The Revolution May Not Be Digitized

To talk about architectural representation these days is to talk about computer imaging and the uploads and downloads which follow the 01010101 of those drawings. Even the smallest of practices have long since upgraded from Maylines and drafting boards to keyboards. It’s archaic, even sentimental, to think back to those types of architectural representations: hand lettering, site plans rendered in felt-tip marker and even the old chipboard study model.

It is hip and modern to think of the future of architecture in candy-colored tones gently undulating under artificial light. Even fashion and lifestyle magazines have grabbed onto the digital trend. Over the summer an issue of Surface magazine was dotted with CAD-like line work and three-dimensional wire frames in order to illustrate upcoming trends in fashion and design. This may be all well and good for architects and designers, but some artists have been picking through architecture’s dustbin of history and using the bits of nostalgic representation that they find there in their artwork.

I noticed these old modes creeping away from the pages of now-defunct Progressive Architecture or AIA local offices and into pop culture sometime last year. The liner art for the Saint Etienne EP Places to Visit featured a textbook example of architectural pen and ink rendering circa 1982. An entourage of casual walkers made there way across a landscape of street furniture, planters and retaining walls, the black lines coming together just enough to tie the drawing together, but not enough to make anyone question whether or not it was an exercise in realism. It is weird to see images from the specialized archive of “practice” re-enter contemporary popular culture. These are images make practitioners cringe when they see that architectural representation bends to the whims just as much a fashion as any other cultural product.

Last spring the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts presented, Walking Unafraid, the first solo show of British artist David Miles. Miles’ work embraces basic architectural representation and exploits its old-fashioned connotations. The content of the work is a bit odd. The show consisted of several object prototypes constructed somewhat carefully out of chipboard, which were invented to deal with fearful situations like your bike being stolen or getting mugged. All the artworks are numbered and categorized as to what they apparently do. One such piece is Device #10: device to stop nightmares/keep away the hordes of evil. It looks like the type of garden sprinkler you attach to a hose, but made by a first year design student out of chipboard. Miles claims that this device actually will stop nightmares and to back up his claim he presents a foam-core model along side the device. Inside the model is a person sleeping in a bed with a trusty Device #10 on his bedside table. Outside the model, monstrous clay figurines are stopped from entering the house.

The work of Seattle artist Mark Danielson takes architectural inspiration from Better Homes and Gardens and Art and Architecture from the’50s and ’60s. He incorporates the domesticated modernism that epitomized these publications into his acrylic paintings. The flat paint mimics the architectural illustrations, which marketed these homes to millions of postwar Americans, documenting the shallow sloped roofs of ranch homes in both perspective and elevation.

Although he relishes the optimism inherent in the representation of these houses, in the same way Miles makes use of the quaintness of un-finessed models, Danielson’s work is not without a dystopic vision. It seems that it is impossible to escape the national consciousness of irony and self-loathing that comes along with documents of suburbia. A concoction of teen angst and Valium seem to emanate from the wood paneling and carports. A coffin-shaped form haunts the recent collection of Danielson’s paintings on view at the Howard House Gallery in July. Like a bad omen it looms in each work creating compositional balance but is emotionally unsettling. The 1997 piece, Inoculation Tent, plays a shallow elevational perspective illustration of a ranch home opposite a blue field containing a white blob. In the white is an orange coffin. While it seems that the white blob could be the tent-saving the house from the death outside-the juxtaposition of it against the house implies that the house itself might be the place for a much-needed inoculation.

In architectural representation is it easy to wish that drawings, models and renderings convey a timelessness strong enough to escape fashion and current pop cultural norms. However, the rise and re-use of older modes allows us to take more meanings from the work. While there may be some kind of “retro” or kitsch appreciation of these forms going on by these artists and by designers working in commercial media, their regeneration into artwork serves to remind architects of the presence of alternative representational modes. The inherent darkness presented in the work of Miles and Danielson saves architectural representations from the landfill, and recycles them into a new, albeit slightly twisted, vision.