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The crucible of design – sketching with Daniel Libeskind

It doesn’t take a very sharp eye to discern that for Daniel Libeskind, the initial sketch is not only a primary, but almost a conclusive mediator between thought and reality.

by Devyani Jayakar May 29, 2019

From the beginning of architecture, sketches as a preliminary manifestation of the vision of an architect have been an indispensable tool in design. To express the visualised thought, drawing on paper has been foundational. Employed by architects from Antonio Pisanello in the 14th century, Francesco Borromini in the 17th century, Hubert Robert in the 18th century, to Hans Hollein and Zaha Hadid more recently, drawing has flourished as a thinking process.

  • Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Daniel Libeskind
  • Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Daniel Libeskind

However, do sketches necessarily translate into the final built form? It depends on which architect you are talking about. In the case of Daniel Libeskind, the connection between sketch and built form is an almost uncanny one. The dramatic marriage of jagged glass lunging outwards from the side of a heritage structure in Libeskind’s extension of the Royal Ontario Museum was first conceived by the architect on a paper napkin. The bold dark strokes convey the restless energy and movement of the deconstructivist addition. No feathery strokes here, no detailing. Just the big statement, much like the finished building - visceral, unabashed, grabbing your attention.

  • Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Daniel Libeskind
  • Jewish Museum, Berlin Image Credit: Guenter Schneider
  • Jewish Museum, Berlin Image Credit: Guenter Schneider

For the acclaimed Jewish Museum in Berlin, which traces and documents the angst-ridden history of the Jewish community during the Holocaust, Libeskind’s sketch has many more filler strokes, together with the use of a rust colour to emphasise the snaking form of his design. Lighter strokes in pencil denote the more conventional pre-existing structures in its immediate vicinity. Once again, the connection between the initial thought and the finished form is unmistakable. The sketch is busy, like the neighbourhood in which the building is located and places the structure within its context. Did Libeskind have an overhead photo of the vicinity when he made this sketch, or did he just approximate the surroundings? We don’t know.

  • Reflections at Keppel Bay, Singapore Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Daniel Libeskind
  • Reflections at Keppel Bay, Singapore Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Daniel Libeskind

The sketch for Reflections, a housing complex at Keppel Bay, Singapore, is a minimal, calm one. Like the property itself, which is sited on a waterfront, the sketch conveys the mood of the location in its six towers of different heights, each gently curving off perpendicular as they take inspiration from the billowing sails of a boat. That Libeskind got it all right at the time that the thought was conceived, indicates a strong connection between the progression of his initial thought, right through to the end stage of the construction of the structure.

  • ZLOTTA 44, Warsaw Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Daniel Libeskind
  • ZLOTTA 44, Warsaw Image Credit: Maciej Kruger
  • ZLOTTA 44, Warsaw Image Credit: Krzysztof Wierzbowski

Similar in simplicity, is Libeskind’s sketch for Zlota 44, although this high-end housing structure is located in the midst of a bustling urban context in Warsaw, Poland. The 52-storey tower soars above the adjacent structures, its simple lines derived from the original sketch itself.

Libeskind’s drawing for the World Trade Centre Master Plan is perhaps the most complex of the ones reviewed here, with many fine strokes and detailing, including text to caption some of the structures. The emotion-laden site covers 16 acres, with Libeskind detailing a very recognisable representation of the Statue of Liberty in one corner, and also indicating the angle of the sun on September 11th, called the ‘Wedge of Light’.

  • World Trade Centre Masterplan, New York Image Credit: Maciej Kruger
  • World Trade Centre Masterplan, New York Image Credit: Krzysztof Wierzbowski

While these five examples of sketches have different levels of detailing, all of them can clearly be matched with the final structure. Does Libeskind have the ‘big picture’ all thought out in his mind at the inception of the design process itself? His sketches would seem to bear out that conclusion. Although some of them are clearly impromptu – executed even on paper napkins – others appear to have been drawn at a later stage in the thought process; the choices he makes with regard to the kind of strokes and the complexity of the drawing (as well as what he excludes) indicate the degree of detail and thought behind the design of his project.

There is a contention that architectural drawings do not seek to be an imitation of reality, but are instead a unique form of expression to find the essence of things, what our eyes don’t see. They can focus on the details as well as emphasise or hide certain elements. Moreover, there is a series of decisions to be made. Drawing instrument, paper type, line style, hand versus digital…all are a matter of choice. To innovate, to speculate – all can happen at this stage, at minimum cost. The intensity of the lines is made through the pressure on the paper, stronger or darker, lighter or thinner as desired. But with the rise of digital representation in architecture, has the computer superseded the hand in the exploration of ideas? Seemingly contradictorily, many software have been designed that attempt to save the act of sketching, while others complement it. The plethora of choices offers to patrons innovative media and means. So far from dying out with the advent of computers, drawings and sketches – whether on paper or digital – are here to stay.

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About Author

Devyani Jayakar

Devyani Jayakar

Jayakar has had an abiding fascination with the complex nuances of language, which culminated in a Masters degree in English Literature and a post graduate diploma in Communications Media. Convinced that there is nothing more addictive than luxury, and an unrepentantly indulgent taste for finer things lead her to write on lifestyle topics including interiors, design, architecture and art.

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