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Plein air in the digital age
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Plein air in the digital age

Posted 21.06.2018
By Gwyn Roberts

In my hallway hangs a watercolour drawing of the Roman city of Chester by Sir Donald Insall, founder of the conservation led architectural practice I work for. The unfinished brushstrokes, the wobbly inked lines and smudged watercolours evoke a sense of nostalgia; by means of the fragmented painting emulating the fragmented nature of ancient buildings.

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Parlement, coucher du soleil - Claude Monet

Sir Donald explains how he paints in the Impressionist style plein air, which is the French expression for “in the open air”. The paintings of Claude Monet, currently on display at the Monet & Architecture exhibition in The National Gallery (9 April – 29 July 2018), capture these moments of light and its changing, ephemeral qualities.

In the essay ‘Hapticity and Time – Notes on a fragile architecture’, architectural theorist Juhani Pallasmaa describes how ‘matter and decay strengthen the experience of time, causality and reality’. In the same way, Sir Donald’s “fragile” portrayal of ‘matter and decay’ invites tangible audience participation – this is the mover of its success. By contrast, my go-to digital designing tools have an aptitude for “realism”, which skips the “fragile” beauty of hand drawings, favouring to automate audience participation into an intangible idea of perfection instead. Both styles have merit in their own right.

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Sir Donald Insall’s “fragile” painting of the Temple of Poseidon
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Photo-realistic render portraying “realism”

Zaha Hadid progressed the plein air ethos of being in the moment by creating evocative atmospheres which were used as a tool for designing new buildings. The Peak, painted in 1982-83 progressed further into a virtual environment in 2017 at the exhibition ‘Zaha Hadid: Early Paintings and Drawings’. Audiences gained a ‘new insight and an intriguing continuity and expansion of the painting works and their vitality’.

Whilst virtual environments invite audience participation, the value of that participation must not be forgotten. Value does not solely lie in processes and techniques, but in the perception of people we design and build for.

A degree of critical thinking is therefore required so that we utilise digital technology to firstly understand our built environment and then communicate this knowledge within our proposals. This can inform design development within a digital environment so that analysis and ideas are distilled into reality. Hybrid Modelling offers a way to combine illustrative styles to describe what’s fixed and what is not in a design to provoke thought and reflection – not quite plein air à la the French Impressionists, but a way of immersing audiences within evocative atmospheres’.

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Hybrid Model sketch combining 3D CAD models and hand drawing

Instagram: gwyn_arch

Twitter: gwyn_arch

Email: gwyn.roberts@insall-architects.co.uk

Image 4: ArtStation

This post forms part of our series on The Architecture Drawing Prize: an open drawing competition curated by Make, WAF and Sir John Soane’s Museum to highlight the importance of drawing in architecture. The next round of the competition will launch in July 2018.