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The Primacy of the Hand

Part 1 Dissertation 2009
Catriona Macdonald
University of Edinburgh Edinburgh UK
The use of the crafts and techniques of fine art have had an intimate relationship with architecture from the very beginning of man’s endeavours to build shelter. More recent technologies such as CAD might have been expected to supersede completely these haptic crafts and, indeed, there is widespread use of computer software and graphics to generate images, plans, reliefs and proposals. It would be difficult to imagine any architectural practice operating without such technologies today. So what is the lasting attraction and benefit of drawing?

This dissertation explores the importance of fine art skills in revealing, communicating and developing our understanding and employment of the grammar and syntax of space, which is at the heart of any architectural project. Having regard for both philosophical and psychological resonances, the dissertation examines the work of four contemporary architects to disclose their respective pathways to new vistas of visual epistemology for and in the built form. The four architects whose drawings and projects form the basis of the study are Peter Eisenman (Wexner Center for the Visual Arts, 1983-89), Frank Gehry (Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 1994-1997), Steven Holl (Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, 1993-1998), and Zaha Hadid (Phaeno Science Centre, 2000-2005).

Each analysis shows that the final built form was derived from the initial convergence and coalescence of the key design concepts and ideas, which I liken to the theoretical concept of 'significant form'. Central to this is the hand as a design tool, an extension by which the architect both interacts with space and creates it. Since the hand is haptic and tactile, its interactions leave an index that can be used to generate form. It is through the hand that each architect explored the generative power of the drawing and it is through the index that one can see whose hand has created each drawing. This 'significant form', which embodies the architect’s voice, is then put to the service of the practical world.

The dissertation concludes that 'significant form' in architecture derives its truth from the primacy of the hand and from the hand’s inherent integrity.

Catriona Macdonald

This is a truly excellent dissertation. Appropriate to the subject, it makes its arguments about drawing with visual evidence. The four test cases from the hands of Eisenman, Gehry, Holl, and Hadid are well chosen and provide a wide spectrum of aims, styles, and techniques. Following an incisive introduction on the significance of hand drawing, both to the broader field and to Catriona’s own design practice, the four architects are individually introduced, with commentaries based on extensive reading. Had the dissertation stopped at this point, it would have been more than worthy of a good mark. The extremely persuasive conclusion, however, is formed by comparisons drawn across the four schemes, focusing on the diversity of representationl techniques, and detailing how they evolved from first sketches to tangible forms. Final thoughts on the primacy of the hand in generating what Catriona identifies as “significant form” complete the text. While issues of significance and meaning are famously difficult to pin down, it is rare to find such questions addressed in an undergraduate dissertation, and Catriona is to be applauded for her investigation into the ductus of the four architects in terms of trace, index, and gesture.

This is not a straightforward critical and historical account, nor a building analysis. Rather, it makes tangible connections between the evolution of the schemes under consideration and Catriona’s own work as an architectural designer. Indeed, the manifest relationship between the insights drawn from the four projects and questions posed in the design studio gives the text a convincing urgency and authority. It is beautifully structured, both as a piece of writing and as an object, and text and image are tellingly integrated to create much more than the sum total of the two elements.

Prof. Iain Boyd Whyte
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