That's the way we draw it
Introduction by Carsten Jørgensen
Li Han & Hu Yan are respectively architect and graphic artist, or I should say that both are artists in the deeper sense of the word. With an outstanding talent of bridging various areas of their creative disciplines and a surprising ability to express the complexity of human conditions - in a fast and seemingly infinite mutation of urbanism of their hometown Beijing - they have taken the international architectural drawing community with surprise. The extreme detailed representation in their axonometric drawings goes far beyond illustration and the interesting method of visual representation… it is a deep and insightful sensibility by the two and their team of fellow architects and graphic artists to bring forth this inexplicable vibrant spirit of urban life seen with a birds eyes view registering each single action of what seems to be a chaotic myriad of human behavior framed by the pattern of architectural urban spaces. A view with a historical tradition as they explain in this article but as well a view which is prolonging a cultural tradition of Asian pictorial representation of space opposing to the illusionistic western central perspective.
Each morning I happen to take a look on one of their pictures hanging on a prominent place in our home. Sometimes it’s a small garden or park, sometimes I look into a house through a roof left open for my voyeuristic curiosity and sometimes I find myself walking the linear streets deep down between high voluminous buildings surrounded by thousands of humans. It is a touching mood, which is tricking my memory back in the early 2000 where Yan and I worked together in Shanghai. Yan was apart from being an excellent graphic artist managing our design studio in Shanghai…and was my left hand in everything a life offers an older curios but oblivious westerner in China… After three years of selfless support and with a bit a broken voice Yan came to my table to tell me that she wanted to go back to her home city Beijing and foremost her future husband to be Li Han.
What has happened to their life since that day, which they with energy and a deep human passion and intelligence have created together, has rightly reached far beyond my imagination and the borders of China. With their works represented in museums like SFMOMA San Francisco, with a big work on the Architectural Biennale in Venice and not to forget the prestigious Architecture Drawing Prize in Britten as all over winner 2018 with the three drawings “The Samsara of Building No.42 on Dirty Street” the couple has proved that passion and human sensibility is there to stay.
I thought it would be interesting for the idéons and madetostay community to know what is behind their drawings and what is driving their creative passion.
Architectural Drawing as Art
In 1918 Russian Suprematist El Lissitzky put his revolutionary visions onto axonometric projection. To Lissitzky, the traditional perspective drawing constrains the space by making it limited and closed. The openness, evenness, and infinity of the axonometric projection makes it the ideal form for the new art. He created a new word “proun” for the axonometric drawing which means the station where one changes from painting to architecture.
Axonometric projection is a kind of parallel projection which originally belongs to mechanical drawings. Different from the traditional perspective drawing, axonometric projection doesn’t have a vanishing point, so the projection in depth will not converge to the vanishing point but will stay parallel. It eliminates the visual rule that the object is seen smaller as their distance from the observer increases, so the change of the object’s appearance caused by the distance disappears. The object presented in the axonometric drawing only has the positioning difference in the front and back, but not in the distance. It equalizes the space in the drawing so that each corner can display the details to the same extent. This special feature gives axonometric projection an innate privilege in representing huge and complex objects such as cities.
Unlike contemporary photography bringing the overwhelming revolution to the painting world in the 1880s as photography is a much more powerful tool for realistic representation than painting, axonometric drawing is irreplaceable by photography since it is a representational method based on mathematical model. A camera can easily display perspectives or press the space and make objects look flat with telephoto lens, so that the photo can replace a two-dimensional elevation or plan. But the lens cannot parallelize the perspectives. Even if a professional camera with tilt-shift lens may fix the distortion in the vertical or horizontal direction, it cannot help with the distortion in depth. So, the irreplaceable visual experiences provided by axonometric projection can make it exceed its duty as a mechanical drawing and be able to exist as a unique representational art form.
Over the past years, our drawings have been a continuous study on the potential of axonometric projection in representing complexity by using one picture to depict all the divided spaces in an urban environment. With the experiment in different directions for projection, we try to create drawings that fully reveal the unique visual power of axonometric projection and to ultimately give architectural drawing the credit that it serves as an independent art form.
Such a belief comes from the achievements of the previous great masters in architecture. We cannot forget Le Corbusier’s life-long practice in Cubism and even far further, Piranesi’s construction for Rome in his etchings, which makes him the greatest architect in the 18th century for his representational works. Their examples confirm that representation has always been a battle filed for architects’ practice. And as a special representational form, axonometric projection has become an ideal starting point for architects if they want to explore the world of art.
The development of technology in the architectural industry over the past decades also makes it more reasonable to regard architectural drawing as an independent art form. Back to the 1960s and 1970s, many avant-garde concepts were unable to be realized due to technical limitation so they could only be presented through drawings. The drawings of those masters at that time might be more resourceful and accurate than the actual construction for us to understand their forward thinking. Nowadays, due to the vast investment of capital and state-of-art technology, any idea becomes possible to be built. We no longer rely on drawings to learn the crazy ideas as the crazy ideas are already realized. This gives architectural drawing a great opportunity to be spun off from its original function in the process of architectural production. The drawing is not an alternative format any more to explain a design that cannot be built in reality, like early drawings from Zaha Hadid. It shall become something that can be appreciated independently. It can become a striking art piece with its own content and representation, just like painting, photography, sculpture, and any other form of art.
Imagination vs Reality
As an important component of architectural culture, utopia has been a classic subject for architects when they create drawings. Many of the imaginations on cities from the architectural “golden generation” still have strong influence on the learning of today’s young architects, e.g. Plug-In City by Archigram, The City of the Captive Globe by OMA, Fun Place by Cedric Price, Security by John Hejduk, and The Continuous Monument by Superstudio.
We have to admit a fact that for the practice of almost each form of art there is always a time of pinnacle in its history. Unlike science always developing forward, it is not necessary that art created today must be better than what the artists from 100 years ago created. As we still refer to the works from the “golden generation” when we create drawings today, it is safe to argue that the construction of utopia in architecture has reached its peak in 1960s and 1970s. After that period of time, the fast development of technology has turned many of those imaginations into reality. If today we still try to portray the future world based on today’s technology, it is very possible that we will end up with a science fiction about space, internet, or artificial intelligence which has less to do with the knowledge of architecture.
However, such a transition in technology and its consequential influence on politics, economy, and culture makes the reality a much more interesting subject to study. As in one of our drawings, The Samsara of Building No.42 on Dirty Street, we depicted the change of a residential building in Beijing over the last 10 years. It started as a regular building with the apartments on the two lower floors turning into small shops and grew into a famous commercial spot in the district. But followed by the government’s new regulation to crack down the “first-floor-homes-turned-businesses” in 2017, all the facades of the shops were suddenly demolished in one day and the original walls and window were installed at the same time to turn the shops back into apartments. A few months later, the whole building was given a face lift and its previous prosperity was completely gone without any trace. The incredibly dramatic transition we witnessed during the last half year of this building’s 10-year-long life circle deeply impressed us and inspired our creation.
Such wonders that truly happen in the real world make us believe that the biggest challenge to architectural drawing today is not to imagine a new utopian world but is rather to come back to the reality and try to depict the daily life. Especially in a country like China where the developments in each section of the society go under an unprecedented high speed, what happens in the present is much more diverse, unpredictable, and inspiring than anything one can imagine.
With axonometric projection’s unique advantage in portraying complex scenes, we have selected cities as our main subject ever since we started to create architectural drawings. Our indulgence in urban environments has nothing to do with the goodness or badness of design but is because of some crazy or even absurd status of contemporary metropolises. We believe that nowadays architecture and urban design are not necessarily effective when facing the complicated urban issues. Sometimes they might even look particularly fragile and pale. Architects shall give up their position as saviors of the world and do not limit their roles in making design proposals to change the real world. Then they might find themselves more extensive works within their capabilities.
As the place where we grew up and have lived for more than 30 years and being a metropolis that is undergoing huge changes in a very fast speed, Beijing has become our greatest source of inspiration. It offers abundant surprises every day which stimulate our urge to document in the means of drawing. We can find different stages of urban development simultaneously in the same city. There are many phenomena that look unreasonable at the first sight but turn out to be very reasonable on the second thought. The aim of our work is to represent such a status in the form of architectural drawing.
In many cases, cities need expression rather than design. Cities have their own lives and inner operation logic. By continuously breeding a series of urban wonders, cities have presented strong desires for self-expression. In his book Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas describes New York as a movie star. “Movie stars who have led adventure-packed lives are often too egocentric to discover patterns, too inarticulate to express intentions, too restless to record or remember events. Ghostwriters do it for them. In the same way I was Manhattan’s ghostwriter.” By the same token, we try to become the “ghostpainter” of contemporary Beijing.
Drawing Architecture Studio (DAS)
Founded by architect Li Han and designer Hu Yan in Beijing, Drawing Architecture Studio (DAS) is a creative platform integrating architecture, art, design, urban study, pop culture, and aiming to explore the new models for the creation of contemporary urban culture.
Selected works from Drawing Architecture Studio
Tuan Jie Hu
Tuan Jie Hu is an epitome of old residential area located by the East 3rd Ring Road in Beijing. In this panorama, some 45-degree axes from different directions allow the viewers to constantly change their viewpoints, which is like a Cubism painting. Here it involves DAS’ subjective understanding on Colin Rowe’s transparency theory. Rowe extracted his concept of “phenomenal transparency” from Cubism paintings and built it into the understanding of architecture. It is briefly about tensions resulted from conflicts among different spatial systems. While in axonometric projection, the coexistence of orthogonal system and 45-degree axial system naturally presents interesting conflicts, both two- and three-dimensional. If using this unique feature from architectural drawing to depict cities, a Cubism artwork with “phenomenal transparency” will naturally come into being. In Tuan Jie Hu Panorama, opposite to Rowe, DAS uses axonometric drawing techniques from architectural practice to reinterpret Cubism art.
Old Town of Xinchang
Xinchang, an old town in the suburb of Shanghai, was built in Song Dynasty more than 800 years ago and is featured with its original townscape and a rich heritage of traditional architecture. The urban developments over the recent century also make Xinchang the epitome of the status of coexistence for traditional and contemporary architecture in historical towns in China. The image of Old Town of Xinchang has covered the major area of the town. In this piece, DAS has experimented with axonometric projection from two sides of the architecture – the top and elevation. As the three-dimensional world is usually constructed by three sides, axonometric projection from two sides might be the minimum requirement to show a three-dimensional view. Because of this, the three-dimensional space created by a two-sided axonometric projection shows a strong effect of flatness.
Commissioned by Hyundai, DAS created the large-scale panoramic mural 798 for Hyundai Motor studio Beijing. Around 14.5 meters in width and 12.7 meters in height, the mural takes the 798 Art Zone as the representative to depict the status of today’s city in the context of information overload. The drawing is a narrative map: most architectural renderings in the panorama are based on actual prototypes at 798. The assemblages are shattered, fragmented and free-floating. Enormous power comes from the inherent vitality and energy of the city. Its shell is cracked and broken to reveal the exciting maze of life inside. 798 is an imaginary representation of the real world, a reconstruction of countless fragments of physical space and time, that constantly collide, align and rearrange.
The Samsara of Building No.42 on Dirty Street
The Samsara of Building No.42 on Dirty Street tells the story of a residential building on the Dirty Street of San Li Tun in Beijing in the past decade through 4 architectural axonometric drawings. The story shows how two powers fight with each other in urban development. One is the bottom-up civil power by average people. The other is the top-down administrative power by the government. Taking architectural drawing as a critical craft and with vivid drawing language, DAS represents the process of such a battle and examines the relationship between man and city in the Samsara of Building No.42 on Dirty Street and hopes to stimulate further discussions regarding urban development.
Li Han, Hu Yan, Beijing, China