Every year we organise an introductory project for students wanting to join the master program from one of the many technical colleges offering BSc’s in Building Technology. They have studied three or four years and now want to do architecture. It is a fun program with a menu containing four or five exercises as well as a number of special events. One of these is what we call the mini-symposium. This is where the studio tutors get half an hour to say something about themselves by talking about things that interest them. It is fun for the students because they get to know the tutor from the perspective of his own passion and get a feel for what the tutor looks for in the work they have to do. We all tell our stories. I took a building I am particularly passionate about and which to me demonstrates the full range of architectural wealth: spatial and material sophistication, gorgeous detail, a great command of colour, texture, light and shade, a sense of practicality and carefully crafted social space, you name it. There are quite a few such buildings. Another colleague showed his practice, some of his work his carefully crafted approach to a task as well as a number of buildings by kindred spirits that had inspired him and he felt passionate about.
The day was already a success. It was a wonderful talk. Then the third speaker took the floor. Some of my colleagues occasionally get a little impatient with him because he likes to take his time and refuses to give into the culture of haste with which we veil our suspected lack of real purpose. He did not disappoint. He began by showing us a photograph of three closed sketchbooks arranged to fill the rectangle of the camera frame. He keeps a sketch diary he explained to the audience and proceeded to describe in loving detail and with an earnest concern to make sure he had covered every detail, how he had, over the years, arrived at the format of his preferred sketchbook, how he had learnt to prefer landscape to portrait so that the book stays open when you lie it down on a table or bench, how its size, the same size coincidentally as Le Cobusier’s sketchbooks, holds well in his hand for his kind of sketching, which is done on the spot, completing the work usually in no more than ten minutes, and how, when the sketch is done, it folds away neatly into a ready pocket afterwards. He showed us his initials which had been especially embossed on the cover, very discretely it has to be said, and how he had taken a long time trying out various kinds of paper before he had found the right one for his sketch style and technique, making sure that the last page carried the correct watermark so that the same paper could be ordered with the next batch. The other sketchbook he showed was the ubiquitous Moleskine, which he pronounced Moléskein, and he explained how he liked the small black landscape version with white unruled paper in which he could note down his observations in perfect script as well as any interesting things he had heard during the day: a film that had been recommended, a book he had his eye on, something that happened etc. He read a few out loud. The third, he said, was really more like a full size exercise book in which he wrote down anything else and on which he often sat while making his sketches so as to prevent himself catching a cold. He then walked to the laptop on the other side of the lecture room and clicked the necessary button. The next picture was of his pencil case with the contents carefully displayed on a white surface. It is a small unassuming pencil case, light brown, fake snakeskin, just large enough to hold about five or six pencils, a special mother of pearl pencil holder for short stubs of pencil, an oblong piece of wood with sandpaper mounted on it, a thin extendable cutter knife, two rubbers, one hard and one soft, a small ruler and a tape measure. He then proceeded to explain the working and reasoning behind each; how he never sharpened his pencils with a sharpener, but always with a sharp cutter knife, with which he would cut away at the wood so that about seven millimetres of pencil lead would show, which he could then sharpen with the sand paper into a fine point, a chisel point or a rounded blunt point. He used only HB and B pencils, preferably Caran D’Ache, Bruynzeel or Derwent but kept a 6 or 8B pencil and two coloured pencils for shading and fill: blue and red. He found the measuring tape important to measure treads of staircase and other details. The pencil holder he kept because he tended to get attached to pencils when they got too short to use properly and the holder not only made these pencils look special but managed to stretch their useful life. Again he walked the width of the lecture room, pressed the right button and went on to tell us about his sketching holiday last summer, cycling 2400 KM from Maastricht where he lives to Santiago de Compostela and back. 85 kilometres a day on a sturdy bike holding five bags, two behind, two up front and one over the handlebars. He never takes photographs and showed us instead his sketches, telling us how they had changed style over the years, slowly becoming increasingly sober. It had been a painstaking process of cutting away at the superfluous to arrive at an essence left over by a careful perspective construction of extremely delicate lines, showing plans to the left and views to the right, each carefully annotated with useful observations. Here and there a very lightly touched colour had been added to fill in a flat surface.
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