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Why Bother with Drawing?

"The only reason we need architects is because they know how to draw."
(Andrés Duany)

"How much painting contributes to the honest pleasures of the mind, and to the beauty of things, may be seen in various ways but especially in the fact that you will find nothing so precious which association with painting does not render far more valuable and highly prized."
(Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting, II, 25)

Victor Deupi, Piazza Pio II, Pienza (12/7/03), pencil and watercolor, 23 x 31 cm.

"You know this is a dangerous place," or so that is what a Dutch architect told me as we sat together in the Piazza Pio II in Pienza on a beautiful summer morning in July of 2002, drawing the Palazzo Piccolomini opposite us. Already aware that I was an architect and a teacher of architecture, he assumed that I would naturally agree. "You see," he said, "when the average person is faced with something as seductive as this it makes it difficult for him or her to appreciate any other kind of architecture."

Clearly, the architect was referring to the more abstract and cerebral aspects of modernist building -- the kind he undoubtedly preferred but the "average person" found too difficult to comprehend. For whatever reason, the Piazza Pio II held a profound grasp on the public's appetite for simple recollection and admiration, sentiments the architect secretly desired that the more progressive trends of contemporary architecture should command but somehow failed to achieve, especially at the scale of mass tourism.

"It's fine to focus on the more abstract qualities of the building -- its grids and rational structure -- but the classical language and decorative details distract the viewer from the more important aspects of the building," he added.

At this point, I felt I should respond intelligently, but I became suddenly disinterested by his provocation as the morning light swept across the facades of the Cathedral and adjacent Palazzo Piccolomini, providing me with a rare opportunity of aesthetic satisfaction -- a joy Stendahl could only describe as the promise of beauty. And so I politely excused myself from the discussion by suggesting that maybe the danger posed by the Piazza Pio II was really a threat to certain architects only, and that perhaps given the state of contemporary architecture that was not such a bad thing after all. I returned to my palette and brush and quickly immersed myself in the joys of color, light, form, texture, detail and the sense of sublime grandeur that stood opposite me, and wondered "if this place is truly dangerous, then may its power impress upon me a pleasure that is all-consuming."

Meanwhile, the Dutch architect returned to his black pen and sketchpad and started drawing reduced, three-dimensional grids on a blank white background.

I mention the previous story not only to highlight how certain modernist architects typically approach the study of the past, but also to point out the enormous gap that continues to exist between form and content. Far too many architects proceed from the assumption that practice (that which signifies) is subordinate to theory (that which is signified), that architectural form is simply the vehicle for conveying meaning in the built environment, and that the unity of the two very much favors the latter. It is the intention of my watercolor paintings to reject this assumption, and to deal instead with the question of how form and content can be continuous with one another. My Roman friend Taeho Paik notes that,

"[W]e record what we would like to remember. Painting or drawing by hand is a form of selective study of something that has attracted us in some powerful way. Otherwise it would be difficult to maintain the necessary concentration. It's a process of ingesting a physical reality into one's mind and spirit by performing the act of its transcription using bodily means. And because of this the process of study becomes intensely personal. Memory and understanding fuse organically. Through its representation, an intimacy is created between the artist and the object of his study. Art in this sense can only be seen as an act of faith."

Drawing and painting allow me to consider how the modern project can be understood as the struggle that every generation faces in structuring the present in light of an increasingly distant past and indeterminate future. It is a search for continuity between form and subject matter. Nowhere is this more significantly evident than in the context of Italian cities, buildings, monuments and landscapes. And that is why I bother with drawing.

Victor Deupi is currently an Assistant Professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame. His exhibition, "The Promise of Beauty: An Architect's Tour of Italy" is online at