November 2, 2012
By Ruth Wallach
Architectural design spans a trajectory that begins with an idea and ends with its physical manifestation, such as a building, a landscape, or a street block. What gets constructed, however, rarely parallels what was drawn. In this age of computer modeling that results in wildly imaginative structures built from unusual contemporary materials, like Frank Gehry's Disney Hall, there is some nostalgia for the art of architectural rendering by hand, particularly as it illustrates the evocative simplicity of mid-20th century Modern architecture in Southern California; an art form preserved in the architectural archives of the USC Libraries' Helen Topping Architecture and Fine Arts Library.
Architects often started with pencil-drawn doodles of shapes and volumes, which would be combined into initial ideas for clients and subsequently reworked into formal presentations. Figure 1, a sketch for Anderson Lumber Company by Cliff May and Chris Choate, shows a house in a bucolic setting drawn in black lead punctuated by a few white highlights. May and Choate were probably developing an idea to advertise the lifestyle that could be built using the company's lumber.
If a sketch is a step in the process of visualizing an idea, the rendering is a more formal statement to express it; although it, too, exists on a continuum. For example, the watercolor rendering of a 4-unit apartment project designed by the Southern California modernist architect Carl Louis Maston (Figure 2), shows a building that floats out of its blank cardboard background. The architectural exterior, typical of Maston's work, is carefully drawn, complete with the geometric shadows thrown by the roof overhang on the windows and walls. The landscape, such as it is, is ancillary to the L-shaped lines that delineate the volumetric and functional arrangements of the building's spaces.
The pencil drawings in Figures 3 and 4 show Maston's designs for private homes. In both examples the landscape is schematic, highlighting the developing ideas for the structures. In Figure 3 the house is drawn low to the ground, without any indication of windows or doors. The utter privacy of its setting is suggested by the way it hermetically turns inward, away from the landscape that forms a polite horizontal line behind it. That we are looking at the front of the house is suggested by the interlocking geometry of the path that leads from the drive in through the minimally drawn garden. Figure 4 shows the front and back of a house rising from a hill on slender pilotis made of prefabricated steel beams that also support the glass curtain walls. This house, too, is framed by a minimalistic landscape that leaves much of the cardboard background exposed. These two drawings appear to be ideas in progress.
The watercolor rendering of two minimalist, box-like houses in Figure 5, also by Maston, show a complete design concept, ready for a final presentation to a client. Both houses are raised on pilotis, as befits Modernist design. Both present blank walls to the suburban road, and turn the glass-enclosed interiors away from the hum of traffic. The trees and the houses are painted to scale, and the colors are mostly muted hues of browns, greens, and blues, suggesting a close relationship between the built and the natural environments.
The contextual landscape setting is an important aspect in another water color rendering, which depicts Carl Maston's proposal for Fed Mart Corporation (Figure 6), a characteristic design we still see today in warehouses for companies like Walmart or Target, commonly located in exurban settings. Some elements, such as trees and fields, are drawn schematically. Others, such as the lines that separate parking spaces or the shadow thrown by the tall sign painted in center foreground, are more detailed, and, presumably, more important to convey scale and placement to the corporate client.
The urban context provides the setting in the watercolor rendering of Union Bank, designed in 1960 by the architect Sidney Eisenshtat (Figure 7). The rendering depicts the building's interlocking rectangular volumes from the vantage point looking toward the southwest corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills. The landscaping, both at street level and above the base, is schematic, and so are the human figures, rendered in almost transparent daubs of color. The existing building to the south (left) is drawn in a non-descript way, and the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, built in 1928 in an Italian Renaissance style, which can be seen to the west (right), is recognizable mostly for the faintly drawn sign above its roof. Union Bank is painted with great care and detail, including commercial signs for prospective corporate tenants and some decorative geometric features on the base. The atmospheric skies, somewhat rare in sunny Southern California, provide a dramatic backdrop.
Whether they show quickly sketched ideas or elaborate design concepts, there is a compelling haptic quality to architects' drawings. While trying to rehouse the fragile sheet that shows the May/Choate design for Anderson Lumber Company, I had to carefully avoid touching the drawing itself, lest the graphite smudge my fingers. And as California Modernism recedes in time, becoming a subject for discussion in historic preservation, these drawings acquire a patina of age; despite the fact that the architects themselves often saw these art works as disposable.
Top Image: Four unit apartment house project by Carl Louis Maston, n.d. | Courtesy of the USC Libraries' Helen Topping Architecture and Fine Arts Library.
Architectural Drawings Reveal Roots of 'California Modern'