posted 2012-10-05 22:22:04

“A Line Around an Idea”

Drawings by James Wines 

Irina Lotarevich

Staff Writer

“A Line Around an Idea,” a new exhibition at CUNY City College, is dedicated to the drawings of James Wines, architect and founder of the SITE design organization. Since 1970 Wines has taken on a huge range of projects under SITE. His designs range from the high (a massive private residential tower in Mumbai, where one square foot of space costs nearly two thousand dollars) to the low (Shake Shack’s flagship location in Madison Square Park). Over the last forty-two years, Wines has designed and built over one hundred and fifty projects spread across nine different countries, though only a handful of are represented in “A Line Around an Idea.”

The focus of the exhibition is the beauty of Wines’ draftsmanship. In an age where computer rendering is increasingly the dominant method of visualizing a design proposal, Wines’ skillfully drawn and colored illustrations harken back to another time. Before, computer rendering architects had to learn to deftly handle their Micron pens lest hours of work on a drawing be lost to a heedless mistake. The curriculum for City College’s own Bachelors of Architecture introduces students to computer-aided design (CAD) in their sophomore year, while the only course devoted solely to drawing by hand is an optional elective. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “computer-aided design and drafting (CADD) and building information modeling (BIM) technology have replaced traditional drafting paper and pencil as the most common methods for creating designs and construction drawings” for architects. Architecture firms require prospective entry-level employees to be well-versed in the use of CAD.

Despite all this, Wines believes that hand drawing is still an indispensable tool in the process of designing structures. Drawing, he says, yields the sort of “subliminal accident”—a dribble of ink, a random doodle—that can inspire fresh solutions to problems in design. The title of the exhibition is a quote taken from Matisse: “Drawing is putting a line around an idea.” Matisse is implying that the physical constraints of the drawing process can help architects make their ideas more determined and concise.

Wines is not against computer-aided design—on the contrary, he believes that the best architects of today will be able to use both drawings and computers to find new solutions to problems in design. As “A Line Around an Idea” shows, Wines has himself incorporated CAD into his design proposals since the late 1990s, using computer visualizations to supplement his drawings. The use of CAD has clearly created a change in Wines’ work. While his designs both before and after its implementation are equally ambitious, the newer work makes more use of complex modular and repeating structures, perhaps reflecting the particular strength of computer-based design. His 2008 Urban Forest proposal for a public space in Beijing, China envisions parks and streets arranged in weaving patterns inspired by the human arterial system. It is evident that such an idea might be easier to visualize in the digital realm, where the repetitive structure of arteries can be readily applied to the streets of Beijing.

Still, it seems that Wines’ most exciting projects were his early, pre-CAD works with SITE, in particular the BEST Products, Inc. Showroom Buildings. Conceived in 1972, the project was a result of BEST Products, a chain of retail showrooms akin to today’s Walmart, approaching Wines and his team with a challenge to reimagine the big box store facade. Wines’ response was to alter the facade of actual BEST Products Showrooms in multiple locations across the country, “peeling away” the facade in Richmond and making it crumble in Houston. SITE’s other similarly conceptual projects, like the Ansel Adams Center in California, in which the entire structure was built underneath a pre-existing layer of natural grass, earned the architect a reputation as an artist. His skillful drawings underscored the point, proving that the paper and pen are indeed tools with which visionary ideas can develop.

“A Line Around an Idea” is on view until April 5th at the Spitzer School of Architecture at City College.