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The Perfect Drawing: 8 Sensational Sections That Raise The Bar For Architectural Representation

This year marks twenty years since the demolition of Kowloon’s infamous Walled City was finally completed. If one architectural positive came from this web of urban anarchy, it is that it was documented with extraordinary accuracy for future reference, utilizing one of the great modes of architectural representation – the cross-section.

This extraordinarily complex slice through Hong Kong’s ungoverned, unplanned architectural oddity – a makeshift home for thousands of Chinese refugees following World War 2 – has to go down as one of the most jaw-dropping architectural drawings produced in the last century. A Japanese team meticulously surveyed the anarchic maze of walls, floors and roofs – layer upon unregulated layer – before it was demolished in 1994.

The level of detail on display is truly mind-boggling – the team appear to have drawn every single possession owned by the city’s 33,000 residents, including hundreds of makeshift washing lines and a veritable forest of TV aerials covering every inch of roof. It is the portrayal of human activity, though, that is perhaps the most poignant aspect of this image – there are endless narratives weaved through the mega-structure, giving glimpses into what life must really have been like for the individuals in this monstrous urban anomaly.


The section truly is the mother of visual story-tellers: here are 7 more examples that illustrate just how brilliantly this type of drawing can communicate architectural concepts and reveal the narratives behind the grandest of designs.


1. Walls of Change, Lebbeus Woods

Woods was a master at utilizing the section to express his theories on architecture intertwined with social, economic and political issues. His collection of sketches for an essay called ‘Walls of Change’ are full of depth and texture, and are particularly alluring to anyone with a soft spot for accidental architecture and the inventive re-imagining of derelict or run-down structures.

Woods envisaged a series of inhabited walls for La Havana, Cuba, stating: “
The proposed walls would contain some infrastructural purposes: water purification, the generation of electricity, like an ‘urban battery,’ almost. This means that these would be ‘hi-tech’ walls, into which individual dwellings would plug, as self-sustaining urban units.” Plug-in units – that reminds me of another well-renowned section drawing…


2. Plug-In City, Archigram

Peter Cook’s provocative design group Archigram produced a whole host of fantastical drawings that sparked many debates on the theories of pre-fabrication and urban infrastructure – and the cross-section through its seminal ‘Plug-In City’ is amongst the most renowned. Cook’s bold, comic-book style made the main themes of the concept crystal clear at first glance – it is a mega-structure with no permanent buildings, taking the form of a vast framework into which cellular dwellings could be inserted and removed with the aid of enormous cranes.

This vision of our urban future was influenced by the same questions about architecture and identity that spawned the Metabolist movement in post-war Japan (home to the Archigram-esque Nagakin Capsule Tower). Its honest expression of components was also a major source of inspiration for the Pompidou Centre by Piano and Rogers… considering it was entirely fictional, this drawing has affected the world of modern architecture more than many real-world projects!


3. Hotel Attraction, Antonio Gaudi

True story – in 1908, the great Catalonian architect Antonio Gaudi was retained to design a grand hotel for New York City. The location chosen was the site upon which the twin towers of the World Trade Center would eventually be built between 1962 and 1974.

Gaudi’s section drawing reveals a design that is peculiar in its similarity to the architect’s more widely recognised – and still under construction – Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The adoption of parabolic towers on such a scale was an outlandish gesture that never came to fruition, but strands of Gaudi’s organic ideologies are evident within the recent parametric designs of Zaha Hadid and Coop Himmelb(l)au.


4. Stacked City, Stuart Franks

This hand-drawn section was made by student Stuart Franks to complete the first year of his MA at the Royal College of Art - A proposal for a stacked city above London’s King’s Cross station, it anticipates rapid population growth in the capital.

Its narrative approach draws upon Rem Koolhaas’s ideas of cross-programming, and a liberal attitude to borrowing historic and contemporary references. In its mix of structural and whimsical suggestions, its complexity and contradictions, this drawing appears, in fact, to pick up on many of the tenets of Postmodernity – unlike much within the genre, this is the kind of PoMo I can live with!

Speaking of Rem…


Seattle Library, OMA

Typifying the contemporary graphic style of many contemporary firms, OMA’s diagram for Seattle library is unapologetic in its use of a medium so often considered the arch-nemesis of visual representation – text.

The drawing possesses the qualities of an infographic, with font size, style and color communicating the programmatic order and hierarchy of the structure. Unlike the previous drawings, scale and depth is notable in its absence – notions of character and atmosphere are sacrificed to make way for an unambiguous description of function – an approach which follows all the way through to the built forms of many of OMA’s public buildings.


6. Florence Cathedral (El Duomo), Cigoli / Brunelleschi

In stark contrast to the abstract diagrams of Koolhaas, Italian painter Cigoli’s cross-section through
Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral’s epic dome is a beautiful display of good old-fashioned drafting – this image is a mere 400 years old…

Brunelleschi’s innovative double shell design is depicted with subtle implementation of light and shade, adding depth to communicate the vast spatial volume of the Cathedral’s crossing. Built without flying buttresses or freestanding scaffolding, using experimental methods that many contemporaries believed would surely fail, the 150-foot-wide (46-meter-wide) dome effectively ignited the creative explosion known as the Renaissance – Cigoli’s fragile parchment remains one of the most elegant depictions of architectural innovation in existence.


7. City Of The Future, W.H.Corbett

Exactly 3 centuries after Cigoli, Corbett’s section is decidedly more futuristic – but no less influential. In his beautifully detailed illustration, the American architect treads the line between utopia and dystopia, imagining a grand and incredibly frenetic cityscape.

Themes of overcrowding and ever-increasing urban density are typified by the layering of transport and pedestrian infrastructure, forming multi-tiered street scene that makes for a heavenly cross-section drawing.

Corbett’s urban vision has been echoed in various forms ever since, from Fritz Lang’s epic science-fiction movie Metropolis to the hyper-dense enclaves of Batman’s Gotham City. In the real world, the architect contributed to numerous high-rise projects in New York City, including the Rockefeller Center in the 1920s - a section through certain parts of modern-day Manhattan might just bear an uncanny resemblance to Corbett’s century-old perspective…

Yours dissected,

The Angry Architect

Images via: Architizer