Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
What can the little scale figures in architectural renderings tell us about design and culture? Two architects compiled more than 1,000 of them to find out.
Weighing in at 1,256 pages, An Unfinished Encyclopedia of Scale Figures without Architecture (MIT Press) would seem to be the final word on its subject: “scalies,” those little people who occupy the fantastical world of architectural renderings, climbing atrium escalators or picnicking in courtyard plazas or simply looking happy to be somewhere. Yet according to Hilary Sample of MOS Architects—who compiled the book with her MOS co-founder, Michael Meredith—it is at best a first draft, and one that raises questions about people and architecture, some of them dark.
An Unfinished Encyclopedia includes more than 1,000 scale figures by 250-odd designers, presented in alphabetical order, from A(alto) to Z(umthor). Some are so beautifully drawn or irreverently realized that the buildings become almost afterthoughts. Others are grubby squiggles plucked from their Modernist machines for living. (While people in design drawings today seem to always be marching to or from brunch, that’s hardly been the case through history.)
CityLab spoke with Sample about timeless drawing styles, social justice in architectural rendering–land, and what makes a book pop.
Can you talk about the inspiration for this project? Whose drawings were you looking at that led you to say, “That’s it, we need to dive deep into the issue of scale figures”?
More or less, it came together around an invitation that we received from Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina to participate in the Istanbul Design Biennial [in 2016] that they were working on, about the human figure and how we think about that today. How we think about being human or not being human in relation to contemporary or modern times. For that project, we ended up making a curtain that we called the Selfie Curtain. It was very long, 150 feet long or something, [and] we put all these scale figures on [it]. To accompany that, we made what we were calling an unfinished encyclopedia.
The long and short of it is: We’re always drawing. It’s what we do in the office. It’s what we’ve always done, even as students. The scale figure is usually the last thing that comes into an architect’s drawing. Or traditionally, that’s the way it’s been thought of. In this case, we started by looking at canonical works and those architects that have been in the canon. Until recently—the canon is being redefined as we speak. We effectively removed all the architecture from these drawings and were left with the figure. We did that for a series of architects and never stopped. It became a project, and then it became the book.
Is this really an architecture project?
As [teachers] but also as [architects], we’re always concerned with drawing buildings. But as much as we draw buildings, we also draw people. Or we should be. Not all architects include [people] in their drawings, which is something we came upon. This question of how you represent who goes into your architecture is important.
Did you come away with favorites? This is a different way of looking at designers whose work we know or love. Did your impressions of any architects change?
Those are two questions. Yes to both of them. My most favorite would be [Brazilian Modernist architect] Lina Bo Bardi’s figures. They’re just incredibly beautifully drawn. They’re also artistic. I think they’re unlike any of the other figures, perhaps, in the book.
I think we came up with a set of categories that we saw and categories that were not there. I don’t think we’re done, as a collective. We all have room to improve in our drawings. How we reflect upon the buildings we make, what happens in them, what projections we make onto them in terms of future use, how we imagine them being used—our responsibilities are as much about the reality of what we make as the imaginary. The figures in the book reflect those things.
There is also a set of things we knew going into it that were only reinforced by what we found. For instance, there are many more male figures drawn. There are reflections of women drawn in skirts and holding purses, things that are more stereotypical and reflective of architecture as a much more male-driven, patriarchal profession. Those tropes have only been reinforced through the drawings. Or things that are economic or class-driven. When we’re drawing something, we need to be mindful of who we’re drawing and what we’re reflecting. There has been a history of inequity reflected in the figure of the drawing.
You included some of your own drawings. Did you learn about your style by doing this project?
We’re always questioning drawing and our relation to it as architects. Moving beyond what has been, let’s say, the post-parametric way. How to reinsert the figure, which has been largely left out of that recent style. How to reintroduce the scale figure. Often, as we look through the figures over time, these figures were largely not human. They didn’t have eyes, or they didn’t have mouths, or they never sat down. For us, showing that somebody might be tired, or the maintenance worker—we really try to represent a certain set of qualities that are consistent in each project, and to be inclusive.
Some of these figures you selected stand out, and maybe it’s just in isolation, as examples of social critique.
As a teacher, and teaching at Columbia at the graduate school [the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation], we have one of the world’s best architecture libraries, Avery [the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library]. In spending time at the library and the special collections, looking firsthand at different architects’ drawings, looking at drawings, let’s say, from the Lincoln Center—where, clearly, these are all white patrons. But the figures are drawn more transparent to reflect the new Modern architecture, where the glass walls are transparent. Yet [the segregation is] not transparent. These drawings are done in ‘66, before the Civil Rights Act. If you don’t think really carefully about the history of the time and drawing, they can be misread, and all these things can be read into it that are fundamentally untrue.
That to me became very interesting in the process of looking at the drawings. Max Bond, an African-American architect, did a project with Harlem and the community in the East Harlem Triangle. All of the drawings are of black figures. It’s one of the rare examples where we see an accurate reflection of a certain group.
Thinking about inclusivity and your own work, I notice that figures in your drawings have jobs. You have drawings of public-works personnel doing clean-up, for example.
I wrote a book, separate from this, called Maintenance Architecture. It’s a little bit inspired by Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969! How do we as architects take on that subject of maintenance? It’s not usually discussed. It’s cast aside as [more of] a technological or technical issue left to specifications than it is a discussion about art and aesthetics. I argue there that you can’t have art and aesthetics without that. Through the scale figure, we can get to some of those conversations.
I wondered about conversations that you had about craft when you were compiling this book. Some of the styles you see here have disappeared. The Brodski and Utkin drawings, or Massimo Scolari’s drawings, they look like works of art themselves.
There’s a huge range. The book definitely will reflect a range of experiments and thoughts around architecture and what’s happening at the time, but also its relationship with art. Thinking about the architect as an artist, or are they more of a technocrat, or are they a service person? It really is a reflection, on many levels, and an argument for what embodies an architect.
For sure, it’s a reflection of our tools, in our ways of working, whether that’s through painting, and architects aligning themselves more with the figure of an artist and using the techniques of an artist, or being more in relation to technological advances and automation. There’s a history here of new technologies as they came about, like Xerox copies or the fax machine or Photoshop. There’s a whole set of digital technologies that come about. There’s the removal of the author, to some degree.
You’ve talked about different technologies, from photocopies to computer-assisted drawing to post-parametric design. Did you ever think about organizing this, instead of alphabetically by architect, according to technological shifts or styles?
We wanted to not do that because it would produce something that was more chronological. We quite like the idea of the contrast and opposition, the tension, as you flip through the book, to see the variety of styles, techniques, methods, thinking, from one to the other. There’s not an order that you’re left to explore.
What also becomes very apparent is that not every architect has just one way of drawing a figure. That was also something very revealing, to see a change, particularly for an architect who has had a longer career—to see potential shifts in that, or those who stayed very true to their figures. Those were things that we discovered that kept us returning to the encyclopedia [format].
On one hand, too, Michael and I, growing up when we did and going to school when we did, really before computers, we just also really like encyclopedias. They’re hard to make and coordinate. Convincing a publisher to publish this—we fought for it. Even the maintenance of the book itself, in trying to have the silvery color on the sides [of the pages], so it doesn’t get dirty over time, it’s akin to the gold on top of books to keep dust from accumulating on the pages. We tried to think about the book at all scales and levels of use and interaction.
Can you describe any discoveries that came with a scalie in the book?
One of the things we uncovered with [Irish-born Modernist designer] Eileen Gray, in talking with [Irish architectural critic] Raymond Ryan, is that the figures were actually her contractor and his wife. She had asked them to pose for these photographs, and they dressed up to look more like Hollywood characters, if I’m not mistaken. At first we weren’t really sure. Ray said, let’s call Jennifer Goff, an Irish historian who has spent her life working on Eileen Gray—let’s call her and ask her. She came back with information. We hope there are many other stories like that could come out of this book, histories that are lost or not fully recorded.
Jimenez Lai [Bureau Spectacular] has these super funny, all-over-the-place drawings. Cero9 [Cristina Díaz Moreno & Efrén Garcia Grinda] draws figures that are mysterious or silly. Ant Farm shows John Lennon and Yoko Ono naked in one rendering. Looking at practicing architects, what is the state of the figure right now?
There are a variety of techniques, styles, maybe even camps right now. We talk a lot about how architecture has a lot of different thinking and different groups focused on different aspects of the built environment. We’re not all necessarily working toward the same end. I think the figure could be one place where those conversations start to come together. I would say, more in our generation and certainly among students coming up: They are interested in figures. We’re not in a moment where people are drawing without figures. We’re seeing much more diversity in the figures and more inclusivity than not.
You obviously can’t include every architect, but you do have a mind to the canon. How do you balance the tension between wanting to make it reflective of the history of architecture and also recognizing that the history of architecture excludes people?
That was definitely a struggle. Meeting students who are studying architecture for the first time, it’s important to [talk about] how you find your way into architecture. For us, there’s been a canon, but that canon is changing. We didn’t make this just a history of contemporary figures. It’s important to reflect on that [history], not erase it. Some of the figures from the past that were the first to reflect on difference, or not drawing the same old things, help those things stand out.
It further emphasizes that we should always be thinking about what we’re drawing, even if it’s just the figure, which may seem like it’s not that important compared to the building. That’s what was exciting to us: An encyclopedia should have that kind of tension. Different kinds of people are going to come to the book and look at it—some for the canon, some for the contemporary figure—and learn about the other. There’s a lot in it that we wanted to include: politics, economics, cultural shifts, the good and the bad, it’s all in there.