digital speculations 


The plan, the section, and the axonometric are some of the few techniques of architectural representation. The discourse uses these techniques to convey process and product – ideas, and narratives.  Michael Meredith writes in One Thing Leads to Another about the shallowness that post-digital culture has revealed in these architectural representations. Image density is the norm on all digital platforms, and Meredith speaks from a position that questions its substance due to high quantity. This paper addresses the substance of architectural representation and categorizes it into two types of drawing – the diagrammatic and the speculative. By giving an in-depth analysis of what these two definitions mean, the paper will reveal that the speculative is what Meredith questions. The paper will then take a position that Meredith critiques the speculative from a diagrammatic stand point, when in fact, Speculative drawings should be read in a different manner, and the rise of their high quantity has only introduced new narratives not once voiced in a pre-digital culture.

In 1830, Joseph Michael Gandy produced a watercolor for English architect John Soane. The illustration would be referred as A Bird’s-eye view of the Bank of England. Departing from the architectural renders typical of the time, Gandy created a cutaway axonometric of the building resembling early technical cutaways done in the Renaissance. But what seemed different about the features in this image speculated more then the technical aspects of an interior space. The axonometric   seems skewed, and the building rests on a hill with no other context provided. Beams of light illuminate the painting with the sort of ambiance that could cause cutaway to be mistaken as a rendering of ruins – a futuristic vision of a past era, elevating this perceived ruin to the status of ancient Rome itself. As a speculative drawing, the image produced a new reality using light, shadow, and cutaway techniques.

Throughout the history of architectural discourse, architectural drawing has been defined loosely, as methods of drawing and communication evolve over time. Architectural drawing can be placed on a spectrum that further defines the type of architectural drawing an image is and what is being communicated. Diagrammatic drawing is at one end and speculative drawing at the other.

The diagrammatic drawing surveys the architect’s ideas. It works within the rules of the physical reality we all share – x, y, z axes. This rule allows those that read the diagrammatic drawing to understand the extensive detail revealed. Diagrammatic drawing communicates what the architect interprets as an addition to the familiar. Its schematics take no side in the fickle realities of politics, culture, or even the future.

If no stance here is taken, then, what diagrammatic drawings are communicating is the physical constructability of the architecture it represents. There is a need to be established as relevant in the present, rather than futuristic, even if what is being communicated has yet to be made a reality, as in shop drawings for upcoming projects. An example of diagrammatic drawing is the analytic diagrams of Peter Eisenman, especially the drawings for his House II project. Before the project was built in Vermont, Eisenman created a series of axonometric drawings that described certain instances of construction of the House II project.

The axons were drawn at a forty-five-degree angle, and the density of lines varied with the kind of walls, structures, or spaces being constructed within each axon. The drawings were black and white, with not even a hierarchy in its line weights. What was being communicated was not depth of space, but the construction of space through walls and columns. Even the drawings themselves are presented on the same piece of paper with clear boarders around each, suggesting to the viewer that this process is chronological. This method of ordering the drawings describes how the house should be put together. The process transcends scale: Eisenman later revealed that the house and its physical model should be identical. The drawings are diagrammatic because of the intention for space and thickness to be read in each axon.  Eisenman’s simplification of a space to just a series of lines following the three physical axes (x, y, z). This only adds to our understanding of the house’s presence and how it foreshadows the project’s constructability.

Diagrammatic drawings use the powerful method of emphasizing select visual qualities of a drawing while muting others. The axons of the House II project hosted no color, nor context- only line. Diagrammatic drawings can have color and could even have context. It’s not the technique alone that qualify what is diagrammatic, but how the architect creates a hierarchy in these techniques. Jean-Charles Huguet did a series of engravings of Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève by French architect Henri Labrouste. In the series of engravings is a detail of the iron structures in the building’s reading room. The structures are drawn in a plan view that organizes them as a list of parts. Annotations are provided with exploded orthographic drawings revealing certain joints and screws. The drawings are organized to communicate how some of these structures would be put together, like Eisenman’s drawings of construction process. The drawing is the main object on the page. How Huguet communicates these objects differs in certain techniques. The drawing is seen in plan, Huguet provides shadows, and even a scale towards the bottom of the page.  While Eisenman sets up the drawing like a series of film stills to be read from left to right, in the case of Huguet, the engravings are read like a construction manual. There is a hierarchy between drawing and annotation. 

Huguet realizes that sliding parts of Labrouste’s structure apart communicate its construction better than the annotations and therefore makes the annotations a lighter line weight and smaller than the drawing. The objects are given shadow to emphasize their presence on the page. 

In diagrammatic drawings, the clarity that comes from the calling out of certain features is its most prominent trait. There is clear bias in the drawing regarding what is most important to communicate. This bias is revealing a hierarchy in visual techniques. When the architectural drawing can communicate itself clearly, it becomes closer to the left (diagrammatic) end of the spectrum. Diagrammatic drawings use methods of representation to teach the reader its architecture.

On the right end of the spectrum lies speculative drawing, proposing to the reader its architecture and introducing methods of world building. The speculative drawing produces a conjecture of reality. It questions and proposes, rather than informs. It proposes new realities, and the only rule it abides by is time. Speculative drawings tend to be futuristic, and only give a referential frame of familiarity in the drawing. The focus of speculative drawing is the unfamiliar; the proposal. 

In 1980, Lebbeus Woods proposed a series of literature and etchings as a memorial to the life and work of Albert Einstein, entitled Einstein Tomb. The project was an addition to the Pamphlet Architecture series. The drawings encompassed Einstein’s distaste for memorials of reverence bound to Earth. Instead, Lebbeus Woods created a memorial that would be shot up into the deep unknowns of space, a memorial in trajectory to land on earth, but within sidereal time, making it impossible to be of any predictable relevance to a then extinct human race by the time such a piece of architecture reaches earth. The etchings are mysteriously beautiful, and the pure geometries crackle with strings in all directions.  The etching has depth, shadows, and lines, creating a clear understanding of the memorial’s form. What this drawing communicates is speculative. This series proposes a future – a reality where architectural technologies of man may surpass gravity to such an extent that they outlive man. Despite its incomprehensible timeline, Einstein Tomb retains a hint of familiarity as well, which is a primary trait in all speculative drawings. Investigation of the apparent abyss of the drawing reveals dwarf planets and distant stars hidden within the density of its lines. Space is the familiar in this drawing; it is the context given. But everything else in this series of drawings calls the unfamiliar into being, creating a world within worlds.




Neil Denari, Untitled. 1999. From Gyroscopic Horizons, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999.

Speculative drawings like Lebbeus Woods Einstein Tomb rely on hints, familiar portions in the drawing, that allow the viewer to become immersed in its reality. These subtle cues, not immediately apparent, make an architectural drawing speculative.  The images from Mike Foster Gage’s Residence in Gacé bridge the familiar and the unfamiliar. In the interior image of the residence are high-resolution fractal forms that scrape away at the volume. Even with the high density of these proposed living conditions is a couch, a bed, and a scaled human walking along the platform. These objects are familiar to the viewer, and Mike Foster Gage uses these clues to immerse the reader in his world, giving frame of reference and allowing the viewer to digest the reality that is proposed. 

Like diagrammatic drawings, speculative drawings have no definitive look or technique. Classification of architectural drawings based on technique causes a lack of ability to focus on what is being communicated. The spectrum from diagrammatic drawing to speculative drawing allows those that read the drawing to think critically about it and what it represents. The grey area of this spectrum also garners powerful perspectives and techniques in architectural drawing. No drawing is purely speculative or purely diagrammatic. The techniques architects use is considered with what is being communicated to decide a drawing’s place on the spectrum.

Neil Denari’s Gyroscopic Horizons is an example of a drawing that lies in the middle. The page orients itself along an unusual point of view, providing little to no context. The context that is given in the drawing is muted, including the surrounding buildings. The focus of the drawing then becomes the red buildings that embed themselves along the landscape.  Its diagrammatic elements create a hierarchy within the drawing, and its annotations of scale in the perspective drawing further emphasize rank. These same qualities of context and annotation familiarize the viewer to a site. Even though the site is not incredibly articulated, it contains noted buildings and even landscape. The horizon and its annotations are the familiar, connecting us to the unfamiliar – the proposal of these red embedments, the speculation of a future reality.

This spectrum and its analytical use are purely subjective in terms of what drawings are classified as diagrammatic or speculative. Each viewer reads architectural drawings differently. What is found to be speculative in this text, might appear as diagrammatic to some, and vice versa. So then, what is the benefit of this system of classification? What reason do we have to use this method of analysis when viewing an architectural drawing? What relevance would these definitions have in an era where millions of images are produced and curated a day? Michael Meredith critiques that curation in One Thing Leads to Another. In a post-digital era where the internet of things provides an unlimited source of data, the architectural drawing has an increased presence. The curation of such drawings is not a sudden phenomenon. 

In an earlier example, A Bird’s-eye view of the Bank of England is a speculative drawing commissioned to Joseph Michael Gandy. At the time, architectural renderings were commissioned by an architect, government, or even a church. In this case, it was commissioned by the architect John Soane. Most of the time, these commissions lasted longer than the architecture itself, providing significance to historians. Over time, the lifespan of the architectural rendering compared to the lifespan of the architecture itself would influence curation.


As architectural drawing developed, the drawing became the architecture – the proposal. By the 1970’s and 80’s, the architectural drawing was curated not only by historians, but by museum curators.  Something was shifting, the architectural drawing was being exposed to the masses. The Max Protetch gallery is a prime example of the scale at which this curation grew. Architecture was being valued as art. Elevation drawings from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater House were now curated and sold for $200,000.  This would not be the end of this extent of architectural curation. Architectural drawings acted as critical footnotes when categorizing architectural phenomena and movements – such as The Museum of Modern Art’s Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition curated in 1988.

The early commissioned renderings by artists and the increased presence of architecture in galleries are forms of curation. How an architectural drawing is read – as speculative or as diagrammatic – effects its curation. In the case of The Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition, the architectural drawings were viewed as speculative work. This resulted in a collection of well-known architects being exhibited, so that the curation could exemplify what was being speculated. When compared to widely known work, the proposal of this new architecture became even more apparent.

Curation now takes place on the internet. Michael Meredith writes on the curation by agencies such as Tumblr, Flickr, Google, Instagram, and so on. At this point, there is no commissioner; there is no museum curator. There is an algorithm.  If the way one reads an architectural drawing is a subjective analysis along the spectrum of diagrammatic or speculative, then these algorithms is perhaps the closest thing to objectivity human-kind has produced. More architectural drawings are being produced – speculative ones, in fact. Unlike Gandy’s Bird’s-eye view of the Bank of England, or Max Protetch gallery, architectural drawings can now be produced and presented to the masses at any scale. There is no human analysis on what these drawings are proposing – causing no categorization. These drawings float along the web and appear among general searches for our consumption.

For decades, architectural drawing – speculative or diagrammatic – was curated based largely upon its place on this spectrum. But if the analysis of an architectural drawing is truly subjective, then how it is curated must be as well.  The internet and its social media platforms allow people of all backgrounds to speculate many different futures. Historical curation is no longer the only hub of architectural drawing available for viewing. This comes with a catch of course; some imagery becoming more valued then others. Meredith describes this as “clubs,” with some being advertised by the internet more than others. Unlike Max Protech gallery, this is a gallery with varied room sizes. This may seem like a discouraging factor, But the increase of speculative drawing reveals a general analysis of the differences and similarities human-kind share for the future. Meredith critiques the architectural drawing and what they communicate, rather than critiquing why some futures seem to have larger clubs then others.

Meredith writes that the widespread culture of collecting and curating is a defining factor of ourselves in the era of imagery. If this is the case, then the internet provides itself as a platform for all spectrums of people and diversifies the collective futures that are being proposed. The internet has little to no human element in what is shown on our screens. It only reflects our own desires in these speculative drawings. 

To critique this platform, it must be from a speculative standpoint distinguishing why we like certain futures more than others, rather than diagrammatic standpoint, that evaluates the aesthetics and communication of these drawings. The platform of the internet gives no hierarchy in this regard. To see the collection of drawings as a stockpile without understanding the vocabulary of these drawings diminishes the value of the collection and hinders our progress towards diversifying what has been curated throughout the years.