16-12-13 // THE LIBERATION OF THE SKETCH FROM THE SKETCHBOOK – INTERVIEW WITH BERND UPMEYER
“That makes the sketches generally rather temporary and of an ephemeral nature, as they are usually thrown away directly after they
fulfilled their purpose, which is mainly to get a step further in a design, research, or study process.”
The Liberation of the Sketch from the Sketchbook – Interview with Bernd Upmeyer
DAMDI: What is a sketchbook to you? (What does it mean to you?)
Bernd Upmeyer: A sketchbook actually means very little to me. I am not using one. The only time I ever used a sketchbook was during my first year of studying architecture, when my teacher forced us to use one. But I abandoned it very quickly, because I did not believe in its value. In fact, I considered it counterproductive and something that blocks transparency and the exchange of ideas during design processes within teams. In notebooks information becomes very secret, hidden and private. When I hear sentences such as “Architects use notebooks as their treasure chests of ideas”, I think of architects of the 20th century such as Louis Kahn, who was known for making numerous trips to Europe during his career in the United States, sketching and writing down everything he saw in a sketch- or notebook, probably because he did not have pocket-sized cameras or smartphones yet. That is why sketchbooks appear to me today as something outdated and old-fashioned, something like a Friendship book in a time when everybody has a profile on Facebook, something like using a sketch as an architectural representation when we have renderings.
DD: Any episodes or memories related to a sketchbook?
BU: As I am never using a sketchbook and have rarely used one in the past, I cannot divulge any episodes or memories related to it here. Nevertheless, I use sketching but not in a sketchbook, but mostly on a sketch roll. That makes the sketches generally rather temporary and of an ephemeral nature, as they are usually thrown away directly after they fulfilled their purpose, which is mainly to get a step further in a design, research, or study process. It does not matter if they are rather ugly, as long as they communicate the right thing. But they don’t have to be representational anymore, meaning that they are not much used for final presentations, as they were in the past, before the time of CAD, Adobe, and rendering software. Sketching can become much more enjoyable than it was in the past as a lot of pressure has been removed from it. Today, it becomes ever more clear that an important effect the integration of the computer has had on the architectural design process has less to do with form, organic shapes and complex geometries, as once was hoped, but with the liberation of the sketch from the sketchbook, where it was damned to permanence and burdened to represent.
DD: When and where do you use your sketchbook the most?
BU: Ever since the sketch was liberated from the straightjacket of the sketchbook or the architectural notebook, it could be produced everywhere at any time. If I am on a plane or train, the corners of a newspaper are, for example, great places to write or sketch something that you wish to remember. However, I do most sketching in my office during the day. This activity is mostly driven, apart from the need to communicate ideas to others, by the fear of losing thoughts and ideas. But that kind of sketch shares the same destiny as the one on a sketch roll: once it has fulfilled its purpose and was translated into a digital architectural drawing, diagram, or image, or communicated to another person, it is thrown away. Nevertheless, I don’t think we should mourn the short-lived nature of contemporary sketches; just as we do not mourn the short lives of mayflies that only live from a few minutes to a few days, depending on the species. Adult male mayflies have two penises and during the few days they live in spring or autumn they are everywhere, dancing around each other and copulating in large groups on every available surface.
DD: What influence does a sketchbook have in your projects and life as an architect?
BU: However ephemeral and “ugly”, the sketch itself has still a very strong influence on my projects and therefore also on my life, and I believe the same applies to a lot of other architects of my generation; by contrast, the sketchbook has very little influence. I think it is no coincidence that the moment in the mid-1980s when computer-aided design programs appeared, the last notebook manufacturer, supposedly one of the original “Moleskine” producers in France, stopped production. It took a lot of years before an Italian company brought that kind of sketchbook back on the market, establishing it as a trademark, breathing new life into a dead product, and marketing it as something legendary that famous avant-garde artists and writers used in the past. Recent impressive growth numbers have proven its commercial success, which, I believe, is the reason I am now writing about sketchbooks to begin with. I think the sketchbook is still essentially dead, but enjoys a boom in sales, because of brilliant marketing and branding to a nostalgic mass of people that wishes to look as creative as the avant-garde that was supposed to have used it in the past. Perhaps this reflects a certain desire for something permanent and solid in an increasingly ephemeral temporary digital world in which one click can destroy everything within a split second.
DD: Is there anything else other than a sketchbook that you use to keep a record of your thoughts and ideas?
BU: In addition to the abovementioned corners of a newspaper and sketch rolls: used sheets of paper and paper from printing errors are also great media to sketch and write on. I do that a lot. In my office we once had, for example, an A3 printer and a lot of A3-sized paper. But ever since the printer broke down, the sheets of A3 paper remain unused in the storage, piling up without being used. I recently counted around twenty boxes of five hundred A3 sheets of paper each. So what we do is, we cut those sheets into handy A4s and use them as sketch paper, and to keep a record of thoughts and ideas as well. But then again, those papers are usually thrown away after the sketches and thoughts are translated onto another medium. Only a handful are kept in a project folder. All this shows how in my office the architectural sketch is demystified and used merely as a tool to remember and communicate things – something utterly temporary that does not require prestigious and glamorous treatment.
Title: The Liberation of the Sketch from the Sketchbook
Author: Interview with Bernd Upmeyer
Date: December 2013
Type: Commissioned interview
Publications: Architect’s Notebook – The Treasure House of Idea
Publisher: DAMDI Publishing
Location: Seoul, South Korea