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The Story of a Different Way of Drawing

During archival research into the work of architects such as Piet Blom, Jan Verhoeven and Herman Hertzberger for the exhibition Structuralism, we encountered drawings that deviated from the conventional plans, sections and elevations. Instead they comprised abstract structures, geometric patterns with bright colours, visualisations of network-like cities, grids, collages and booklets. Intrigued about the origins and significance of these drawings, curator Ellen Smit initiated a research project with the help of an NWO museum grant. What were these architects actually drawing and why in this manner?

The aim of the research was to offer a better explanation of Structuralist drawings. I have done this by studying the place of drawing in architecture education and by analysing the drawings in the context of the design process.  

A research project such as this not only increases our knowledge about architectural drawings, but also of Structuralism. Central to this project was not the constructed building but rather the conceptual and design processes that preceded it, within which drawings and other forms of architectural visualisation play a large role. From this perspective, I wanted to see if I might arrive at another vision of Dutch Structuralism. I also wanted to gain a greater insight into how and along what trajectory innovation in architectural culture unfolds.

I have conducted extensive research into what I call the ‘pre-history’ of Structuralism: the period before 1966, the year in which the term was first published. I have looked in detail at the teaching of design and drawing at the Academie van Bouwkunst (Architecture School) in Amsterdam in the period 1954-65, because the architects under discussion here either studied or taught there. I have also looked more broadly at the teaching of design and drawing through a study of the journal of the Nederlandse Vereniging voor Tekenonderwijs (Dutch Association of Teachers of Draughtsmanship), various instructional manuals on architectural drawing, and catalogues of drawing instruments. These publications deal extensively with ‘the search for the meaning of a structure’ and with the importance of relativity and simultaneity, as well as colour theory, biology, cultural anthropology and the visual arts. This makes the design culture much richer and more multidimensional: less unequivocal but more interesting. I noticed that the architects under discussion were reinventing their own design tradition and that they internalised other disciplines such as art, biology and cultural anthropology, which stimulated a Structuralist design culture.

Some designers incorporated cartographic and urban-planning drawing methods, such as the use of coded colours and keys, into their designs.

Piet Blom, for example, experimented with these elements in his design for the Pestalozzi Kinderdorp, which he submitted to the Prix de Rome in 1962. The increased scale of the design brief and the ambition to close the gap between architecture and urban planning were also important factors. Developments in the graphics industry also played a role, such as the availability of new drawing tools through the introduction of the ‘permanent marker’ in 1952 and the coloured felt-tip pen from 1962. There are various types of Structuralist visualisations, characterised by the representation of an integral space, multiple perspectives (standpoints), and a suggestion of infinity and extendibility. These are expressed in different types of drawings: the spacial projection, the horizontal section with colour, the three-dimensional grid, the hybrid drawing and the narrative drawing.

The results of the research will be made visible over the coming years in various projects.

The Structuralist drawing could be part of the larger research project entitled ‘Total Space’. An online digital drawing catalogue is a serious option. Many of the drawings were digitised for this research project and are already accessible online. Another possibility is a series of publications written from different perspectives or which explore aspects of the research in greater depth. A short article has already been published in the magazine Volume. The knowledge acquired about these drawings during this research also provides a valuable basis for conservation and restoration; many of the drawings from this period are very fragile. For example, we want to investigate how to conserve drawings with ink from felt-tip pens, which fades very quickly. Another ambition is to make the research visible in education. This began already at the beginning of 2017 in the form of a seminar with architecture history students at the VU University in Amsterdam.

It is not the case that after six months of research your questions are exhausted. We could do much more research into the influence of other disciplines, such as biology, the visual arts and cultural anthropology on Dutch Structuralism. The role of the international context on Structuralist thinking is also interesting. By looking at the design process and the teaching of drawing, art and architecture, I have added a nuance to the historical context of Dutch Structuralism. It is precisely through examining these processes and developments that it has become clear that the architectural representation of Structuralism was not an isolated phenomenon but was related to the teaching of art and architecture in the early years of the twentieth century. The research thus shows that a new relationship to historical knowledge and skills plays a role in the renewal of architectural culture.