As often happens in shifting between two languages, the words that seem the easiest to translate are often the hardest ones to find an adequate translation for. In this book architectpoet Paolo Belardi makes a passionate case for why architects should continue to draw and make surveys. The book takes the form of two imaginary lectures to architecture students.
The first lecture is about drawings, the second about surveys. Though both words are only seven letters long in Italian, they were exceedingly difficult to translate, and a word about both is necessary. In the first lecture, “Thinking by Hand,” Belardi discusses what he calls disegno. This word would make anyone who doesn’t know Italian think “design,” which is unfortunately wrong. It’s an example of what translators call “false friends,” foreign words that look like English words but mean something else. Disegno in Italian means a drawing or a sketch, not “design.” Despite this linguistic fact, Belardi argues that the two words should indeed be considered cousins, if not fraternal twins.
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The drawing, argues Belardi, recalls the paradox of the acorn. An acorn gives us just the barest outlines of the tree our grandchildren might see. We can imagine the shape of its leaves and the color of its bark, but all the other possibilities of that future oak tree—how fast it grows, how its branches spread, how long it lives—are to be determined. And yet that little nut holds, inside of its shell, the whole tree already: the mature, magnificent, hundred-foot-tall oak is already “planned” within the acorn’s DNA. So too with a drawing.
Even a sketch done on the back of a matchbox (to give a preview of one of Belardi’s examples) can contain what will become the complete set of blueprints of the finished building. Despite its size (a matchbox in this case), the imprecision of its strokes (given the awkward surface), and its impermanence (most sketches are considered preparatory by their authors, and not saved), the sketch is like an acorn. The roughest drawing is inchoate (in the sense that it is not finished but still in evolution) and forgiving of future changes—and yet at the same time it is also, paradoxically, the entire final design. Belardi’s first lecture, then, is about the magic of drawing. The author gives us examples not only from architecture but also from literature, chemistry, music, archaeology, art, and several other disciplines to show how drawing is not simply a passive act but rather a moment of invention, pregnant with creative possibilities. The second lecture, “No Day Without a Line,” is about what in Italian is called a rilievo architettonico. The most obvious translation for the first word is “survey,” and any English speaker can then shift “architettonico” before the noun, leaving her with “architectural survey.”
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At one time or another, all of us have likely seen what architects work with every day, the three canonic architectural views of some building made of white stone: plan, section, and elevation. These representations, apparently the output of an enormous slice-and-draw machine, give us measurements in the x, y, and z axes. Belardi argues that it’s important—especially in today’s world—to add a fourth dimension, time, and even a fifth one, culture. A rilievo architettonico is the architectural equivalent of what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called a “thick description,” an ethnographic approach in which the resulting text describes a group’s ceremonies not only as they would understand them, but as even those unfamiliar with the group could understand them.
Belardi, in “No Day Without a Line,” shows how surveying a piazza cannot simply mean measuring the space and committing its width, height, and depth to paper or to an AutoCAD file. To truly know the piazza, the architectural surveyor must make an informed survey, must bring knowledge with him. How are the entrances to the open space the result of traffic patterns from centuries past? How can changing demographics and concern for environmental impacts shape the future of the piazza? What does Italian culture need from the piazza? A survey then becomes a document that relates historical details and communal needs, not just meters or feet, stone or steel.
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