.
  • Harman, G., Towards Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures, Winchester: Zero Books, 2010.
  • Merleau-Ponty, M., “On the Phenomenology of Language,” in Signs, (trans. R.C. McCleary) Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964, pp. 84-97.

This text is an extract from a presentation given at the University of Huddersfield on 6th November 2013, part of a symposium on ‘Representation’ organised by Professor Nick Temple. A full version will be published later in 2014 in a book called Phenomenology of the Image edited by Derek Hampson.

About bodyoftheory

Jonathan Hale is an architect and Professor of Architectural Theory at the Department of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Nottingham. Currently Head of the research group Architecture, Culture and Tectonics, within the Faculty of Engineering. Research interests include: architectural theory and criticism; phenomenology; the philosophy of technology; the relationship between architecture and the body; museums, exhibitions and digital technologies. Author of numerous articles and books and co-editor of Rethinking Technology: a Reader in Architectural Theory (Routledge, 2007). Founding Chair of the international subject group: Architectural Humanities Research Association (AHRA): http://www.ahra-architecture.org


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