by Kelsey Willis
In a field so dominated by precision, a field of carefully drafted lines and measured angles, there seems little room for moments of sudden inspiration. While two-dimensional artists can express their ideas instantaneously, architects are restricted by their process, often going through days and weeks of planning to execute one idea.
The impressionist movement of the 1800s and 1900s reflects this distinction: painters like Claude Monet and Henri Matisse used bold colors and lines, painted rapidly and often on-site, to represent their “impressions” of a specific moment. Quick sketches are a familiar and important part of many architects’ processes, they are only a very early step in a much longer course of design. However, Monet’s quickly executed impressions are the finished product; over the course of his life, he produced at least twenty-five paintings of the same haystacks in different seasons and conditions. Incredibly, each of these paintings, produced so rapidly, is now worth millions of dollars. The role of an architect, on the other hand, is not to capture a moment but to produce a physical object, a vessel, in a sense, for many “moments”. While Matisse or Monet took it upon themselves to capture through paint a multifaceted understanding of the same scene, painting it many times in many manners, they were free to experiment and elaborate at will, unbound by the literal constraints of construction. Of course, not all architectural designs are built, or are even intended to be built, but the theory behind them is still, ultimately, physicality. Because of this, it’s impractical to expect such temporality in architectural designs. Instead of preserving a specific moment in time, architecture is generally intended to last through time. It itself becomes a platform for the unpredictably of real life. This creates an interesting irony: architects design for spontaneity, using an extremely non-spontaneous process.
The growth of the “urban sketching” movement, with a surprisingly strong self-contained culture and an international following, is a testament to the appeal of this approach. Many practicing architects are active advocates, finding the constant activity of the city, the juxtaposition between fixed buildings and dynamic people, appealing.
The popularity of urban sketching, sitting in a public place and recording things as they are seen in the moment, seems to be the modern architect’s answer to the impressionist artists of eras before.
Within the vibrancy of a city, armed with a sketchbook and pen, a designer can explore the way people interact with their built environments, allowing their unexpected activity to inform his own choices in the office.
For many architects and designers, though, a concept still does begin with a simple sketch, hearkening back to the free-flowing ideas of the impressionists. Countless stacks of sketchbooks, papers, and, yes, cocktail napkins in offices around the world are confirmation that there is still some room for flashes of inspiration, for changes in the moment based on what is seen or imagined.
“See the fatal order that puts all these objects in rapport with each other… it’s a mathematically arranged composition; there’s no wrong placement, no hiatus, no deception. If a clear-headed Hollywood filmmaker was there, turning this still life into something we see up close, we would bear witness to pure harmony.”
Le Corbusier, for one, was himself a devoted sketcher. He describes sketching a process of “mental fermentation”, allowing him to explore ideas as they show up. Looking at a table setting, he wrote of the process, For him, such glimpses of the world were worthwhile, a source of inspiration and clarity, used to inform his later, more specifically architectural ideas.
While cities are structured on plans, layers upon layers of grids and structures and connectors intended to direct human traffic and predict the way people move from place to place, humans manage to defy every element of this structure, acting upon their own sense of spontaneity. The fascination seems to be drawn from this phenomenon: As urban environments become ever more complex and populated, the ability to predict this activity and design for it becomes ever more difficult as well.
Though few contemporary architects would likely declare the impressionist masters to be major sources of inspiration in their work, it’s difficult to deny the appeal of their unplanned approach. No matter how precisely geometric the design of a structure, an architect must understand the unpredictably of the world and the people who occupy it, and, hopefully, come to embrace that sense of unpredictably in their own work.