BY Feliks Isaksen in Opinion | 08 DEC 23

Architectural Drawings at the Edge of Reality

At the Norwegian National Museum, architects employ the foundational skill of their craft to push against the limitations of contemporary construction

BY Feliks Isaksen in Opinion | 08 DEC 23

The first exhibition of contemporary architecture at the new Norwegian National Museum isn’t really an exhibition of architecture at all. Rather, it offers an intimate look at how architects understand representation and storytelling, and explores how drawing can be much more than a simple tool of architectural production – one that, through creative expression, leads to design solutions not rooted solely in the built environment.

‘Hand and Machine Architectural Drawings’ presents works by 37 Norwegian and international contributors, all produced during the past 15 years: a period flanked on one hand by the 2008 financial crash and, on the other, by the accumulation of crises – COVID-19, inflation, war – that have defined recent times. The decision by curator Joakim Skajaa to home in on this particular period, however, is not simply about framing the works within a specific social context: this has also been a time during which architects have had to come to terms with the changing role of their profession, where aesthetic creativity often takes a secondary role to the ever-increasing technical, financial and legal requirements of making buildings.

Hand and Machine exhibition view
‘Hand and Machine Architectural Drawings’, exhibition view, 2023. Courtesy: Nasjonalmuseet

From digital collages to manual sketches, ‘Hand and Machine’ showcases the broad range of media available to contemporary image-makers. The floor is covered in large-scale images by Austrian-Norwegian photographer Max Creasy. Taken during studio visits to some of the architects featured in the exhibition, the photographs mostly depict ephemera such as material samples, pencils and rulers alongside crumpled pieces of paper and rudimentary sketches. The informality and intimacy of these photographs sets the stage for the show, both literally and figuratively, with most of the works displayed horizontally on tables, benches and desks as opposed to being wall-mounted.

While it might be tempting to read the show’s title as a tug-of-war between drawings made by hand versus those produced with the aid of machines (anyone who has spent time in architecture school over the past two decades will no doubt have had their share of professors proclaiming the supremacy of the pen over the computer mouse), the reality is not so simple. The majority of the exhibited works were produced using digital software but feature texture or line work inspired by, or directly lifted from, analogue sources such as pencil on paper or oil on canvas. But why digitally emulate traditional media when we can now render projects as though they are completed buildings?

Malarchitecture An After Party in the New City
Malarchitecture, An After Party in the New City, 2011. Courtesy: Nasjonalmuseet

One such example of computer-generated work with a handmade quality is Malarchitecture’s An After-party in the New City (2011). The image quotes Madelon Vriesendorp’s Flagrant Délit (Caught in the Act, 1975) – famously used as the cover illustration for Rem Koolhaas’s book Delirious New York (1978) – which envisaged 30 Rockefeller Plaza barging in on the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings in post-coital bliss. Malarchitecture’s version replaces the original New York landmarks with recent additions to Oslo’s waterfront, including the Opera House (2007) by Snøhetta, Renzo Piano’s Astrup-Fearnley Museum (2012) and, in the place of Rockefeller Plaza, the Munch Museum by Spanish architect Juan Herreros (2020). Widely published photorealistic renderings that showed Herreros’s museum clad in panes of glass – when, in reality, the façade was made from far less transparent and spectacular corrugated metal – led to the building being much maligned in the media prior to opening.

Walled Garden Office Border Garden
OFFICE (Kersten Geers David Van Severen), Border Garden, 2005. Courtesy: Nasjonalmuseet

An After-party in the New City is not the only work in the exhibition that nods to earlier architectural projects. Border Garden (2005) by OFFICE (Kersten Geers David Van Severen), for instance, is reminiscent of Koolhaas’s early, theoretical works and of illustrations by Superstudio. Border Garden comprises a photographic landscape superimposed with simple architectural forms and images from other sources to indicate the architects’ key ideas without attempting a photorealistic rendering. In fact, undergirding ‘Hand and Machine’ is an evident exasperation with the tendency to visualize unbuilt architecture as completed buildings, on which everything appears already to have been bolted, welded, mounted, screwed and painted – thereby entirely quashing any opportunity to deviate from the expectations of client or public.

Yet, the urge architects clearly still feel – substantiated by the works on display here – to envisage projects using a variety of multimedia approaches that exceed the limitations of realistic renderings speaks to a recognition that designing and constructing a building alone is not enough. The handmade aesthetic – regardless of whether or not it is truly produced by hand – challenges the rigid and standardized systems that occupy so much of an architect’s time, not only artistically but emotionally, too. Committing to paper (or to jpeg) the myriad possibilities that are impossible to include in the finished building speaks to the joy of imaginative creativity while simultaneously addressing the limitations inherent in designing and constructing for the real world. ‘Hand and Machine’ allows us to sit behind the architect’s desk – mind engaged, pen in hand – and experience the freedom inherent in drawing. Before a building is constructed, fixed in place, it could be made out of whatever material you like: textured paper, a cloud, a pixelated image of something that may or may not resemble water. At the toggle of a Photoshop layer, it could be anything you want.

‘Hand and Machine Architectural Drawings’ at the Norwegian National Museum is on view until 31 March 2024

Main image: Malarchitecture, An After Party in the New City, 2011. Courtesy: Nasjonalmuseet

Feliks Isaksen is an architect and writer based in Oslo, Norway