- August 30, 2021
Precise, measurable, and objective. More than any other representation technique, the axonometric carries with it a culture of precision, one that is reflected in our pedagogy. Under this cultural pursuit, students and designers alike calibrate architecture as a controllable abstraction, rendered with exact lines, devoid of subjective experience. Objectifying depth and space, the axonometric neglects semblances to reality, instead it is constructed under the strictures of an abstract mathematical space. This relationship with mathematics is integral to its connotation of precision, a rhetoric born from roots in geometry and engineering. Over the years the axonometric projection has been reduced to an imprecise image, yet it perseveres as a popular form of representation. This contradiction must be understood through its genealogy across our discipline.
Paradigmatically shifted from the experientially-focused parallel projections of traditional Chinese representations—exemplary in Zhang Zeduan’s multidirectional buildings unrolled across Along the River During the Qingming Festival—the seeds of the axonometric can be found in the Renaissance. While representation during that period is often defined by the linear perspective, the axonometric offered objectivity and precision integral to geometry and fortification. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the mathematicians Luca Pacioli and Niccolò Tartaglia began to widely utilize parallel projections for their proofs in solid geometry.1 This representation technique was eventually adopted by military architects in the second half of the 16th century for their designs of geometrically impenetrable fortifications. Called the soldierly perspective (prospettiva soldatesca), its precision in all dimensions ensured that potential ballistics could be deflected or absorbed through rigorous calculations.2 Remaining as a practical tool, it was not until modernism that the precision of the axonometric was adopted on cultural grounds.
Reintroduced into the architectural discipline by De Stijl, the soldierly perspective embodied the movement’s utopian vision of harmony through a logical system of abstraction. 3 Showcased in an exhibition at the Galerie L’Effort Moderne in Paris from October to November of 1923, Van Doesburg’s Contra-Construction depicted a house abstracted into precise lines, planes, and primary colors, radically shifting the projection beyond its practical applications.4 Influencing the pedagogy of the Bauhaus, Gropius announced a rejection of the traditional academic perspective for axonometry in the same year.5 Initially adopting the isometric projection for its human centric qualities relevant to their Expressionism tendency, their later shift to New Objectivity prompted the undistorted and precise soldierly perspective to take its place.6 This is exemplified in the League of Nations axonometric drawing produced by Herbert Meyer, the second director of the Bauhaus, in 1927. Rendered without any shadow, color, nor context, the meticulous lines construct an image of the building as autonomous, disciplined, and objectively functional. Embodying the value of control through its technique–representation is a pedagogical tool–the axonometric had established an aesthetic of precision.
We now find ourselves using similar techniques within contemporary pedagogy, albeit with a technical shift in our production method. Influenced by studios such as the low-res composition of MOS, the intricate lines of DOGMA, or the critical close reading in Peter Eisenman’s drawings, the digital axonometric drawing has become common-place across studio walls. Propagated as a stylistic reference or an instructed technique, by making these drawings, students consciously and unconsciously inherit the cultural ambitions of precision. Utilizing modeling software such as Rhinoceros 3D, the construction of the representation has become a result of the digital model with the aid of commands and fine-tuned options (shear, rotate, and make2d). Ironically, this method does not always produce perfect projections. When constructing a plan or elevation oblique, its projected depth ends up inaccurately measured, resulting in an approximation of its supposed objectivity. Begging the question, why do we still produce these contradictory, imprecise, axonometric drawings? Is it simply for the sake of beauty or is there an underlying desire to project control through our images.
The production of axonometric drawings has shifted from the technique of precision to the image of precision. Carrying its lineage from the Renaissance and Modernism, we have been taught to associate objectivity with this representation regardless of actuality. To precisely envision, draw, and eventually construct, this visual rhetoric justifies the architect’s insatiable desire to have precise control over the built environment. Yet this contradiction holds the potential to subvert its oppressive way of seeing and design. We find contemporary studios such as Drawing Architecture Office combining multi-directional oblique projections in Tuan Jie Hu, in fact, representing a more realistic image of Beijing and its urban dynamism. We must thus question and challenge our representation’s embedded values, or else we risk blindly propagating its rhetoric under the guise of a beautiful axonometric drawing.