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The Journal

of Architecture

Volume 10

Number 5

Unformed drawing: notes, sketches, and diagrams

Yeoryia Manolopoulou

The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, UK

This text discusses drawing as a place where design imagination and critical thinking intersect. In particular, it examines the role informal notes, sketches and diagrams play in the development and communication of architectural ideas difficult to describe in either only words or only images. Note-making shifts between writing and drawing, and takes advantage of both. Sketches work as intuitive devices, stimulating the imagination, entail- ing spontaneous action, but also posing questions and tempting one’s curiosity to explore things through longer processes. Diagrams, on the other hand, are spatio-temporal abstrac- tions that use more intellectual means of representation. They extract the fundamental issues of a scheme and visually articulate them in the form of signs. Architects need notes, sketches and diagrams to imagine, understand relationships, construct and communicate what is important. Once a project is completed a revision of old scribbles, made during its creation, often reveals lost possibilities and different paths that might have been taken. Because of their minimal and incomplete form, notes, sketches and diagrams are open to variable interpretations. They can be ambivalent but trap a dense residue of intentions and meanings difficult to express in more elaborate modes of representation. Notes, sketches and diagrams are fundamental tools of human creativity and communication, and they have significant implications for the progress of design knowledge: as ambiguous rather than prescribed signs, they enhance collaboration, doubt and change. As unformed and incomplete drawings, they lead to new architectural possibilities (Figs 1, 2, 3, 4).

Shared language

In 2004 the 236th Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, devoted a special section to drawing. 1 Designers of all kinds, zoologists, engin- eers, sportsmen, musicians, surgeons, film-makers, pilots, poets and detectives were represented by drawings they make in their work. The exhibited drawings varied remarkably, as they had different purposes and meanings, but all shared a common characteristic: they were working drawings, a composition of note-making, sketching and diagramming that, combining visual and linguistic

information, stood somewhere between the realms of text and image. The display revealed how, behind very different activities and professions, this kind of informal drawing has gradually built a distinctive language of visual communication. Allen Jones, one of the exhibition curators, com- ments: ‘Next to speaking and singing, drawing must be the most ancient form of communication of all.’ 2 Drawing in the form of pictorial notes, sketches and diagrams is a significant language of communication that is being used across different disciplines, cultures and periods. Architecture’s


Unformed drawing:

notes, sketches, and diagrams

Yeoryia Manolopoulou

Figure 1. Notebook III, 35/36. On Film: the collapsing walls of the room. (Drawing by the author.)

518 Unformed drawing: notes, sketches, and diagrams Yeoryia Manolopoulou Figure 1. Notebook III, 35 / 36.

contribution to this shared field of knowledge is extremely valuable but learning from other disci- plines is of equal importance. If this drawing language is easily accessible, how can architecture use it and further develop it in order to communi- cate itself better to wider audiences? Notes, sketches and diagrams constitute a relatively simple and less coded system of representation that recognises the role of the reader/viewer in the architectural discourse, facilitates dialogue and is open to participation and change.

One year later, in 2005, the architectural exhibition ‘Herzog & de Meuron: An Exhibition’ at the Tate Modern, London, celebrated what Jacques Herzog calls ‘the waste products of a thought process’. 3 The display aimed to show how a thinking process becomes architectural material. It included dozens of working models, mock-ups at various scales, and building samples. The majority of the exhibits were ‘sketches in three-dimensions’, architectural thought in its purest and less representational form. The audi- ence, coming from a wide background, seemed


The Journal

of Architecture

Volume 10

Number 5

Figure 2. House F: sketch 19. (Project by AY Architects. Drawing by the author.)
Figure 2. House F:
sketch 19. (Project by
AY Architects. Drawing
by the author.)

content and engaged, perhaps understanding better what an architectural process implies.

Unformed drawing

Notes, sketches, and diagrams in mixed combi- nations make what we can call incomplete or ‘unformed drawing’. An unformed drawing can be a short record made to help memory, an observation quickly expressed in visual or linguistic form, a thought at the impulse of creation, a suggestion for something to be researched further, a free illustration of something spontaneously imagined,

a drawing of a seemingly insignificant detail, a pro- posal for future writing or drawing. Most impor- tantly the unformed drawing is ‘alive’ and changeable. It forms questions as much as answers. With the aid of notes, sketches and diagrams we link the abstract world with the material world and develop architectural ideas in the form of texts, drawings, objects and buildings. But the unformed drawing does not attempt to illustrate reality in the way a picture does and should not be seen as directly representing the geometrical or measurable attri- butes of objects. Surely we can use notes, sketches


Unformed drawing:

notes, sketches, and diagrams

Yeoryia Manolopoulou

Figure 3. Notebook III, 51/52. Drafting Pier 40: design proposal for the floating islands. (Drawing by
Figure 3. Notebook III,
51/52. Drafting Pier 40:
design proposal for the
floating islands.
(Drawing by the

and diagrams to describe material form and function but, perhaps most importantly, we can also use them as research tools to explore spatial concepts and relationships. The unformed drawing is an inventive rather than a representational device, a tool for critical enquiry, not for mere illustration.

Between image and language

Unformed drawings recall automatism. The sur- realist definition of automatic drawing derived from automatic writing: ‘Write quickly, without a preconceived subject, fast enough not to remember

and not to be tempted to read over what you have written.’ 4 Automatic writing happens horizontally, not on the vertical plane of a normal picture. 5 So does automatic drawing. Rosalind Krauss has noticed how writing on a horizontal surface is differ- ent from the pictorial vertical plane of painting. Automatic writing and drawing reflect ‘the more culturally processed domain of the written sign’, rather than the upright field of vision, she writes. 6 To a certain extent this is true for architectural notes, sketches, and diagrams, but they are linked with language as much as with vision. Moreover,


The Journal

of Architecture

Volume 10

Number 5

521 The Journal of Architecture Volume 10 Number 5 Figure 4. Notebook IV, 01 / 02.

Figure 4. Notebook IV, 01/02. The difference between what I see and what I draw, linked with Jacques Lacan’s schema of ‘the eye and the gaze’ and Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass. (Drawing by the author.)

their significance and articulation is far more

complex than the surrealist automatic techniques.

Marcel Duchamp’s work is a good example. It offers

complex artistic, philosophical and mathematical

concepts that extend beyond the visual substance of

his work. These ideas were formulated in manuscript

notes, sketches and diagrams made on any available

piece of paper. Duchamp carefully reproduced them

in the Box of 1914,

the Green Box published in

1934, and the White Box (A ` l’infinitif) published in

1966. 7 Referring to his Large Glass (1915–23) and

the Green Box, he wrote: ‘the two elements, glass

for the eyes, text for the ears and understanding,

were to have complemented each other, and above

all prevented each other from assuming either a

plastic-aesthetic or a literary form.’ 8 Can architecture

benefit from a similar intersection of the material

medium and the realm of language?

Traditional architectural representation attempts

to describe reality uniformly and consistently: using

unfailingly the conventions of a particular projection

system, the same drawing scale, uniform detail level

and so on. On the contrary, the unformed drawing

may be inconsistent in these respects. Because of


Unformed drawing:

notes, sketches, and diagrams

Yeoryia Manolopoulou

their inconsistent and composite nature, notes,

diagrams, sketches, and their combinations, are

perhaps closer than the formal architectural

drawing to giving us an idea about the complexity

of space, how it is perceived, remembered and ima-

gined. Perception is not a clear window onto reality

but a complex constructive act. It is informed by a

sum of physiological, psychological and cultural

facts, linking vision with language in curious and

unpredictable ways. Similarly the unformed

drawing is not always consistent and does not

offer singular interpretations. It combines language

and picture elements and might be paralleled with

the way in which perception actually works.

Intuition and knowledge

Unformed drawings are highly intuitive. Although

intuition is difficult to grasp, its value in the creative

process should not be ignored. Intuition directs the

imagination beyond previous learning and conscious

reasoning to unexpected associations. In this sense a

sketch might evoke confusion but might also stir the

imagination. Sketching is not an arbitrary pictorial

process but a mechanism that assists the possibility

of seeing something new emerging within the

unknown and the indeterminate. It is charged with

scientific curiosity and the search for knowledge.

Important here is Henri Poincare´ ’s belief that intui-

tion invents whereas logic proves. He writes:

We believe that in our reasonings we no longer

appeal to intuition; the philosophers will tell us

this is an illusion. Pure logic could never lead us

to anything but tautologies; it could create

nothing new; not from it alone can any science

issue. In one sense these philosophers are right;

to make arithmetic, as to make geometry, or to

make any science, something else than pure

logic is necessary. To designate this something

else we have no word other than intuition. 9

Increased possibilities

The architects of the practice Coop Himmelblau

translate the graphic attributes of a sketch straight

into the structure and appearance of a building.

They begin their designs through extra quick acts

(deliberately using fast body gestures, quick

drawing, and model-making techniques), which

they then capriciously ‘enlarge’ into building

forms. Although this is problematic, as it is an only

formal operation detracting from the full potential

of the unformed drawing, what is interesting is

the speed with which they work. The speed is

imperative because it reduces conscious control

and elaboration, and encourages spontaneity, mis-

takes and accidents that can be meaningful. Coop

Himmelblau name these techniques ‘psychograms’

and the resulting architecture ‘open architecture’.

While they claim their projects emerge like a

feeling rather than a building form, most architects

prefer to justify design choices with an objective

reasoning that downplays the function of instinct.

A large component of architectural theory and prac-

tice, for example, from Leon Battista Alberti to Le

Corbusier, has been based on systems of proportion

rooted in Euclidean geometry. These attempt to limit

the choice of shapes, dimensions and ratios which

architects might choose from the theoretically infi-

nite range open to them. In this sense, they aim to

reduce randomness and restrict choice. Contrarily,

projects that take good advantage of sketching


The Journal

of Architecture

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Number 5

naturally encourage an increase in choice and


As CAD drawings and digital imaging now domi-

nate design processes, notes, sketches and diagrams

are among the few valuable intuitive tools we still

use outside the computer. As unrefined raw

material, the unformed drawing has characteristics

that are difficult to adapt to computers: first,

because it favours instinctive and less controllable

manners of working, secondly because it is not

limited to fixed lists of choices—such as the

CAD software palettes—and it, therefore, offers

increased possibilities.

On the other hand the role of the diagram in

architecture seems to be diminishing. Anthony

Vidler writes that the diagram usually takes a sec-

ondary place in architectural practice and words

like ‘diagrammatic’ tend to have negative connota-

tions. 10 Yet during the last decade or so the

diagram has become fashionable. For example, the

practice UN Studio uses diagrams in order to trans-

late movement, statistical and economical mappings

of activities straight into built form. Peter Eisenman,

on the other hand, sees diagrams on a graphic

rather than functional level without addressing

spatial or material relationships. Vidler writes that

Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi offer a more

convincing use of the diagram since their diagrams

‘not only prefigure their buildings but incorporate

their qualities’. 11 However, I would argue that

Koolhaas and Tschumi still reduce the role of the

diagram to a representational tool of fixed architec-

tural form and function. The diagram can strongly

influence design decisions but it is not an authoritar-

ian and fixed sign. It is instead a process that

develops and changes along with our architectural

thinking. The diagram is not a representational

object: it is not prior or subordinate to the building

and it functions best when it operates independently

from the building process.

Uncertain and incomplete

Although most unformed drawing is not concerned

with aesthetics, it often has a particular texture.

While we should not overvalue the graphic elegance

of scribbles, we, likewise, should not undervalue it.

The casual appearance of notes disguises their con-

ceptual significance. But they can be as important as

the final presentations of projects. Accidents and

mistakes, the minutest slips, the random fleeting

of inconsistent ideas, the errors and doubts of

note-making are significant aspects of the creative

process that should not be neglected. The process

of architectural thinking is as important as the

finished product because it opens new possibilities.

Notebooks can trace the history and the uncer-

tainties of the creative process. For the uninvolved

reader the ‘cloudy’ information contained in note-

books is hard to comprehend. Yet this information

is not fully controllable by its author either.

Unformed drawings are indeed open to variable

interpretation more than any other elaborate

medium of expression. So open are they that often

they confuse both authors and readers.

Unformed drawings are not conclusive. They are

open to change. 12 Their process can be paralleled

with the construction and life of the building. The

building process and use can be less or more fixed,

depending on how much the architect allows for

participation, flexibility and change. Notes, sketches


Unformed drawing:

notes, sketches, and diagrams

Yeoryia Manolopoulou

and diagrams play an important productive role

here: when used overtly, allowing for doubt, collab-

oration and change they aid the development and

communication of an unformed architecture. An

unformed architecture recognises itself as incom-

plete because a number of factors, such as design

and construction teams, users, nature and chance,

are responsible for its creation.

Unexpressed imagination

In the process of creation, our intention is an ambig-

uous desire which we constantly pursue but cannot

express fully. Captured perhaps in a sketch, our pure

intention remains unexpressed and invisible even at

the end of the work. Our passage from the imagined

(intention) to the expressed (realisation) is a ‘missing

link’. Duchamp defines this phenomenon as the ‘art



is a difference between the intention

and its realisation, a difference which the artist is

not aware of

in the chain of reactions accom-

panying the creative act, a link is missing. This gap

which represents the inability of the artist to

express fully his intention; this difference

between what he intended to realise and did

realise, is the personal coefficient contained in

the work. In other words, the personal ‘art coeffi-

cient’ is like an arithmetic relation between the

unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally

expressed. 13

This relationship haunts architecture on all fronts:

architects, engineers, builders and inhabitants try

to fulfill their desires but cannot always. The gap

between the intended idea and its possible realis-

ations is at the heart of human creativity. Thankfully

we cannot eliminate it, as we do not fully control the

passage of our imagination to its manifestation.


This article derives from a research project entitled

‘Techniques of Indeterminacy in the Process of

Architectural Design’ which was funded by the

UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council

(AHRC). An earlier version was presented at the

Congress CATH 2004.

Note on figures

The notebook pages I include are not aimed at

explaining the different projects behind them.

Their role is simply to visualise the materiality and

aesthetic of one kind of unformed drawing,

representative of a personal way of working rather

than of the diversity of ways of using notebooks.

Notes and references

  • 1. The works were selected by David Hockney and Allen Jones.

  • 2. Allen Jones, Royal Academy Illustrated 2004 (London, Royal Academy of Arts, 2004), p. 8.

  • 3. Jacques Herzog, quoted in Sheena Wagstaff, ‘Herzog & de Meuron: An Exhibition’, exhibition leaflet, 2005, unpaginated.

  • 4. Andre´ Breton, quoted in Edward Lucie-Smith, Move- ments in Art since 1945: Issues and Concepts (London, Thames and Hudson, 1995), p. 33.

  • 5. For several artistic expressions of the twentieth century (including action painting, music and performance improvisation) automatism has been an important creative factor. Jackson Pollock, Jean Tinguely, Cy Twombly, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Terry Riley are some of the artists who have considered


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Number 5

the advantages of automatism, many through improvi- sation and collaborative work.

6. Rosalind E. Krauss,




(Cambridge, MIT Press, 1993), p. 284. A later version of automatism in strong reference to the horizontality of its support can be found in Pollock’s work. 7. In addition, a group of 289 notes was published post- humously (Marcel Duchamp, Notes, trans. Paul Matisse, Paris, Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, 1980) increasing the number of Duchamp’s notes to 476. 8. Extract from Duchamp’s letter to Jean Suquet. Quoted in Pierre Cabanne, Duchamp & Co. (Paris, Finest SA/ Editions Pierre Terrail, 1977), pp. 132 –35. 9. Henri Poincare´ , quoted in Craig E. Adcock, Marcel Duchamp’s Notes from the Large Glass: An

N-Dimensional Analysis (Ann Arbor, UMI Research Press, 1983), p. 144.

  • 10. Anthony Vidler, ‘Diagrams of Utopia’ in Catherine de Zegher and Mark Wigley, eds, The Activist Drawing: Retracing Situationist Architectures from Constant’s New Babylon to Beyond (New York, The Drawing Center, and Cambridge, MIT Press, 2001), p. 84.

  • 11. Ibid., p. 90.

  • 12. In their most elaborate version, unformed drawings become ‘scores’, time-based drawings similar to nota- tional systems used in music and performances. Some- times scores are used as limiting and determinate systems. But used overtly, allowing for change, they can be very useful mechanisms in design.

  • 13. Duchamp, quoted in Harriett Ann Watts, Chance: A Perspective on Dada (Ann Arbor, UMI Research Press, 1980), pp. 40 –41.