Pivotal architectural movements of the 19th and 20th centuries are perhaps best understood through the archive of provocative architectural drawings, which, in addition to being representations of the architect’s vision (sometimes in its most abstract form), are also a blueprint, meant to be executed at a later time. The preservation as well as presentation of these drawings is therefore an act of proliferation of visionary ideas.
In 1979, Visionary Drawings of Architecture and Planning: 20th Century through the 1960s—an exhibition developed for travel, was circulated by the Smithsonian Institution Travelling Exhibition Service (SITES). The purpose of the exhibition, as described in the catalogue, was two-fold: to delineate the nature, and contribution of the 20th century visionary; and to highlight the significant role of drawings as a means to manifest ideas.
The act of drawing offers to the mind new territories in which to investigate possibilities rarely present in the everyday practice of architecture and the profession at large. Drawings refer to ideas of what can be. – Giuliano Fiorenzoli, Architecture and the Body Rizzoli International USA 1988
Describing a visionary as representing a "theoretical, speculative, or even imaginary statement or position that is likely to be considerably ahead of its time and may not even be intended to be carried out," the exhibition outlines the works of visionaries spanning from 19th century modernists working towards a socially reformed utopia, to 20th century proponents of megastructures who looked at technological advancements as a means of achieving emancipation from the functionalism and rationalisation of its modern predecessor; to postmodernists of the late 20th century who mobilised pop culture, the information age, and radical politics of the 1960s as tools of transformation.
The exhibition demonstrates the agency of architectural drawings as a means to better understand the architectural movements of the 20th century, perhaps more than the built works of the visionaries in question. The drawings thus exhibited range from the artistic renderings of Malcolm Reginald, to the sketches of Buckminster Fuller, to the technical drawings of Herbert Stevens Jr., to the metaphorical representations of Paolo Soleri, to the expressionist work of Mies' Glass Tower, to Le Corbusier’s utopian schemes for city and regional planning in their original form as butcher-paper drawings (produced in the course of two lectures at Columbia University), to Wright’s resolved plan for a Usonian scheme, to the organicism of Japanese Metabolists, to the magazine graphics of Archigram and the formalised collages of Superstudio, all visionaries in their own right.
The Changing of the Avant-Garde: Visionary Architectural Drawings from the Howard Gilman Collection likewise, was an exhibition held in 2002 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which presents a selection of 173 drawings from the period coinciding largely with the 1979 travelling exhibition. As noted by the MoMA curators, "The period encompassed by the bulk of the Gilman collection, the 1960s and 1970s, coincided with one of the greatest bursts of creative energy in architecture ever recorded on paper; it was the last rally of the heroic visions of pre-war modernism, and the onset of what would broadly become known as postmodernism.” A new generation of architects, dissatisfied with modernism’s stringent orthodoxy, presented a critique of postwar architecture and urbanism, ushering in the age of megastructures. Once more, drawings of works by Archigram, the Metabolists, and Superstudio present themselves as pivotal contributors to the movement, making way for a new generation of postmodernists (who may not be relevant to this story) after the demise of the age of megastructures. As expressed in the MoMA brochure: "The forces unleashed by the demise of the megastructure movement and the advent of postmodernism remain vital in the world of architecture today. In view of this, the Museum of Modern Art's Howard Gilman Archive is a unique and invaluable resource for understanding the genesis of these forces and the vectors of invention they launched. It not only provides us with a rare and comprehensive view of a significant movement in history, but also with fundamental documentation of the root sources of architecture today.”
Two decades later in 2023, the 'T' Space Archival Gallery features an exhibition of the drawings and models of Italian architect Giuliano Fiorenzoli, titled Because of seeing architecture, curated by the Steven Myron Holl Foundation. Born in the Borgo San Frediano district in Florence, Italy, Fiorenzoli founded Zziggurat in 1966 with contemporary Italian Radicalists Alberto Breschi and Roberto Pecchioli—an experimental atelier, which mobilised the ethos of Pop Art and consumerist culture to create a counter-culture via a primarily speculative approach. Although the group eventually disbanded, the visual literature created by them projects a new realism, with suggestions of megastructures composed of plug-in and capsule elements.
Here, it is important to situate Fiorenzoli within the larger context of the technocratic proponents of the age of megastructures. In the 1960s, with the rise of postmodernist discourse, and the subsequent rejection of enlightenment rationality, the individualism of the 1950s diminished to give way to a period of radical groups or schools that sought to challenge the existing modern movement. In the United Kingdom (Archigram), Austria (Raimund Abraham), Italy (Superstudio), France (Yona Friedman), and Japan (Metabolists), groups (or individuals in some cases) of avant-garde visionaries were producing a serious repository of paper architecture that was interpreted as futuristic by some, fantastical by others, and dystopian by yet others. It was also speculative and experimental, albeit always critical of the rigidity of modernism. Arising out of this generation, Giuliano Fiorenzoli is a sequestered visionary of the Italian Radical movement of the 1960s-70s.
In 1969, after graduating from the University of Florence, he moved to New York City. In the following two decades, he explored opportunities in academics and competitions, the latter of which resulted in collaborations with Austrian architect Raimund Abraham, and American architect and artist Lebbeus Woods. In addition to creating seminal works like the Park of Myriad Gardens and the Rainbow Centre Plaza in Niagara Falls through his collaborations, his personal body of work in this period includes designing interiors for shops, apartments and restaurants. But perhaps more significant contributors to his legacy are drawings of his unbuilt works, paper architecture if you like- in the form of precise presentation drawings. Composed of ideation drawings, research projects, and unbuilt competition projects, the drawings are a representation of his vision.
The masterplan for Coney Island Amusement Park (unbuilt), designed in collaboration with Lebbeus Woods in 1981, accommodates three casinos and a hotel, all elevated on a platform, accommodating a parking lot and services under it. The drawings for the project are presented as orthogonal projection drawings—the plan and the elevation—annotating the formal geometry and structure, albeit without a scale, denoting only the abstract nature of the relationship between an open beachfront and the site.
The Image of the Home, was a series of drawings produced for an exhibition for the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies in 1978. As explained by Fiorezoli, "The Image of the Home drawings are the unanswered search for the grounding of a possible reassuring ‘place’ or final refuge. The human head, as a metaphor, is presented to us, as the ultimate archetype or the only architecture possible." His explorations in the realm of drawing include different media such as ink (applied in varying techniques), coloured pencils, and photographic collages—to give form to abstract ideas—as an “image” of the subconscious that occupies space.
In Abstract Landscapes, the architect remembers an architecture that never existed. In this case too, drawings “become the essential tools for the success of any work in architecture. Once in existence they occupy and energise with full authority, real physical space and not made visible, the organisation of the so-called ‘program’ in a building.”
The assemblage of an architectural drawing, much like the architecture itself, constitutes an internal geometry or design, purpose (depending on the stage of the architectural process it is intended for), materials, and technique. The drawings presented in the exhibition are a combination of orthographic projections (plans, elevations and sections), and axonometric renderings, sometimes with cut-outs to reveal interior views simultaneously, seemingly meant to be presentation drawings, communicating the design and appearance of the project in question, and often overrides architecture itself.
"Architecture, should be defined as an activity of the mind free from pragmatic restrictions in search mainly for those unfolding imageries that investigate the origin of the idea of space itself and not the building to be later built.”