Human Figure as a Cultural Mediator in Architectural Drawings

Human Figure as a Cultural Mediator in Architectural Drawings

Fabio Colonnese (Sapienza University of Rome, Italy)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 40
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1744-3.ch004
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In architectural drawings, human figures generally express the scale of design space. Their presence is supposed to be a sign of a particular sensibility toward human scale and needs and over the centuries, figures were capable of playing a number of different cultural roles. From the anthropomorphic attitudes of Renaissance architects to the Functionalists' diagrams, human figures have illustrated and mediated the cultural development of human environment. Even if architects maliciously used them to convey layered meanings into their architectural renderings, they are an implicit index of different ideas about men and women and express architects' ideological positions toward society often beyond their intents. This paper analyzes the use of human figures in architectural designs with a particular attention to the twentieth century, to the passage from the mechanical to the digital age, in which the diffusion of cut-and-paste procedure is changing and enhancing their use in the globalized architecture.
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According to Quinan (1993), who had been informed by the Taliesin Fellow Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer,

… sometime during 1958, Wright prepared a series of large-scale perspective drawings to demonstrate to the board of trustees of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum how the ramps and walls of the museum would accommodate paintings of various sizes. In one, ‘The Masterpiece’, a small girl leans on the interior parapet wall and looks down into the rotunda space. Moments before meeting with the trustees, Wright took out his pencil and deftly added the yo-yo that hangs from the girl's hand, saying to his apprentices, ‘Boys, we must never lose sight of our sense of humor.’ Indeed, Wright would need a sense of humor to see this project through. (Quinan, 1993, p. 466)

Thus, the yo-yo dangling from a bored child’s hand would be a small ironic touch to the draftsman’s work. But it is not so easy. On December 29, 2012, in the Save Wright chat, the sense of this particular figure was deeply discussed related to the adults admiring a large abstract picture, properly ‘The Masterpiece’. According to JimM:

Wright is showing a child bored with the ‘masterpiece’, while the adults solemnly and dutifully ponder its (in)significance”, as “looking into the rotunda was more rewarding than viewing the silly art. (“Guggenheim,” 2012)

Some hours later, Peterm interpreted,

… the girl with the yo-yo as a reminder of the democratic nature of this particular museum … If Wright were really critiquing the art that the adults are contemplating, why would he make it his own brand of art? (“Guggenheim,” 2012)

Later, SDR questioned why,

… the art shown in the Wright illustration (none of it in his hand?) seems a cross between Kandinsky and Wright’s own sort of abstraction, published in the previous decades? … Would he have been (secretly) delighted by the work of the early Suprematists and Constructivists, and (later) Klee, Arp, etc.? (“Guggenheim,” 2012)

This little story is an exquisite example of not only the numerous possibilities of interpreting a human figure with regard of space and details, but also of the unpredictable cultural role of visual accessories, human figures in particular, in adding layered and subtle meanings to architectural drawings. A careful use of human figures in architectural representations has remote origins. For example, in the representation of villas, gardens, and rural estates from the sixteenth and eighteenth century, which were so strategic to establish the social prestige of their owners and commitments, human figures use to play an important role in conveying the viewers’ perception of space and direct their gaze to specific features.

“In certain images, the property owner appears in the foreground positioned on an elevated vantage point that may or may not have existed in reality (…), frequently accompanied by people or artifacts that underscore their elite status” also through their clothing, “postures and gestures codified in theatre, etiquette manuals, and treatise on the visual arts” (Harris & Hays, 2008, pp. 29-30).

In architectural drawings, human figures are conventionally used to visually express the use of space and the size of architectural components, but in the context of architecture design, their presence can be interpreted in many ways, depending on the design level, the scale of reduction, and the objectives of the representation itself. Their presence in architecture designs is supposed to be a symptom of a particular sensibility toward human scale and needs, but during centuries, they have been playing a number of roles not only according to the kinds of representation but to the different idea about man.

The second part of this chapter describes the relationship between human body and architectural body from Early Modern to Modern Age up to Ernst Neufert’s design of an ideal man for the Modern(ist) world. Over these five centuries, architects produced not only both anthropomorphic and anthropometric architecture, but also attributed different roles to human figure in architectural drawings.

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