a research practice working at the intersection of architecture, technology, art and ecological pedagogy

2005 Means of (Re-) Production: Fame and the Changing Role of the Drawing (with Karin Jaschke)

Means of (re)production – Fame and the changing role of the drawing – (with Karin Jaschke) in Torsten Schmiedeknecht and Paul Davies (eds.), StarArchitecture – An Architects Guide to Fame (London: Architectural Press, 2005)

The paper below is a tidied up version of that printed in the publication above.

Means of (Re-) Production: Fame and the Changing Role of the Drawing

Jon Goodbun and Karin Jaschke


In this paper we will consider the many roles that drawing plays in contemporary architectural practice. We will consider the way in which it allows architecture as a particular profession within the building industry to produce value and justify its existence. In some relatively obvious and straight-forward ways drawing is one of the primary means by which architects think, imagine, communicate and promote themselves. This is the case whether we consider small professional practices, large commercial organisations, or the relatively small number of Star Architects who dominate the architectural media, and are increasingly supplying cultural sector clients with ‘iconic’ buildings. It is easy to speculate about how as a medium drawings shape the kinds of things we can imagine; how drawings shape the kind of things we build; and how these objects once built do themselves participate in an image-based discourse. However, in this paper we also wish to uncover how drawings act at a deeper level of architectural and social discourse ideologically; how it is a primary agent of the capitalist commodification and rationalisation of the world; and how the logic of drawing and of the image structure the current possibilities of the production of architectural objects. We will consider the role of drawing in the marketing of architecture, paying particular attention to the recent and potential affects of digital media, information management and manufacture. We will also reflect upon how the role of drawings within the practice and discipline of architecture might have to be radically reconsidered, whether by the entire profession including the academy, if it is to revalue architectural knowledge within society as a whole and the building industry in particular, or by wannabe Star Architects, intent upon exploiting drawings’ current cultural role as the primary discourse of value through which the profession articulates and produces itself.


Architecture is a weak discipline. It has no natural or normal condition. It does not have a clearly defined and stable object of knowledge. Not at least in the way that, say, organic chemistry is defined by the possible combinations of carbon and hydrogen atoms.(1) Architecture as a discipline is rather defined ‘on the fly’, through its various historical objects (buildings, spaces, activities, drawings, images, texts) and their specific social modes of production and consumption. This process has involved at certain times in the history of building a particular brand of specialists who did not immediately participate in the actual construction process of the buildings and who are now commonly referred to as architects. In their modern embodiment, what these specialists are defined by most directly and what they tend to produce most directly are drawings. This, once more, is not a natural condition for architecture. It is important to note that although there is evidence that some drawing-like practices have been used at most times and places in building production,(2) it is clear that it has been and is possible to build, and to build large complex structures (such as the medieval cathedrals, or more recently perhaps Antonio Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Temple), without the use of drawings.(3) This does not mean that such objects are not planned or preconceived in any way. It just means that the act of imagining is located in processes and practices other than drawing (such as production technique, model-making or perhaps entirely different procedures such as storytelling.)  It also means that in the latter situation the social task of imagining can be organised in such a way that there is no necessity for the labour of a professional architect (but rather it can be found in the builder, or elsewhere in society.)

The particular role of the professional architect as it emerged in modernity is closely related to developments in architectural drawing techniques since the Renaissance,(4) and the ability of forms of architectural drawing to meet the complex and shifting social and cultural demands placed upon them. In turn, the centrality that drawing has acquired within contemporary architectural practice and discourse affects the production of architecture – most evidently in the work of Star Architects, but with repercussions in all areas of production. Crucially, the development of drawing technologies allowed architectural knowledge to become separated from its primary object, the building or structure, allowing thinking about architecture to be separated from the process of making buildings to an unprecedented degree. Developed at times out of, or with, adjacent disciplines and practices – whether based in the arts (drawing, painting and perspective), sciences (mathematics, optics and geometry), or military-industrial practices (surveying, map-making, engineering and mechanisation) – by the 19th century there was a clearly defined set of conventional architectural drawing types in common use by the profession, through which it could imagine, communicate and produce – both itself and architectural objects. These drawing types would include projective conventions that maintained metric relations such as the orthographic family (plans, sections, elevations) and axonometrics, other projective conventions that are based upon metric relations although they do not themselves maintain them, such as the various systems of perspective, and entirely non-metric drawing forms such as the sketch and collage. In recent years developments in digital media have encouraged the widespread use of other forms of image production closely related to drawing and its projections. Following amongst others the work of communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, we are familiar with the notion that all media and technology, including drawing, affect the way we think and communicate; that the medium is the massage/message. Drawing does not provide a neutral medium with which to represent and produce reality. It is, rather, a particular historical prosthesis. Whilst it is not possible or desirable for architecture to simply abandon drawing (not least because as E.L. Eisenstein has noted that, “when ideas are detached from the media used to transmit them, they are cut off from the historical forces that shape them” (5)), we should nonetheless be attentive to the particular social, cultural and political effects and histories accompanying them.


In his book ‘Why Architects Draw’, the anthropologist Edward Robbins explores the historical conditions of the role that drawing has taken on in contemporary architectural practice. He argues that,

“In privileging and essentialising particular aspects of design and in emphasising the cultural over the social reality of a design, architects may be limiting their capacity to join in the broader discussion of just how buildings should be produced by society. Drawing cannot address issues of cost, of social power, and of the uses social power is put to in the development of the built environment. Rather, by essentialising drawing, architects have shifted the discourse about the built environment to issues that drawing can and does address best; i.e. formal, aesthetic and cultural issues.”(6)

The dominance of drawing and image making within architectural discourse has specific effects upon the types of architectural knowledge and objects produced. However, we should obviously not imagine that drawing is in some simple way ‘responsible’ for this, perhaps limited, condition. Rather, this condition is itself determined by the broad historical demands placed upon architectural knowledge by capitalist spatial production. The philosopher and theorist of space, Henri Lefebvre, has explained that the architect is confronted not with an “innocent space” which he can develop freely according to his ideas but with “the space of the dominant mode of production,” i.e. a space of competing capitalist interests. And, as Lefebvre noted, “as for the eye of the architect, it is no more innocent than the lot he is given to build on or the blank sheet of paper on which he makes his first sketch … architectural discourse too often imitates or caricatures the discourse of power, and … suffers from the delusion that ‘objective’ knowledge of ‘reality’ can be attained by means of graphic representations.”(7)

For Lefebvre, contemporary architectural practice is determined by and operates within a small sector of what he calls ‘abstract space’. This expression denotes the conceptual form through which capital exercises control over real lived space in all its manifestations (geographic, social, mental) and over the ways in which we currently think about, experience and produce our spatial environments. ‘Abstract space’ is the commodification and rationalisation of real lived space.(8) The particular properties and effects of architectural drawing media must therefore according to Lefebvre be understood historically in relation to the development of this ‘abstract space’. This leads us to ask, what are the roles that architectural drawings play in supporting the dominance and control of real lived space by capital through the production and maintenance of abstract space?


At various points in the design process, and depending upon the kind of project being developed, different combinations of drawing types play at least four primary, distinct and almost ‘common sense’ roles within conventional contemporary architectural practice. These include an imaginative, a social, a technological, and a persuasive role, all of which may be said to have some ideological effects.

Firstly, drawing is an imaginative tool. It is often the primary medium through which architects imagine spatial and formal relationships, often in complex relationships with other modes of thought and practice. Robbins argues that, “using drawing, the possibilities for innovative design increase. Freed from the time-consuming and costly realities of design while building, architects have greater room for experiment.”(9) However, as with any medium, drawing is always in some way active and present, over-determining the objects it describes. In Robbins’ words, “drawing limits as much as it opens up possibilities. It precludes things that are not amenable to its instrumentality.”(10) This is the case whether we consider the simple sketch as an extension of the hand and mind, or the complex effects of drawing techniques upon architectural thought, as considered in architectural historian Robin Evan’s extensive studies of the difficult relations between the development of projection, geometry, and architectural and spatial imagination. In relation to the work of the sixteenth century French architect and stonemason Philibert de l’Orme:

“[I]t would be as crude to insist upon the architect’s unfettered imagination as the true source of forms, as it would to portray the drawing technique alone as the fount of formal invention. The point is that the imagination and the technique worked well together, the one enlarging the other, and that the forms in question … could not have arisen other than through projection. A study of de l’Orme’s use of parallel projection shows drawing expanding beyond the reach of the unaided imagination.”(11)

The role that drawing plays in the social production of architecture is equally ambiguous and paradoxical (or better, dialectical).  Drawing not only extends the formal imagination, it also expands the social imagination. It does this through a number of mechanisms. Primarily, as Robbins observes,

“The role of drawing as a form of rhetoric has provided a whole new set of possible social roles for architects as critics, as visionaries, and as artistic fantasists … the new uses of architectural drawing make it possible for the architect to become a major social critic and commentator without a client, without significant social resources, and without, in some instances, ever having realised a building.”(12)

In this context it is interesting to note that for Henri Lefebvre architects and artists involved in spatial imagining and production are as much the (perhaps unwitting) agents of a broader, legitimating capitalist myth-construction, even while their media act as the primary site for any utopian resistance and imagined alternative to that same capitalist development. Developing a closely related critique, Manfredo Tafuri examined in Architecture and Utopia how two modes of drawing, the ‘plan’ and the ‘collage-assemblage’, were developed by the historic avantgarde (i.e. the futurists, expressionists, dada and surrealists, constructivists and neue sachlichkeit movement) as paradoxically, or dialectically, both the leading edge of concrete capitalist development and as the avantgarde’s utopian affirmation of an alternative to that same dominant mode of production.(13) That the actual route taken by historical development is never determined simply from within architectural discourse, but is also the result of much broader political and social struggle over space at any given time, is hopefully clear. Architecture is an autonomous and autopoietic body of knowledge, at some (important) ‘level’. Equally, architecture is ‘structurally coupled’ to and ‘co-evolving’ with any number of other systems, discourses, ecologies… The idea that architecture of art are socially or relationally autonomous (which some theorists seem to imply) is utterly preposterous.

Extending the first imaginative role, drawing also operates as a technological tool in architecture, developing new information about objects and spaces through geometry and recording information from other sources, in contemporary practice almost always in the form of suitably annotated and coded orthogonal, metric drawings. As well as generating, recording and processing information, drawings are one of the primary communications tools used in architectural practice – that is to say that to the extent to which drawings are based upon agreed conventions of representation they are language-like, and able to communicate (together with other mediated informational forms), within offices, between building professionals and trades, clients and society at large. Robbins notes that, “all forms of communication define their own forms of fluency, and their own choices about what is important to communicate. The use of any form of communication is a claim about who is the master of that communication, what it is that needs to be communicated, and how this is best accomplished.”(14)

Indeed, this last role expands into the fourth major task of drawing in architecture, namely that of producing the drawing as a persuasive object. Robbins is particularly attentive to this aspect in the context of the social practice and production of architecture. He argues that because of the complex roles that drawing plays in architectural production and communication, it is engaged in the production of what he defines as both conceptual and social realities. That is to say, it has both cultural and social properties and effects, whereby culture is understood as subjective, conceptual aesthetic practices, and society as the network (structure) of concrete institutions and relationships through which people live.(15) Importantly for Robbins, architectural discourse is now primarily engaged in the production of cultural rather than social reality. For Robbins the development of drawing played a particularly important role in the shifts that occurred in the social division of labour within building production. It is necessary to understand this in order to comprehend the possibilities opened up by the changes that new digital media are having upon the roles and production of ‘drawings’ in architecture.

In addition to the four primary roles that drawing fulfils in architectural production, there have been other, somewhat more ideological roles and effects of drawing, normally hidden by the normative mythologies of architectural production (i.e. the first four roles). We might begin by noting how drawing technologies helped to remove the practice of architecture away from the building site. This effected a split between mental and physical labour in the building industry and allowed architects to define their trade as a clean, gentlemanly profession with a particular social and cultural status and simultaneously to expand their business, working with more than one building at a time. Robbins notes that drawing, “weights the social division of labour in a way that places communicative and social boundaries between those actors whose experience with the making of building is primarily phenomenal (hands-on) and those whose experience is primarily noumenal.”(16) And although architects found themselves acting ultimately under instructions from clients and excluded from many of the fundamental decision making processes (dominated by financiers, developers and politicians), drawing “did, however, provide the opportunities for architects to reappropriate cultural control over how architecture should be conceived and, once conceived, who should control the social process of its design and realisation.”(17)


Because of the capability of architects to produce drawings without significant capital outlay, the drawing is in no small way responsible for the tendency of architects to engage in large amounts of unpaid or low paid speculative work. This has direct effects upon the market value and social importance of architectural work because the value or cultural capital that drawing and image production generates within architectural discourse does not come primarily from the sectors of society engaged in the production of the built environment. It comes rather from the cultural sector (this would include academia, the professional media, certain commissioning clients within the public sector, especially galleries, museums, etc.). For the necessarily small number of architects and architectural practices that are able to situate their practice within the cultural sector, it is possible to make an at times lucrative living. However, the vast majority of architects and architectural practices attempt rather to position themselves in relation to the broad sectors of general building production. For this group, a paradoxical situation arises. The primary means of their communication with their social sector is itself responsible for economically devaluing their work. This is because the cultural value that architects add to their work (primarily in the form of new drawings and additional designs or extra detailing, etc.) is not culturally valued in this social sector – i.e. the majority of individuals and organisations involved in the production of the built environment. If architectural practitioners as a whole are to increase the economic value of their work, it would seem that there are two possible responses to the above condition.  Firstly, architects might attempt to reposition their practice in relation to currently underexploited (by architects) sectors engaged in the production of the spatial and communications environment, where their work might already have cultural capital, such as advertising, branding, and digital and media environments.  Secondly, architects might look for ways to increase architectural cultural capital in the sectors within which they currently operate. This might be by somehow revaluing its current productions, including drawings and images. Equally, it might be by developing new forms of discourse and types of knowledge that are beyond the cultural and social logics of drawing that operate within and contribute to the social and cultural realities of the broad sectors of general building production. Such forms of knowledge and practice might emerge through an entrepreneurial and political expansion of architectural practice “up the food chain”(18) into more direct relations with planning and property development. Equally, it might be based in the changes in architectural and building production brought about by recent developments in computer aided design and manufacture – changes which architects might be able to exploit to reposition and revalue themselves to some extent in relation to building production. More politically and socially interesting no doubt, are attempts to radically reposition architectural knowledge with regard to other social actors in the built environment – often those more typically excluded – through new forms of design activism, and an engagement with what Jeremy Till and Tatjana Schneider have described as  Spatial Agency.


Arguably, traditional architectural drawing no longer offers architects technical superiority in building production. Engineers, surveyors, project managers and contractors are quite capable of meeting most if not all the technical tasks once provided by architects.

Furthermore, the exclusivity that drawing wins for architects is no more than the spoils of a phyric victory: formal autonomy won at the expense of social power. Star Architects, then, continue to lead the profession in the formations described by Tafuri: “brandishing as banners the fragments of a utopia that they themselves cannot confront head on.”(19)

However, new kinds of architectural drawing have emerged in recent years, often as a result of cross-disciplinary practice. Architectural producers have developed innovative new hybrids of drawings and other modern visual communications media, producing graphic and video tools that allow architectural discourse and practice to take on new tasks, such as the development of built environments as modern communicative surfaces, incorporating new media and iconography into space, or the well documented use of diagrams and animated ‘digital landscapes’ to visualise and design with information previously excluded from architectural drawings, such as programme, demographics and movement. In addition to the broader possibilities of new multi-disciplinary graphic media, new digital tools within architecture and related disciplines have transformed the technological and manufacturing potential of drawing based practices.

Some of these new developments in drawing will no doubt lead to fertile territories for the next generation of aspiring Star Architects.  Others, however, might suggest the abolition of this ‘specific’ class of architecture professionals, and even whilst the utopian hope of a full politicisation and socialisation of ‘drawing’ and ‘building’remains elusive, they might still promote very different and perhaps more progressive figurations of architectural knowledge within the social production of space.


(1) Of course historians and philosophers of science would be quick to point out that this too is not as stable a definition as it might at first appear, but we are making a relative point here.

(2) See Spiro Kostof (ed.), The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession, New York: Oxford University Press, 1977 and J.J. Coulton, Ancient Greek Architects at Work: Problems of Structure and Design, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.

(3) See L.R. Shelby, ‘The Master Mason in English Building’ in Speculum 39, 1964.

(4) Andreas Palladio is widely considered to have first developed and used the set of orthographic drawings that any modern architect would recognise – indeed, his built production is often seen as somehow over-determined by drawing, as an embodiment of elevational thinking through drawing in particular. 

(5) Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformation in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, p. 24. Quoted in Edward Robbins, Why Architects Draw, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994.

(6) E. Robbins, op.cit., p. […].

(7) Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991, pp. 360-1.

(8) Abstract space Lefebvre writes, “emerged historically as the plane on which a socio-political compromise was reached between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie (i.e. between the ownership of land and the ownership of money).” Henri Lefebvre, […]

(9) Edward Robins, op.cit., p. 30.

(10) Ibid., p. 46.

(11) Robin Evans, ‘Translations from Drawing to Building’, p. 180, in R. Evans, Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays, London: Architectural Association Publications, 1997, pp. 153-193.

(12) Edward Robbins, op.cit., p. 42.

(13) Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, Boston: MIT Press, 1996.

(14) Edward Robbins, op.cit., p. 39.

(15) Robbins follows cultural theorist Raymond Williams dialectic definition of ‘culture’ and ‘society’.

(16) Edward Robbins, op.cit., p. 46.

(17) Ibid., p. 48.

(18) As phrase used by Simon Alford of AHMM at a lecture in the Technical Studies series at the University of Westminster, 2nd December, 2004. 

(19) Manfredo Tafuri, The Sphere and the Labyrinth, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995, p. 267.

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  1. […] illustrates an important distinction within architectural presentation. Goodbun and Jaschke (2005) suggest that architectural drawing can preform four distinct roles; imaginative, social, […]


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