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Bringing design to life through drawing at Foster+Partners

In conversation with Narinder Sagoo
Architect by training but artist by heart, Narinder Sagoo, Art Director and Senior Partner at Foster + Partners discusses the core aspects of drawing and sketching.

by Mrinalini GhadiokPublished on : Jun 04, 2019

Have you ever just closed your eyes holding a pencil to paper? You must try it. Pull away slowly and you will feel the semblance of the graphite melt into the embrace of its open-armed partner, or, your hand might drag its weight as the stubborn metallic head resists against the fine ridges of its perpetrator. The delicate purr of a soft lead stands in deep contrast to the deafening screech of a hardened nib; but either way, they both leave their mark in manners unforgiving.

“Drawing”, he says, “was in a way a form of escapism for me – a way of exploring the world.” I believe it still is.

I am in conversation with an artist and trained architect, whose expression is most lucid through drawing, who began his career at giving form to the thoughts of others, and who is now seeking to fill a single position in his very coveted team for a studio that is world renowned and applications to which crossed 25,000 last year. I am speaking with Narinder Sagoo, Partner with Foster + Partners, in London.

Sagoo is energetic and enthused and the first thing he expresses is gratitude for this opportunity to connect ‘back home’ and inspire people here in India. A part of me wonders – do you really not know how much of an inspiration you already are? I have been following his work online and have been struck by his clarity, attention to detail, understanding and agility to depict the unreal so realistically. The skill, I imagine would have been passed through generations of artists.

  • Rome site visit 1996, Leeds Architecture School Image Credit: Narinder Sagoo
    Bartlett School of Architecture Image Credit: Narinder Sagoo

What I learn is a tad different – born and brought up in northern England, Sagoo comes from a traditional Sikh family in Leeds. His early years were spent in the vicinity of close family and friends, not travelling too far from home. But his imagination would not be sequestered as he took pen to paper and drawing became his vehicle to explore.

“Drawing became in a way a form of escapism for me. It became a way to connect, see dreams, see the world and record it,” he says. Sagoo would draw his grandmother as she cooked; his grandfather, a carpenter as he tinkered with his tools; his father, a metal worker as he built forms; and all the apparatus and equipment that he was surrounded and rather captivated by. He adds candidly, “So, my passion for drawing started as early as I can remember, perhaps at the same time as my passion for making. The two were inseparable. And while it allowed me to have fun, the discipline of drawing fascinated me. I really enjoyed the dance between the pen or pencil and paper. And when I draw now I still try to reconnect with that childhood curiosity that I felt then.”

Sagoo’s inquisition took him on a long, illustrated journey - from a young boy who drew out Maths, Chemistry and Physics lessons in school (for that was the only way for him to understand the subjects), drew his way through architectural studies in Leeds and then found a placement at Foster + Partners before heading to The Bartlett at UCL for a Master’s degree.

Sagoo was soon back doing what he loved most – drawing. The pre-computer-graphic-era had him draw free-hand perspectives for nearly all the projects in the studio. The sheer passion for what he did, also shared by Lord Foster himself, became the catalyst for a fond friendship. 22 years later, Sagoo is still behind that desk but now backed by a team of almost 20 people. A diverse group of drawing enthusiasts hailing from architecture, interior design, automotive design and some, not from design at all, work together to illustrate and bring to life the projects in the studio, unscrambling complex, often scientific as well as creative stories into simple drawings.

  • Rome site visit 1996, Leeds Architecture School ImageCredit: Narinder Sagoo
  • Bartlett School of Architecture Image Credit: Narinder Sagoo
  • West Kowloon City Park 2010 Image Credit: Narinder Sagoo / Foster + Partners
  • West Kowloon City Park 2010 Image Credit: Narinder Sagoo / Foster + Partners
  • West Kowloon City Park 2010 Image Credit: Narinder Sagoo / Foster + Partners
  • Dharavi Masterplan Image Credit: Narinder Sagoo / Foster + Partners

Sagoo tells me with a shy honesty, “I still remember my first day here. And every day after that has been as exciting.” I learn that in this time he has made over 15,000 drawings professionally (and I can not even begin to imagine how many more outside of his workplace). Yet he claims that he is happy with probably just a few! Though this is not something that saddens him, instead he is exhilarated. He sees it as a learning process, where one has to do something more than 10,000 times to get good at it. I would say that he is pretty darn good already; but he just says, “It has taken me a long time to get so comfortable with drawing with various tools. I now can draw in any environment and with anyone around, but what is of essence is that I still reconnect with that childhood freedom of making marks on paper.”

I am taken by Sagoo’s fascination for the discipline required to draw, and the discipline with which he practices. Diligently and rather patiently working to master the art, I assume the repertoire at hand is not just large but immensely diverse. To this Sagoo responds quite flatly, “For almost a decade, I drew with the same kind of pen on the same kind of tracing paper because I was learning the language of drawing!” I have to admit, I am taken aback by this seemingly ascetic approach, but I learn soon that the process enabled many more inquiries of a different kind. “Instinctively, I have a tireless pursuit of new ways of doing things, seeing things, and beyond those 10,000 drawings, I started to explore many different things with my team,” says Sagoo. He realised the delicateness as well as the relevance of each of the ingredients that go into making a drawing – be it the tool, the surface, the mood or even the requirement. While a quick sketch would best be achieved with a roller ball pen that glides swiftly, a felt-tip, on the other hand, would slow not only his movement but also thoughts, permitting deeper care and detail to be infiltrated into the illustration. If the paper were crisp, it would invite careful consideration of making marks, whereas a roll of cheap tracing paper would enjoy a carefree, perhaps even careless demeanour.

  • Sketching in the notebook Image Credit: Narinder Sagoo
  • Sketching in the notebook Image Credit: Narinder Sagoo

“I realised then that I could exercise speed, details and various tempos in drawing, respective to the story we are telling,” explains Sagoo. “This is why I relate drawing to language – if I was having a brief chat with someone, I could storyboard that conversation and draw it in quick thumbnails. If we had a very long, detailed conversation, that for me would be the equivalent of a larger sheet of paper that slows me down, allows me to deliberate and detail more.” I can relate fairly well having dabbled in the realm of art over the years, but what strikes home is the speed of transference of thought. Long, lingering ideas that demand to be articulated at leisure will always find their medium in handwritten notes, preferably in fluid ink or graphite; while cold precision that is arduous and concise can only be achieved through a meticulously choreographed dance on perfectly positioned keys attached to a luminous screen. What effects my practice and I am curious to know if it does Sagoo’s, is the rhythm of the work. I am pleased to hear, “I often listen to music while drawing. If I have very little time and want to control pressure, I will listen to something that slows down my tempo. If I want to draw faster, I increase the tempo of the music.” Exchanging notes on favourites, Sagoo turns out to have quite diverse interests, ranging from Talvin Singh to Zakir Hussain, Chopin to Maria Callas, Philip Glass to movie scores, and even the occasional Metallica thrown in. Since my work predominantly involves weaving words, I usually stick to lyric-less harmonies.

Having trained as an architect and working in an architectural practice, Sagoo’s primary role is actually drawing, and he uses this as the most effective means to communicate. He believes that architects tend to get too close to their architecture and the process of design. “What I bring to that process, which is of a huge benefit and quite unique within the profession is the idea of beginning with drawing first, finding the right tools and the right way to express the architecture, helping the way of problem-solving…Most stories begin with a basic idea, and most drawings start with a conversation,” he says.

  • Artwork research and Storyboarding Image Credit: Courtesy of Foster + Partners
  • Artwork research and Storyboarding Image Credit: Courtesy of Foster + Partners

In the beginning, Sagoo sits with the design team to talk about the architecture, its process, its clients and the outcomes. Not always are the outcomes statements, but more often are questions. Recalling a storyboard for a recent project, Sagoo explains, “The charrette with the design team resulted in a large question mark being drawn in the centre of the page, and under it read – ‘We would like to question everything, even the question’. This became a very powerful tool to engage with the client and state honestly that we are not going to take anything for granted.”

Having worked on an extensive portfolio that spans airports to buildings, homes, yachts, furniture, details and public spaces, Sagoo’s perspective on architecture is refreshing – “As architects, we create sets for people’s lives, giving their theatre a backdrop, be it a momentary experience or wholly encompassing, such as the workplace. Therefore, when we draw, we create storyboards, much like those for films, to which we can add emotion and complexity, or innocence and simplicity.”

  • Prado Section Image Credit: Narinder Sagoo / Foster + Partners
  • Apartment design on iPad Image Credit: Courtesy of Foster + Partners
  • Beijing airport competition drawing on paper Image Credit: Narinder Sagoo / Foster + Partners

In fact, these drawings become a gateway for the client into their future. While they can help deconstruct a brief and develop a concept, they can also offer a window into what is to be realised and therefore present the eventuality. Clients, though, vary in their understanding and expectations across the world. Sagoo explains, “No two projects are the same. They all have their own journey – geographically, culturally, socially and financially – and the formal representation has to be flexible to conform to varying needs.” While in the US or Europe, a quick drawing of the project is adequate to tell the clients its story, in the Middle-East a sketch does not have the same impact; instead, a photo-realistic rendition of the proposal needs to be presented much earlier on in the design process, which is often made by the same team always starting out as a sketch first. Given that the political decision-making process is very different, and the people making those decisions perhaps have only minutes to do so, a realistic vision fits the bill better and is definitely more impressive.

  • Lab Design on iPad Image Credit: Courtesy of Foster + Partners
  • Sketch to Render Image Credit: Courtesy of Foster + Partners
  • Render from Sketch Image Credit: Courtesy of Foster + Partners

The diversity of requirements today is fulfilled by a plethora of tools at the disposal of Sagoo and his team. The customary pencil no longer bears the entire load of their work but is supported, complemented and supplemented by a large array of digital tools as well. “We are at a very fortunate time when tools such as the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil have come so close to the act of drawing with pen on paper. I feel very little difference between the two. I have, in fact, customised some of my traditional tools for digital platforms as well. I can now start a drawing on paper, scan it and work on my iPad, then print it and paint over it by hand again. I can switch between paper and digital as I please.”

There are a host of advantages that emerge from waltzing between sheets and screens – of which the ability to work simultaneously on the same drawing comes to mind first; and zooming into details and the ‘undo’ command follow close behind. Sagoo claims it has relieved him from thinking and planning, “Giving me the freedom to draw as the thought process is taking place or imagination is firing up, whenever, wherever, is quite liberating.” Added to these, of course, are higher resolutions, greater storage, and being able to work remotely, with team members who may be sitting in different corners of the globe.

However, what really catches my attention is when Sagoo mentions the ‘record and share’ option. “Earlier, I would glue myself to my desk, draw, and once done, present my work to the team, Norman or the client. They would see the image before them, but never the process of drawing or the impact of storytelling. They did not see the performance, they only saw a photograph of the performance.”

  • Jaipur Street Study Image Credit: Foster + Partners
  • Snowdon Aviary Bridge approach view, on iPad Image Credit: Narinder Sagoo / Foster + Partners

“Today, through an app on my iPad, I can record the development of the drawing, even add a musical score and present it as a movie.” Now, if that is not making the most of technological advances, I do not know what is?! Sagoo admits as well, “this is a great device in the art of winning projects and ‘seducing clients’”.

I suppose, as times get demanding, our means to keep up with them have to evolve as well. And the evolution of the drawing process thus follows suit. While earlier having to dedicate time before a drawing board to create visuals, today Sagoo carries his studio in his pocket, sketching in bed, on flights, buses and trains, or anywhere he would want to. The iPad Pro and Apple Pencil or even his smartphone have not replaced pen and ink, but have carved their own niche in his palette.

  • Narinder Sagoo draws out his chat with Mrinalini Ghadiok Image Credit: Narinder Sagoo / Foster + Partners
  • Sketching in the train, on paper Image Credit: Narinder Sagoo
  • Sketching on the phone Image Credit: Narinder Sagoo
  • Sketching on the phone Image Credit: Narinder Sagoo

“Technology has given me a lot more freedom, but I have never reached a fork in the road where I felt the need to choose. On the other hand, if I paint a canvas with oil or acrylic, that influences my digital work the next day, and if I draw on the screen, it informs my personal explorations. The two ideas have always correlated for me,” Sagoo adds. Going by the adage that Foster believes in, “The only constant is change,” Sagoo welcomes change and evolution. He reflects on childhood memories of watching clouds and trying to make sense of their shapes, turning them into dinosaurs or cities or cars, and then as they moved, they change into something entirely else.

Sagoo is not easily bored, neither is he fazed by change; he is efficient, earnest and industrious, with a fierce passion for drawing, thirst for exploration, and candour in his practice. While he aspires to be inspirational, he undoubtedly inspires aspiration. I was surprised to find myself doodling through this conversation, and was rather happy with the result too. When asked if he happened to draw while we spoke, Sagoo was ever so kind to send over his stunning rendition of our conversation.

Meanwhile, I transcribe my thoughts onto an illuminated screen in the dead of the night. The mechanical rhythm is infused with the sublime calmness of Miles Davis’ trumpet, but eventually transforms to a recording of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s concert, and I end with a brilliant crescendo, all the while wondering how Sagoo would interpret this in visuals. Maybe I should ask…

(The article was first published in Issue#19 of mondo*arc india – an initiative by STIR.)

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