Shubhra Raje, principal architect of shubhra raje_built environments closely engages with different drawing practices within her studio. By excavating and analysing visual material in Shubhra’s studio, we attempt to decipher the draftsmanship cultures, their relationship with the design process and the way in which they inform her practice.
Images and Drawings: Courtesy Shubhra Raje
Author: Vedanti Agarwal
Curation and Film: Matter.
Shubhra Raje’s practice emphasizes the act of drawing as a means of critical thinking. Her rigorous drawing habit traces back to schooling years at CEPT University, where drawing by hand was ingrained in the academic rigour. However, her perceptions on the necessity to draw as a mode of thinking (as against drawing to represent) evolved through learnings during her time at the Cornell University. Representational drawings command a style that is conscious of its viewers. Design-thinking drawings are undisturbed collaterals between the engaged hand and the searching mind, oblivious of another eye. The scale of Shubhra’s practice enables her to engage with all stages of drawing in the design development process.
The monochrome pen and pencil drawings on yellow tracing are not bound by the architect’s compulsion to operate chronologically from concept to construction. Shubhra partakes in a malleable process of moving through scales and the types of drawings. These are congruent to the mode of architectural enquiry. It is the thought or ideology being scrutinized- from the scale of a furniture piece to a plan organization, following no rigid order. ‘Library as a veranda’ conceived in the section of a building, plunges directly into the detail of a bookshelf (1) as columns dividing spaces. With no sequential movement in organisation, detail and volumetric studies, Shubhra’s process is interspersed with an overall approach of looking through the lens of relationships. These relationships between functions drive design and its correlating drawing process.
Just like an approach and not a sequence holds the design process, a culture and not a style imbibes the drawing process. At Shubhra Raje’s studio, culture in a sense is the habitual engagement of the mind that employs drawing as a medium to investigate into architecture. Her inward search enables intuitive design abilities to surface through a drawing culture of investigation. The plan as a generator of design is drawn and redrawn to analyse relationships between the open and closed, functions, context, and site among other factors.
The mind is eager to know, it visualizes using the drawing board as a medium to test possibilities. A well-tempered plan is the result of continuous and intense movement through all parameters affecting design (2). Within the culture of investigation, pencil sketches on paper radiate the intensity with which they have been drawn. The hand moves fluidly to see what the mind is simultaneously imagining. Shubhra Raje invests thoroughly on the possibilities of an idea in terms of its workability, and understand the reality from inception (3). The idea is not romanticised in isolation. It seeks a sense of clarity and is best satiated in the habit of drawing. Even the idea of a bookshelf, once established, is immediately tested for its scale (4)- exploring ways in which drawings and realities can come together. The quest for plan organisations with an interspersed thought on details and sectional relationships slowly leads to volumetric studies. Moving from rigorous drawing explorations to a back-and-forth process between drawings and physical models, a form is developed (5). The drawing culture of investigation in the studio takes heed of the fact that design engages with the realities affecting it.
Shubhra’s design process does not begin with a ‘concept’ but with relationships built around the project.
Just like the racing mind jumps through all possibilities, assessing its strengths and weaknesses, the slow and meditative mind irons out all peculiarities. A drawing culture of slowness forces the architect to dwell upon each aspect of design. Drawings reflect slowness in the use of precise fine-tip pens, prompting a more confident hand and mind synchronisation (6). Shubhra engages in a kind of patient search, gaining confidence in design through a process of visualisation and resolution.
Aware of the receptive nature of the mind when drawing by hand, this culture is used as a means of orientation for professionals at the studio. The lingering thought process while hand drawing a 1:20 wall-section, induces one to question the existence of each material (7). By dwelling on it one understands the way materials come together. Such engagements may be lost while manoeuvring over the computer screen. When an artist draws a still life painting of an object he observes its shine, shadow, geometry and every little aspect, patiently drawing what he sees and understands. The lens of the artist opens-up to its viewers, new ways of looking at a mundane everyday object. Similarly, the culture of slowness in observing and drawing a building aids the architect in assessing its condition (8). This drawing culture in Shubhra’s work also supports the process of restoration projects while simultaneously developing an architectural approach and strategy.
As much as it is individually driven, architecture at Shubhra’s studio is also a synergy of mutual enabling between individuals. Sharing the drawing board with her co-workers, contractors and even clients induces a drawing culture of exchange. An exchange between different collaborators who drive design and execution gives room for reflection and improvement enriching the design process. The act of drawing provides a universal visual language to effectively communicate with others. Shubhra often engages in on-site drawing exercises with the client, instigating them to contribute to the design process by closely understanding site conditions and then proposing what they imagine (9).
Back in the studio, a large tracing is spread across the drawing table to brainstorm on all possibilities of design and details with her co-workers (10). A similar exchange is exercised between the fabricator or contractor and Shubhra (11). Resolution of details is an essential part of the practice, thus involving a contractor from early stages of design. The drawing culture of exchange involves the practice of thinking and simultaneously expressing.
The culture of presentation in the studio is purposefully practised for clear communication, these drawings are not meant to please. Construction drawings often drawn by Shubhra reflect the rigour and clarity with which they are thought through. (12) Each detail is drawn and noted with clear instructions, sometimes also accompanied with three-dimensional wall sections (13), especially for far-away sites. Many times, Shubhra holds one-day workshops with contractors and workers on distant sites to help them read all drawings issued by the studio. Presentation drawings are also used to represent an idea – like the ‘ReFresh’ theatre workshop, conducted by Shubhra (14). The devise theatre workshop involves the users of a building in a culture of play within the built environment.
Drawings are a medium of personal introspection, assurance and exchange for Shubhra – in other words a thinking process.
The culture of drawing is not practised as a linear sequence. They intuitively assert themselves in the process of design thinking. The non-linear design process of the studio can be viewed in the variety of projects archived as galleries below. Since each project has a reality of its own, galleries can be looked through the lens of drawing cultures in accordance with an overarching design approach.
Ruminating further, Shubhra explains that, “Design is what occurs between the mind and drawing – not what merely happens in the mind to be then put in a drawing.” She engages in drawing as a process of exploration. Hand drawings and computer drawings are both worked upon depending on their efficiencies and the demands of the process. A quick massing exercise may be easily drawn on the computer (15), while careful tempering of design abilities are practised by hand (16). The habit of drawing as an everyday activity has always been perceived by Shubhra as a thinking tool.
In conversation with MATTER, Shubra Raje [SR] talks about her drawing process and the importance it holds as a design process in the studio. She also talks about her inspirations and mentors who have helped develop her approach towards drawing.
Since when have you been drawing? How did this engagement with the hand start, and how did you continue the practice of drawing by hand as a professional?
SR: Drawing was an intrinsic part of my childhood. Growing up in an environment with architects as parents – you saw them drawing often. I have distinct memories of being on the drafting table, being inquisitive about tools. Obviously, I played with them mostly, and I did not see them as drawing tools. But there was a familiarity there, from the beginning.
While at boarding school, the correspondences between my father and I were often with illustrations, diagrams or visual maps. These exchanges were in the spirit of an “exquisite corpse”, where we would often complete, continue or play with what the other had drawn. These were not conscious things – I did these perhaps because I enjoyed it. There seemed to be an inclination towards the visual medium (although “medium” is too conscious a word); for instance, for a long time, it seems I would read only books that had illustrations. I remember, for instance, books of folk and fairy tales with beautiful drawings….from The Arabian Nights, or Russian stories with flowing hair catching the north winds and so on…or, Alice in Wonderland, with Lewis Carroll’s drawings…
More than finished drawings, it was diagrams and doodling that I was comfortable with. More formally, in school, I enjoyed subjects which required drawing, as most of our education otherwise is a very literate experience (a lot of words). Geography, where one drew maps or at least were required to have some sort of a spatial sense. Biology because it seemed to be a world of diagrams, more than written text. Geometry also, since it involved a lot of drawing. Strangely though, I never quite liked the actual Art classes in school. They felt very prescriptive under the authority of a drawing teacher. I preferred subjects where you were left alone to draw, but the drawing had a purpose.
During my undergraduate years though, I lost track of why I was drawing. Writing letters to my father stopped because- well, he was right there, in Ahmedabad. And also, somewhere the act of drawing became a conscious activity; with the consciousness of different styles of drawing one became burdened, especially if one was seen to have a “good” hand, that somehow you were supposed to make “good drawings”. I believe the enjoyment to draw ceased, and with it, the accidental discoveries stopped as well. This hit home when I went on an exchange programme to Europe. This was a significant encounter of becoming conscious about drawing, in a positive way. I was critiqued heavily, but it helped unlock certain relationships with the act of drawing.
I remember being hosted by Ahmet Gülgönen, a friend of my father’s (and a colleague from Kahn’s Studio in Philadelphia). A wonderful architect based in Paris, and a quiet man. I stayed with him and his family for about two and a half weeks. Our daily conversations (during evening meals) turned to discussions on the sketches I was making of the places I had visited during the day. There was this one discussion in particular on two sketches, which began to change my way of looking at drawing as a tool. One was on the streets of Haussmannian Paris, south of the Louvre, which must have taken me two or three hours. It was a very picturesque drawing; drawn in great detail with a perfect [one-point] perspective. The other was of a small Gothic chapel near the Beaux-Arts. It was a very rushed, and relatively ugly, sketch. Both were in pencil, one used a fine pencil while the other was much thicker lead. We had a long conversation on these, and this was the first time somebody had talked to me about how drawings of value could be ugly, or dirty sketches. Until this time, my experiences at the school in Ahmedabad seemed to have been about making neat drawings. Drawings that looked good. And in that regard to make drawings, was either all craft or all, well, something else (not craft). You could not have a messy craft, one which you were still learning from. Art and Craft seemed very divorced and this was the first time it came together. I remember very significantly on how Ahmet talked about not always needing a picturesque drawing; that travel sketches are acts of thinking about things, not merely a representation of where you have been; and that, technical and architectural drawings could co-exist. In the speed of things, the mind is trying to record an instrumentality. How something works or is made. This has carried through to my subsequent way of working.
At a more pragmatic level, my architectural training began with hand-drawings because computers were very rudimentary; in the early ‘90s, we had, probably, one class on AutoCAD. So the sense of comfort in hand drawings, and constructing one’s own projections endures. Today in spite of other media made available, the process of hand drawing is not abandoned. Also the nature of my practice and because I mostly work by myself, I do use many media, and all kinds of drawings that are relevant to the stages of a project or investigation.
Gallery A: Architectural Conservation of the Shuneh el Zebib Abydos (Egypt); 2011
Can you tell us about the nature of the design process that you follow and how do you use different tools which aid this process?
SR: I started working on my own about seven years ago in 2011. What preceded that has, naturally, had an influence in terms of how I work now. After graduation, I worked in an office in Denver called H+L Architecture. Its history was that it was a production office, and had started taking on design commissions only a few years prior to when I joined them. There were many experienced architects working there who had a rigour and discipline about construction drawings; for them, that was their medium of exploration. Of the few colleagues, I had a great rapport with Charles Cordina, an out and out construction person, who also provided an oversight for the drawings issued by the office. I enjoyed that [rigour] very much. It reminded me, in a way, of how drawings were done in my father’s office, where the means of construction and the meaning of use were intricately linked.
So as one started off a project, from its inception, one was thinking at the scale of the detail; thinking about functionality and constructability, cultures of use and building cultures. A project never began with a metaphor necessarily, or a schema-diagram. The latter was quite prevalent with certain professors I had, who wanted these schema-diagrams that fit on postage stamps, probably for clarity of thought; these never made much sense to me, they felt reductive since the flow of the project and the scales of the investigation always overlap. So, if one draws, maybe, an organizational diagram, one also has to have the context of other scales, to see if there are any correspondences.
The projects I work on are public projects, with restricted and designated funds. They are mainly places of learning and living, but not necessarily high profile cultural projects or techno-parks. Humble projects, mostly of an institutional or collective nature. There is a certain frugality that comes into practice as a result, because one is acutely aware of, and responsible for, who one is building for, why we are building and what it is going to take to build. This gets under your skin, that design is accountability as well. And you learn to catalyse the inevitable constraints – material (resources), political (codes, jurisdictions etc), economic (budgets), social (skills, techniques etc) or cultural (precedents, habits, conventions of use or type, etc) – such that they become a part of your conceptualization, and what drives your design process and trajectory. If a constraint begins to become an encumbrance, one begins to get creative with it so that you are able to fulfil both obligations.
These methods of working are my practice. It goes back to my time in graduate school at Cornell. A couple of professors who come to mind: David Lewis and Torben Berns. They were always opening up and critically examining everyday habits and conventions; often in terms of the way you drew, the possibilities of criticality involved in the act of drawing. If you were thinking about making a plan, they would talk more about what a plan actually is (as a convention), what a section is, what a perspective is so that you could manipulate, or play with these conventions in order to think through that which you were trying to investigate in the first place. David Lewis was instrumental in terms of opening up the possibilities of the architectural programme — that contradictions and paradoxes within could be the design drivers to the trajectory of a project — without being banal in terms of hybrid programmes or forms. How to search for those metaphoric “openings” to criticality, at any scale within the design process. This echoes what my father always used to say, “If you are backed into a corner, look for an opening”. I think they were all trying to say similar things, in terms of a method of working. And it is back and forth, of course.
I set up my practice because after a while working in an office, in a prescribed way, was not fulfilling all the needs one had in terms of investigations. But the rigour, I definitely learned from ten years of working with public schools, small organizations, non-profits, renovations (often school projects are additions/renovations to existing structures, rather than new construction). So one learnt from these where the opportunity was in each project. And that became part of my process; the method remains consistent, of using constraints and being extremely contextual — not just in terms of site or climate or geography, those are the obvious ones and have been talked about in discourses of critical regionalism. But also looking at the more mundane, or everyday ones, those more intimate to a project. And the way you draw, the way you develop a project, and then the kind of drawings you make became very specific to what kind of project it is. Sometimes they are very fast projects and the same method does not make sense. There are a couple of projects, like that little 300 sq. ft. recording studio we were talking about (the Untitled Art Studio in Denver). The drawings for this was all of one or two sketches. And one model to show people what we were going to do. We were building it ourselves, so the act of drawing was also the act of making on-site. So yes, drawing is very project-based in that sense.
Is there a consistent technique of drawing that you use through all your projects, or how do they vary? And how does the drawing process participate in the process of working on a project?
SR: I use certain kinds of drawings that help in the design investigations. And, of course, various media also play a part. On one hand, there is a need for quick drawings, regardless of scale. They happen concurrently with other forms of drawing, often when you are testing a detail along with a larger organization. A lot of this is influenced by the speed of thought and thinking.
These involve very fast drawing. Very rapid. They could be organizational, of a detail, or sectional investigations of particular assemblies or systems. Form maybe investigated in these rapid sketches, but mostly in response to some basic attitudes to wind or water or moisture, rather than a desire to have the space look or feel a particular way; one needs to find anchors, and logic of the project first. Thoughts are very rapid at this stage. I use the soft graphite pencil a lot. These sketches tend to be little ambiguous, sometimes taking you in directions where you may knowingly falsify some things just to carry a thought through to its logical end; of course, you come back at a later stage to make things accountable.
I use finer point pens (0.3/0.5/0.7 roller ball or felt tip) at moments between these periods (of rapid drawings) to deliberately slow things down. This is also important, otherwise, you have a multitude of options and choices…scattered thoughts. You do need to slow the pace, to shift focus. These drawings necessarily involve repetitive work — repetitive linework, patterns, poché -but that repetition opens a space to think. So, every line in that slowed-down drawing may not have a meaning per se. It is busy work while your mind refocuses. At the end of it, though, you do have a drawing that has a consistency, or a momentary certainty. One can share these because they tend to be more legible – with clients, consultants or those who may be working with you on the project.
You also need to test what you are drawing. So in place of what used to be hand-drafting (hardline drawings)- where there is a certain discipline and accountability with regards to scale, structural order of assemblage – I use the computer. However, I typically do this translation myself, and not hand it over to a draughts-person. In that sense, the computer is always present.
On some projects, I start making a model while I am sketching so that there is a three-dimensionality to the explorations. I use balsa wood, or a Revit model in order to formalize certain aspects while I continue to develop systems and how things work. These are parallel investigations. I like to think media is fairly seamless, and I try and maintain proficiency in every tool that I use. I find it counterproductive to see a split between more traditional forms of working and the digital environment, but look for forms of synthesis, or at the very least, a back and forth; the speed of one is countered by the accountability of the other. Often the speed is in the graphite sketches, and the accountability is in the digital version of the hardline drawing. Ultimately though, the pace of investigation has a lot to do with what it is that I am investigating at a given point in time.
Gallery B: Bookshelf: prototyping in the office, as a module to repeat in different projects, 2017
Are there any specific tools you that use while you are drawing? How do they interact with the process?
SR: I have very few, and at the moment these also have to do with portability since my practice is based out of two places and weight is a big restriction on airplanes. So my equipment consists of everything I can carry with me. At the most basic – a sketchbook, pencil, some pens and a laptop. However, one of my recent frustrations has been that my sketchbooks are scattered between my two bases; as a result, a tool that has come in is the iPad and the Stylus, along with a couple of sketching apps such as the Moleskin app, and the Morpholio Trace. It takes getting used to, because sometimes you want to keep sketching without running into an edge of a screen, and hit the forward tab to move on to the next page. In this, the tool still relies on a very linear process that one has to account for; even though Morpholio does allow overlays, you are still very conscious of the zooming in and out that is required because of the bounded space of the screen. With the physical paper, you are not subject to this telescoping, which does interrupt the natural flow of thought. So, in terms of thinking, there are still these encumbrances that certain media have; but as long as one is aware of them, you are also consciously making choices or allowances that are appropriate.
The iPad has other uses, which have been surprising. You can sketch along with the client; somehow a yellow trace or a giant computer screen comes across as too iconic or intimidating. But in my experience, clients seem either comfortable or less intimidated, by the Stylus and the Tablet. So you can be drawing in turns, on-site, which is really quite enjoyable – the back and forth, evaluating certain parameters, testing out scales or concepts. So it has become a sort of a “meeting” tool as well.
I often use balsa wood for models because there is a personal ease to working with it — it is kind to an imperfect hand! Model-making, like drawing, is investigative and I avoid making models purely as a representational device. For instance, if I have an idea of how the massing on a project is going to be, I do not bother making a massing model for the sake of appearances, or convention — that one should begin with the site and massing, and then methodically proceed to more detailed scales. I would rather make a model at a different scale, or of a different condition than my drawings at any given stage of a project. Together, forms of drawings and models serve as different viewpoints onto the same situation rather than exploring each idea in different media. These become redundant.
Most of my models are incremental as well; I normally start with only one part of a project, and over the course of the project the whole thing may get built. Or not. So I may never have “full models” representing a completed scenario. If a client wants the full project modelled, we commission it as a wholly different project, with its own parameters, because it is for a different purpose altogether. Such a model is not a thinking tool. Of course, sometimes a site does require you to make something that is comprehensive in its extents, to strategize a topography or a physical context. Then yes, you do go ahead and make studies that are appropriately bounded. But it is not a convention within my practice.
None of my tools in this sense, are consistent across projects. The idea is to use whatever is relevant to the context of the project, and the design investigation- that is what comes into play.
How do you see the drawing process to be efficient and what is the interface of other people working with you during this process? Do you share the process drawings and models along with your clients as well?
SR: One is very intentional in terms of when one is using what, the manner of drawing, the modes of investigations. Maybe if mine were a larger organizational setup, certain processes would have had to be streamlined, such that there isn’t too much back-and-forth and redundancies in terms of an employee or an associate. But when one is basically by oneself, the sequence is more adaptable. So as long as the project and its different aspects are being appropriately investigated and relevant questions keep arising to which you try to find solutions; and, at appropriate times in communicating with others, outside of your studio – clients, consultants, contractors or others you are working, designing and building with – as long as the drawings are made in a way that benefits that communication, there is an efficiency.
Since the last couple of years, in India, I have had one young graduate who works with me. I have not consciously devised any specific process to account for this addition. With Manthan (Mevada), who currently works with me, our discussions involve drawing together as we are thinking through a particular part of a project. So we have this big long tracing which I use to draw as I am talking, discussing, and if Manthan has some thoughts he would draw as well, on the same trace, sometimes over what I might have drawn, and vice versa. These become references for the specific task he might have following these discussions. This is significant because then I am not merely handing tasks off to another person; from the associate’s point of view, when he has to formalize or investigate something in further detail, he has been a witness, in a way, to how I am thinking. These meetings occur almost every day so that we are able to return to sketching, regardless of the stage within the design process. Even when I am not present in the studio in Ahmedabad, certain forms of technology allow for these discussions to continue. Teamviewer, WhatsApp Video and many of these are works in progress, of course; I cannot say which one works better, but if a technology is too bulky or requires more attention than the discussions at hand, we would rather seek an alternative. Regardless, this exchange and this witnessing, has proved helpful although I cannot speak in terms of efficiencies, yet. Striving for too much streamlining over all else does tend to iron out and flatten processes and you lose something in that. Thankfully, I have not hit that point as yet since, in terms of scales of operations, mine is a tight and intimate practice.
Gallery C: Downtown Aurora Visual Arts, Aurora, Colorado (USA); Planning, Design & Construction for a 10,000 sq ft Youth Arts Facility, 2015
How do you work on details? Do you sketch a lot of them or does it happen during the working drawing stage?
SR: Details are part of the conceptualizing; the detail sketch is a concept sketch as well. Growing up, I was not used to working with my hands (and I first became aware of this when I went to the United States). I did not know how to fix a tap, or that the type of screw one used to hang a painting on a wall depended on what the wall was made of, etc. It seems there was always somebody to do these things for you. So when I went to the States, a whole world of the do-it-yourself culture opened itself to me and I saw intelligence in people which as an architect I did not have. So there was this realization – that there is a joy, a pleasure and also an authenticity to know how something you are thinking about can be made, in terms of the possibilities. And although I do not believe in uncritically ascribing authenticity to the local or the vernacular, I have to be thinking of building as a culture. Therefore, the detail is part of every scale – it is not really an oscillation between scales. It also has to do with curiosity. Of how something is going to be built.
I have worked on projects where the first few sketches are detailed sketches; whether they are a plan detail of a module; or a window or a parapet detail, in anticipation of the amount of rain or moisture. You know that at some point you are going to have to encounter the rain or the sun or the dust. So you may as well work with it in the present.
Coming to India especially, the exterior of the building – how a building is going to age – has been a big preoccupation because our methods of building are very specific, as is our weather. In fact, I am still not entirely comfortable with this; on every project, one finds oneself asking, “How is this thing going to age gracefully?”, “Are the systems I work with going to be able to incorporate ageing, or is my client forever going to be burdened with maintaining the buildings, to keep them looking like new?” These kinds of questions invariably take you to a place where you are thinking about how things are going to come together.
That is the thing about the detail: philosophically, you can also make the case that the most interesting parts of architecture are when two disparate things come together. People have talked about the adoration of this joint- Kahn, Scarpa; the most interesting aspects architecturally are when things meet, not when things are by themselves. And so also in terms of the design process – when scales intersect, at any stage, there is richer ferment to think through.
Gallery D: Jharsuguda K-12 School, Orissa (India); Design & Construction of a campus for 1200 students, 2013
Do you think that students today are really losing touch on their ability to draw by hand?
SR: Perhaps as teachers we do not spend enough time with students with regards to what gets lost if you do not draw by hand; in other words, articulating what can be gained in drawing by hand. Students will gravitate to media they are familiar with in order to make sense of the world, thinking through it and expressing their thoughts. If someone has not grown up drawing, or if the act of drawing has always meant making pretty pictures – because that is how art is taught in schools – then proficiency in representation becomes a matter of making ever prettier pictures. And therefore, one would naturally choose the media one is most comfortable with, rather than take up something unfamiliar, such as drawing by hand.
When I encounter architecture students, I do not care if they can draw by hand or not. But the question I ask myself is whether I am creating an environment in the studio that uses characteristics of drawing by hand or what it can do- whether I am creating these opportunities so that they have to turn to a specific method (such as hand-drawing) because something else is, perhaps, taking too long or is too cumbersome at that point in the design development. And if you create situations where somebody has to investigate in a particular medium, then they take to it because there is a purpose. Often, I give time-bound charettes (design problems) where the focus is not necessarily on the media but the constraints of time create a condition where using a program to draw/model, getting a legible print-out and pinning-up the prints becomes too cumbersome. So in order to respond to the constraints in time, the students have to take recourse in drawing by hand; and doing it often enough in the studio develops their own ability to improve. You have to create constraints and conditions for them to draw. But yes, to answer your question, I do think it would be a loss if students do not have all the tools available to call upon – computer, hand-drawing, rapid prototyping in all sorts of media, overdrawing. If they have as many tools available, then the task is to open conditions where they are able to understand and are able to decide upon the appropriateness of each tool for a context.
I often think about a photographer, or an archaeologist, with their Safari jackets and a multitude of pockets with different lenses or brushes. Archaeologists have the most fascinating array of tools they carry around. Of course, they are not using all of them all the time, indiscriminately or because they feel like it! Depending on whether it is hard rock they encounter or sand, the tools they use to dig are specific to that material situation. It is similar, isn’t it- what are you excavating, what are you trying to think through? It would be too bad, wouldn’t it, if the archaeologist only had one tool, because that is the trendy tool right now?
A sense of scale and a certain tangibility associated with scales is also an issue. Of course, this has been talked about often, the inability of virtual environments to pin you to a particular scale; that you are often floating in a void, without a sense of gravity. There is this sense of disorientation that accompanies the zooming in and out without material consequence. But on the other hand, there is the possibility of certain kinds of rapid iterations and multiple variations. So the point about drawing by hand or with something else is really about having as many tools available to call upon in the development of a design and being able to make relevant choices.
Who would you say are your mentors and from whom did your attitude towards drawing develop?
SR: More than mentors, I will talk to you about drawings, and acts of drawing, that are now a part of my life and those that have made an impression on me over the years. Some of this we have already been through in previous questions. Some were for sheer pleasure; a play, really – somebody starts communicating with you through drawings and diagrams, you tend to want to reciprocate. Childhood was also a lot of comic books, books with illustrations, graphic novels. Comic books that contained very fine diagrams of aeroplanes and ships, like the Commando series. Curiously, we did a lot of Origami – which was a world of instructions through diagrams about paper folds and cuts (which I love, even now). Sometimes I feel we should do construction drawings that way – step by step instructions! I love IKEA drawings, very frugal but precise. No wonder that Billy bookcase gets made in spite of the woeful skill levels of the person putting it together.
I do not like drawings that obfuscate. Those that look complex, but are merely effectual — things put together to represent complexity picturesquely. There can be a lot of inauthenticity in drawings, and I have a great impatience with that. There was a period where drawings were made with a whole bunch of “regulating lines,” or urban studies with lines supposedly extending meaning from one point to another so that when you are finished with the drawings it resembles those Mikado games with a bunch of sticks scattered that you then end up having to pick up, one by one.
Diagramming, though, I was curious about. I loved old drawings of plants and animals, which were beautiful, carefully made and you could see that people were observing every minute little detail with a great degree of accuracy; you could sense that they were trying to understand the world around them.
During architecture school, I do not remember much around drawing; there were other things I remember learning. Most significant were the structural exercises where we had to build something which was tested until it failed. Those memories are etched in my brain, because, you could not escape. If your model failed, it failed. Often spectacularly and prematurely. It was the kind of accountability that my drawings could slip past (or so I felt). The structural models or the technical drawings of endless brick courses and intersections did not allow for these slippages and distractions, and for this, I remember them much more.
My father’s studio, in our third semester – here we talked about and worked with drawing differently. Learning about space-making through drawing. How shadows have a mass; and the physicality of drawing something really dark, with graphite or charcoal, and then to deduct from it with a kneaded eraser in order to find spaces, mould spaces. My father’s drawings or Kahn’s drawings — investigative, iterative drawings in charcoal and graphite — these are very dear to me. Corbusier’s, as well. But there is a familiarity here carried through from childhood, and I do not know how to distance myself from them as yet. So I have left them alone, for now; but they are always there, as part of my general milieu.
The drawings that significantly affected me, in opening up the possibilities of architectural drawings, how architects drew and perhaps thought, were those of Enric Miralles. In the early 90s, when I first encountered drawings of his early works done in collaboration with Carme Pinos, I felt I had seen something quite original. They were drawings that made me stop, and look at them. Initially, this was also because I was trying to make sense of them. But unlike certain other, perhaps, more celebrated drawings – say, Zaha Hadid’s drawings for the HK Peak Project – these ones I could not walk away from; they somehow held my attention. He seemed to be turning Corbusier’s Plan Libre inside-out. In his drawings, you did not quite know where a building ended and the landscape began; you could not quite comprehend boundaries and thresholds. The more you began studying his drawings, the more you began to realize that those were some of the conditions where his investigations were, which is why he was making these kinds of drawings. At that time, I was terribly attracted to such a style of drawing, to the extent that although my drawings were different, I would imitate his font style. Thankfully, this lasted about six months and soon one realized that you may imitate styles, but one cannot imitate another’s thinking.
I became familiar with the drawings of Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis (LTL), and the early drawings of Diller + Scofidio while at Cornell. In each case, instrumentality was front and centre — the instrumentation of drawings anticipating the mechanics of construction. It was not just about the function and use (of a drawing), but a certain kind of alchemy where there was a preoccupation of how things come together, and remarkably, there was a strong presence of the hand (and of making). They talk of slowing things down, erasing things and drawing over, traces. LTL has written about this form of “overdrawing”, an active exchange, a back-and-forth, between disparate mediums and methods. As a result, there is a lot of movement one can perceive in these drawings. This had a profound impact on me, especially because this was at a juncture where people were beginning to talk about the computer versus the hand, an argument that I have always found a little facile. Invariably, the hand-drawing camp tended to be a little more romantic about things yet tended towards abstraction, while people at the computer end of things tended to be more effectual, pursuing a kind of realism. So there were inherent contradictions between these camps. The drawings of LTL or D+S seemed to be able to disregard these binaries and were looking at ways of synthesis.
There has also been an appreciation of Glenn Murcutt’s drawings, specifically his construction drawings. The fact that his was a singular practice, and that the scale, pace and scope of his practice, and the manner in which he drew, was rooted in the body. It was framed by what he could do, personally. And this is where hand-drawing became very relevant to me, because it was an expression, not of production, but that his body was inhabiting his practice. That the drawings he made were somehow regulated by the limits of his body.
In all these cases, the drawing as an artefact is not so much a representation of thought but makes one a witness to acts of thinking and making. I learnt, in my post-Miralles obsession phase, that you could never draw like somebody else. When you do not know why you are drawing, you can end up imitating others; I have done so as well. Perhaps there is a notion that diligently imitating that which inspires you, you might imbibe something in the process. But that does not quite work, does it? Because there are so many layers of thinking and investigations, the way you ask questions within a context- you can never design, or think like somebody else and therefore you can never draw like them either. At best they can open up ways of thinking for you.
Gallery E: The Mutha School, Bangalore (India); Masterplan, design and construction of a K-10 Montessori school for 1200 students, 2018
As a teacher, do your methods permeate to your students as well?
SR: The one way I can create a robust environment in the studio is by sharing my methods with students. All my studios are structured in the way I think through a project. So on the one hand, they are projective exercises for the students, and on the other, a means for reflection for myself. We focus a great deal on what would be precursors to design – the way you observe, the way you map, the way you inhabit a context, the way you draw – these are structured very much in the way I work. I try to maintain that continuity between my practice and my studio. Students can bring out inconsistencies in you like nobody else, and in that my studios are testing grounds for everyone engaged with them. I do not generally put any specific restrictions on the media they use, but hints lie in the constraints, as we have spoken before. So most of my studios try to set the conditions for students to begin asking questions of relevance, in order to make appropriate choices for design investigations and be accountable. If some poetry emerges from this, good. But that is not the focus ♦
For Shubhra Raje, the act of drawing comes from an urge to think about design. This compulsion of expressing and investigating ideas through sketching on various mediums complements her constant process of moving between drawings and models. The simple monochrome plates reflect rigorous design explorations. For her, drawing is a tool that enables the design process.
‘Drawing to Find Out’ is a curated column on drawing in architecture and the techniques and ideas therein.
Shubhra Raje is an architect and educator who is the founder-principal of shubhra raje_built environments, an interdisciplinary design and research practice based out of Denver (USA) and Ahmedabad (India). The practice is involved in varied projects at various scales of architectural design, architectural conservation and interior design with some of the recent projects involving culturally and environmentally contested sites in the peri-urban neighbourhoods of Denver (USA), Abydos (Egypt), and Jharsuguda (Odisha).
Apart from designing buildings, Shubhra is engaged with education and civic concerns. Through teaching and being involved in community initiatives, Raje extends her practice to territories that need a combination of design thinking and activism. Her current initiatives include the ‘ReFresh Workshop’- a devised theatre workshop which explores the built environment through the culture of play. The work at Shubra’s studio looks closely at the context and reality of the place, developing an evaluated approach through constant and sustained dialogues between site, program and context.
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