Searching for the Essential

The sketches of Florian Beigel and Philip Christou of ARU explore spatial ideas while prolonging uncertainty, finds Louis Mayes


We are looking at a series of sketches drawn by Philip Christou and the late Florian Beigel, founders of the Architecture Research Unit (ARU) and longstanding teachers at London Metropolitan University. “Drawing is an efficient way of making decisions”, says Christou. “It is a key medium in the early stages of a project”. He points to Beigel’s sketch of a traditional South Korean pojagi, or hand-crafted patchwork tapestry – the image is a tangible summary of his intuitive response to the subject matter and relays some characteristics of the original textile which is sewn together in an irregular and apparently unconcerned manner. It has a tectonic quality that remains scaleless; the crafted nature of the fabric is conveyed through the uncertainty of the pencil lines.

The sketch is related to ARU’s Pojagi Building in South Korea (2005), in which a lightweight polycarbonate lantern sits gently above a concrete plinth. The primary structure of this lantern is a steel frame, but timber elements are visible behind the translucent material, especially during the evening. “The elevation has that irregularity – the timber framework isn’t all straight”, points out Christou, and it is these timber elements that recall the textile that gives the building its name.

Design development of the timber and translucent polycarbonate facade of ARU’s Pojagi Building.

Florian Beigel referred to ARU’s approach as “design as research” – a method of practice incorporating design, drawing and writing that allows the project to develop in a thoughtful manner – and described the integration of references evident in the Pojagi Building as “an intelligent understanding of the past”. The tapestry drawing shows the importance of the sketch in translating between a reference and a key characteristic of ARU’s building, “the sketch identifying the unifying factors”, as Christou puts it.

Generally, the sketch remains inherently a product of both the hand and the mind – an intuitive response from the designer that may encompass the key concepts, histories and spatial qualities of a scheme. Often, it is also the first time that the designer begins to move between the two- and three-dimensional spatiality of a project or, to borrow a term favoured by the Swiss architect Peter Märkli, the point at which composition becomes gestalt. The sketch allows the designer to think in three dimensions, while drawing in two.

In revisiting sketches, new interpretations are often discovered. “Still life drawings are spatial compositions – relationships between objects”, says Christou. While the lines of sketch may delineate an idea, it is the void, and the element of uncertainty and ambiguity, that lend the sketch its poignancy. In Beigel’s still life sketches, says Christou, “the void is the figure”.


Another series of Beigel and Christou’s sketches develops the character derived from the pojagi into the composition of an elevation, gradually becoming more defined while retaining an informality – aligning the the theoretical with increasingly practical concerns.

Maintaining some uncertainty during the short span of the design process is important, suggests Christou, as it allows for the design to develop slowly in a way that is detectable in the quality of the completed building. “The ambiguous quality of the sketch, and of the solid and the void in the sketch, is just the essential part”, he notes. “The other parts will be developed in time – things can change and be drawn in. Because it’s not so fixed, maybe there is a way that the built architecture can be not so finite”.

Inherent in ARU’s sketches are several dualities – solid and void, composition and gestalt, hand and mind – and in ARU’s eyes, it is the tension between these dualities that give the sketch, and the architecture, its poignancy. In the words of Florian Beigel, “It’s neither this nor that – it’s both”.


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