Sectional Simplicity

It was wonderful to learn today that a series of illustrations I completed almost 26 years ago were awarded the Award of Excellence from the American Society of Architectural Illustrators (ASAI).

Niagara Escarpment – Nature Interpretation Centre

I created this series of drawings in 1991, during my thesis year at the University of Waterloo and submitted them knowing that they were in keeping with the ASAI’s mandate to celebrate illustrations that tell a story and draw the viewer into the experience of the architecture.

Gord Grice, the editor of last year’s catalogue publication – Architecture in Perspective 31, states that “A topic that frequently cropped up during the jury’s deliberations, just as it increasingly insinuates itself into discussions about illustration and architecture in general, is one of the oldest topics of them all: storytelling. Images that tell stories are engaging images.”

The title of my thesis was “Fear and Desire – A Passage into the Landscape of the Niagara Escarpment” and I was keenly aware that the drawings I created during those eight months would have to be evocative to express this idea.

Initial conceptual collage of the sites and its essence – 1991

The four, sectional elevation drawings convey the essence of walking through this unique building.  Its location was on the Niagara Escarpment as it passes through the City of Hamilton, Ontario.  Here the escarpment is the steep sloped landscape located between the two different elevations of the city, (the lower downtown core and the upper, and more recently settled suburban development in an area called “The Mountain”, located 150 metres above).

Hamilton’s Incline Railway – From the Book – Niagara Escarpment – Pat and Rosemarie Keough

The architecture I created provided a threshold into the landscape along the route of the incline railway that existed in the early 20th century.  I was intrigued that upon entering this landscape that one could escape the city, both literally and metaphorically.  Here one could leave the constraints of society and journey into this passageway that evoked fear and desire.

The new route I designed created a public passage that encouraged exploration and engagement with the sloped terrain.  It utilized the site’s geology as part of the experience inside the building and the drawings are comprised of photocopies of this geology, assembled in ways to express the evocative spaces.

Oil paint and multiple layers of gesso are applied to this collage, giving the surface a three-dimensional character and its glossy finish.  These drawings were created before Photoshop and Illustrator.  The layering of each small photocopied segment gives the image added tactility, with the cut edges of the paper catching the light and imparting an “earthly” aura to the drawing.

One of the most poignant moments in the journey through this building is the experience described in this sectional drawing.  After descending a long ramp, one wall constructed of rough board formed concrete the other carved from the natural shale geology and dripping with moisture, one turns the bend to observe the distant view out toward the field and forests in the distance(second bay from the left).  What initially appears as a pristine agricultural scene, dappled in the light of the clouds passing above, is revealed as a metropolitan landscape with the city of Hamilton laid out ahead as the visitor reaches the concrete rail overlooking the precipice.

The imagery of the vegetation was inspired by the great landscape artist Claude Lorrain and was created using the same technique of collage by assembling images of trees from separate photocopied sections.

While designing this project I drew inspiration from the 19th century landscape architect, Jean-Charles Alphand and his descriptions of Butte Chaumont Park in Paris which he designed.

“In this microcosm of labyrinthine avenues, of embracing couples, populated by thousands of statues, ghosts from a graveyard of the imagination, of lakes lit up by electric moons, man discovers with panic the monstrous imprint of his body and the mark of his own face.  He wounds himself at every step.  Here is the palace that you need, the great thinking machine, to finally  know who you are.”

The notion of the sublime is evoked in the architecture, creating an experience that forces confrontation and thwarts denial.

“In all other terrors, the soul loses its dignity and as it were shrinks below its actual size, but in the presence of the sublime, the soul of man seems to be raised out of a trance.”

Where the metropolis denies the landscape and one’s relationship to it, my thesis sought to create an architecture that heightens our awareness of the environment and ultimately of our self, in order to create a meaningful counterpoint to the metropolitan condition.

The inspiration for the arrangement of the rooms in my project came from the geometrically complex Italian gardens of the 15th and 16th centuries, with the Villa Giulia, located just outside the city gates of Rome, being the most influential.  Giorgio Vasari, working with other designers including Michelangelo, created a building/garden that literally and figuratively disintegrates as one enters from the street through the facade of a typical Italian palazzo and proceeds into a series of exterior rooms and garden spaces.  The initial solidity of the palazzo front elevation dissolves architecturally into garden elements as one proceeds away from the villa.

Villa Giulia by Giorgio Vasari – From Italian Villas and Gardens-Van Der Fee, Steenbergen

Within this procession one descends into the deepest and most private areas of the garden which is terminated in a darkened, water filled grotto.  As Elizabeth Barlow Rogers describes in her book, Landscape Design, “To proceed, one must descend one of the curving staircases to the lower court where yet another puzzle presents itself, for here one sees the subterranean grotto… …like Alice in Wonderland, one must, as in a dream, search for the door that opens to the delightful underground grotto where the buxom caryatids stand on their water-girt platform.”

Villa Giulia – From Landscape Design – Elizabeth B. Rogers

My experience in this garden, and the sensations I had experienced in my journey through it, were the prime motivators for the creation of the spaces of my thesis project.  The specific techniques of drawing that were utilized for the series of sectional drawings were chosen to evoke these feelings.

After the first layers of photocopied images were assembled to the describe the architectural characteristics of the space I applied multiple layers of gesso to the rough surface.  These translucent layers gave the image depth, which is accentuated as oil paint was applied to express the light characteristics of each room.

The spaces of this building were envisioned to be naturally lit and I had manipulated the buildings sections to ensure that the rooms would be bathed in indirect illumination.  To create mood and give each room character, some of these spaces were illuminated through water.

A concrete wall encloses the room seen below.  It hangs to align with the water level of the pool.  Here, the sunlight illuminating this space passes through the water to fall on the shale side walls and the rough surface of the poured concrete ceiling above, each dripping with humidity.

A metal grate walkway positioned at water level, provides passage through this space.  The mystery of the water pulsing into the pool outside gives the space a eerie complexity.

I created these drawings in a 600 mm x 1500 mm format.  The large size was essential to conveying the overwhelming experience I had envisioned for visitors to this building.

Throughout the initial stages of my thesis investigation I had experimented with many mediums and drawing techniques.  Each medium and view point was selected to convey specific ideas about architecture.  In the charcoal drawings shown below I often used perspectives to capture the essence of the experience of inhabiting the site.

These were displayed on the wall during my thesis presentation – and were presented as specific ways the viewer would interpret the landscape.  The medium and view points I had selected for each of these drawings best described the mood I was wishing to evoke.

Later in the thesis year, it was my decision to capture, in building sections, the essence of this building.  With this recognition and award from the ASAI so many years later, it brings back fond memories of the hours spent on each of these drawings.

Since becoming a member of the ASAI two years ago, my approach to design and architecture has been enriched.  I will be heading to Houston in the fall to meet with the other ASAI members, to talk to many of this year’s winners about the creation of their evocative and engaging images  – with an objective to perfect my craft of conveying architectural ideas through drawing.

%d bloggers like this: