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  • In Praise of Orthographic Projection

    First Office (Andrew Atwood and Anna Neimark), Peak on Peak. Sections.
    los angeles CALIFORNIA

    41. Nothing is built on stone, everything on sand, but our duty is to build as if sand were stone . . .
    — Jorge Luis Borges, “Fragments from an Apocryphal Gospel.”

    Never has the practice of architecture been less dependent on the traditional means of drawing architecture than today. Compared with software that fully integrates all aspects of construction into a single digital model, drawings that were once used to convey information to builders are no doubt less expeditious. However . . .

    *Images by and courtesy First Office (Andrew Atwood & Anna Neimark).

    [EXCERPTED FROM FRESH PUNCHES ]

    image, left: First Office (Andrew Atwood and Anna Neimark), Peak on Peak. Sections; right: First Office, Peak on Peak. Peak, plan.

    41. Nothing is built on stone, everything on sand, but our duty is to build as if sand were stone . . .
    — Jorge Luis Borges, “Fragments from an Apocryphal Gospel”1

    Never has the practice of architecture been less dependent on the traditional means of drawing architecture than today. Compared with software that fully integrates all aspects of construction into a single digital model, drawings that were once used to convey information to builders are no doubt less expeditious. However, despite the looming obsolescence of orthographic drawings for the purposes of construction, this method of projection remains necessary for comparing, understanding, and explaining architecture. In other words, even if this type of drawing does eventually lose its place in the practice of architecture, it will always be the primary language of the discipline of architecture. Therefore, given that architects and students of architecture now work nearly exclusively in simulated three-dimensional environments, and often produce simulations of photographs of those environments for clients and academic reviews, the ability to closely interrogate architecture through orthographic projection—that is, to use orthographic projection for what it is good at—is more significant than ever.

    Orthographic drawings—plans, sections, and elevations, from whichever orientation—have long been understood to be the unique provenance of architecture. Leon Battista Alberti says as much: “[T]he architect . . . takes his projections from the ground plan and, without altering the lines and by maintaining the true angles, reveals the extent and shape of each elevation and side.”2 In his letter to Pope Leo X regarding the maintenance of the remains of ancient Roman buildings, Raphael similarly gives perspectival projection to the painters and assigns architects orthographic projection, specifically with regard to education:
    [A]nyone who himself wishes to devote himself to architecture may learn by this method to execute both processes without error. . . . And since, to my mind, there are many people who are wrong when it comes to representing buildings (for example they believe that what is right for the painter is right for the architect), I will describe the method that I think should be followed.3
    This is perhaps most significant for the amount of time it took for architects to catch on: many of Sebastiano Serlio’s near-elevational drawings include converging lines and shading, as if the flatness of orthographic projection was horrific. Not until the advent of the first Renaissance architect who was not first a painter (Antonio da Sangallo) did true orthographic projection take hold as the standard technique of architects.4 And although other disciplines may use orthographic projection for the communication of spatial information, those disciplines do so according to techniques that were developed specifically to record, to measure, and to understand architecture.

    Importantly, a rigorous method for producing perspectival representations was delineated by Alberti before orthographic projection was adopted. However, perspective actually seems more in tune with the worldview of the Renaissance: it naively tries to reproduce, or to literally re-present, the way in which we see the world. Of course, falling well short of that, Brunelleschi resorted to the trick of using a mirror to simulate the sky for the effect of a “real” view.5 Ultimately, the perspective images produced by computer software are only slightly less naive. Easily constructing vanishing points in all different directions, digital perspectival renderings map points along x–, y–, and z-coordinates using a station point, symbolized by a digital semblance of a “camera.” Located some distance and direction from the object, the camera creates an accurate representation of an otherwise immaterial, but nevertheless “real” object.

    In contrast, drawings that employ orthographic projection can never be faithful to their subjects. Even if an object were actually cut through and traced, its imprint would not be a plan or section. Orthographic projection demands a flattening of all depth that is impossible as anything but abstraction. It is in this sense, then, that orthographic projection’s revival in the Renaissance is most untimely. Orthographic projection estranges both the viewer and subject of the drawing from the drawing itself. The drawing becomes an object in itself, of only itself.

    The architecture that emerges from perspective is one that is based in image; architects who conceive work according to methods such as orthographic projection (or other devices that make no attempt to approximate “reality,” such as axonometry) suggest that architecture is not simply a set of spectacular objects or events to be experienced and consumed. Instead, architecture has its own discourse that demands reading and comparison. Architects who work along these lines therefore place their own work, intentionally or otherwise, within a long lineage of architectural thought. Indeed, it is precisely because of the existence of such discourse that those of us involved in the academic side of the discipline are able to allege with conviction that architecture is not simply a service profession. By drawing a plan, one automatically draws comparisons, distinctions, and, ultimately, draws out ideas.

    In addition, then, to the strangely detached relationship between a form and its plan or section, orthographic projection facilitates comparisons between forms and projects that would otherwise be inconceivable. To use a well-worn example, forms that look almost nothing alike, such as the Villas Foscari (Andrea Palladio) and Stein-de Monzie (Le Corbusier), or the Altes Museum (Karl Friedrich Schinkel) and the Chandigarh Assembly Hall (Louis Kahn), are now introduced to our students specifically because their plans can be compared and their sections distinguished. The same holds true for Michelangelo’s Sforza Chapel and Mies van der Rohe’s Brick Country House—Colin Rowe’s observation that they are in fact opposites is only plausible because he is able to prove that, despite the fact that they look nothing alike, their plans are conceptually similar enough that distinctions can be drawn.6 Without the method of abstraction that is orthographic projection, comparisons of this type would be like trying to solve complex math problems in one’s head: difficult to conceive.

    An appraisal of some recent works will suffice as a supplement to this discussion. Architects as diverse as those of Office KGDVS (Kersten Geers David Van Severen), Xefirotarch, DOGMA, and Zago Architecture are relevant for their rigorous disciplinarity; these offices all take seriously the possibilities inherent in their projects as plans, sections, and elevations. The recent projects of the Los Angeles–based First Office are largely predicated on extrusion of profiles, a formal operation that is closely related to orthographic projection. To take a specific example, “The Mountain” emerges from dialogue between four– and nine-square structures. But if both the four– and nine-square grid are important for what is in the center—something or nothing, respectively—The Mountain is completely devoid of a center. Instead of, alternately, something or nothing in the center, the project doesn’t have anything anywhere (or rather, centers everywhere, which amounts to the same thing). The section does something else entirely: in contradiction with its own appearance of solidity, suggested by its shallow vertical taper like a mastaba, the ground underneath is carved away. The project revokes everything it posits, going so far as to literally remove the ground it is supposed to stand on. In this way the project is an allegory of orthographic projection: with a plan that invokes the hierarchy of the nine-square grid but in fact has no center, and a section that defies its own solidity, the drawings exist autonomously from any notion of representation of a synthetic whole. Similar cursory analyses could be performed on several projects of the architects mentioned above, and many other projects besides.

    The advantages of orthographic projection suggested here are not absolute. The capabilities of flattening depth, and particularly that of abstraction, are by no means universal virtues in architecture. And yet, at this point those qualities point toward an incipient direction for both architectural education and architecture in general. Instead of using the redoubtable power of our technology to render ever more convincingly realistic, yet unconvincingly substantial images, the choice to limit one’s means to the rigor of orthographic projection signals a decision to work with and for the methods of architecture. To paraphrase Le Corbusier, the choice, then, is clear: architecture or rendering?

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    1. 1. Jorge Luis Borges, “Fragments from an Apocryphal Gospel,” in Borges, Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Poems, ed. Alexander Coleman, trans. Stephen Kessler (New York: Penguin, 2000), 295. 

    2. 2. Leon Battista Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, trans. Joseph Rykwert, Robert Tavernor, and Neil Leach (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), 34. 

    3. 3. Liane Lefaivre and Alexander Tzonis, eds., The Emergence of Modern Architecture: A Documentary History from 1000 to 1810 (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 93. 

    4. 4. See Wolfgang Lotz, Studies in Italian Renaissance Architecture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981). 

    5. 5. “Brunelleschi’s device worked this way: he painted a small panel about twelve inches square of the Baptistery of Florence. The observer would look through a hole from the back of the panel, placed at what we now call the vanishing point, into a mirror held at arm’s length. . . . The upper half of Brunelleschi’s panel was left coated with burnished silver, thus reflecting the clouds and the sunlight of the real sky, which, in the mirror image, appeared to surround the painted baptistery, producing a picture more ‘real’ than nature.” Liane Lefaivre, Leon Battista Alberti’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: Re-Cognizing the Architectural Body in the Early Italian Renaissancee (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 145. 

    6. 6. Colin Rowe, “Mannerism and Modern Architecture,” in Rowe, The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), 45–47. 

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