Whitney exhibits professor’s sketchbook

Architecture professor Alexander Purves’s “Roman Sketches” depicts Rome’s buildings in hasty sketches, quick studies and intricate drawings.
Architecture professor Alexander Purves’s “Roman Sketches” depicts Rome’s buildings in hasty sketches, quick studies and intricate drawings. Photo by Carly Lovejoy.

In an architectural landscape increasingly dominated by computer imaging, the latest exhibit at the Whitney Humanities Center gives viewers a glimpse into the practice of traditional sketchbooking.

“Roman Sketches,” which opened Monday and will run until Jun. 28, is a display of pages taken from School of Architecture professor Alexander Purves’ own sketchbooks. Since 2001, Purves has led a group of 30 architecture students to Rome for an intensive drawing class. Although architects like Frank Gehry and Greg Lynn frequently employ digital modeling in their practices, Purves said he believes that an architect’s sketchbook is a vital tool for preliminary observation and design.

“Nothing is more efficient and less restricted than when the hand and the brain work together,” Purves said, adding that an architect can accomplish this only with a sketchbook.

The exhibition showcases scans of Purves’ own ink drawings and watercolors. The drawings, grouped by the structure depicted, are mounted on grey panels, while the watercolors stand alone behind glass. Some sketches feature floor plans juxtaposed with less technical renderings.

The professor’s work demonstrates the versatility of sketchbooks. His strokes depict Rome’s buildings in a variety of ways; seemingly hasty scribbles are placed beside intricate drawings. In some cases, only portions of a building are shown — half a dome or the delicate outline of a plaza.

“Purves believes that you have to sketch a building fully in order to truly see it — to understand how all of its components work together to create the whole,” said Rob Bundy ARC ’13, who went on the 2012 Rome trip. He recalled how, over the course of four weeks, the students each filled three or four sketchbooks with their depictions of the city. Bundy said he learned that the sketchbook is invaluable for his work, and he sketches everything by hand before using the computer to render already concrete ideas.

Catherine Shih ’15, who intends to major in Architecture and took Purves’ introductory architecture class this fall, described how the professor expected his students to sketch alongside their notes. She said she felt the sketchbook was one of the most important themes of the class.

“It brought together parts of architecture that I hadn’t thought about,” Shih said. “Sometimes you think too hard about drawing. [The sketches] help you loosen up your hands.”

Kyle Tramonte ’15 said that by taking the class, he gained the ability to approach space with a critical eye.

“You go [into the class] thinking that architectural drawing is very precise, neat and measured, but you quickly learn with Purves that this is not true,” Tramonte said. “The best drawings don’t just depict what a space looks like — they represent form and shadow. They emote.”

Purves became a faculty member at the School of Architecture in 1976.

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