We hardly ever meet an architect in a purely imaginative realm. We meet artists there and quite recklessly trust them with the safety of our souls but architects we only ever see as real people when their imaginative exercises have been realised in safe and solid stone and steel. Even then we fail to see them as artists. There is typically a schism in our minds dividing fine art from architecture. From a personal standpoint that may have to do with an academic divorcing of the two in art institutions. Following some initial mingling in the studios and the lecture rooms, some blanket talk of the Renaissance, perspective, and the Bauhaus, a very dramatic forking of the paths takes place and artists and architects then usually just meet if they wind up together in wedlock. Even after the segregation, chances are that students of architecture will have a far better shot at identifying a Gauguin than students of fine arts would at recognising a Le Corbusier (his paintings would probably be received by them as some of Picasso’s obscurer or more repetitive works). Visual art, to put it simply, is considered everybody’s business – by everybody. Architecture, thankfully, retains some intimidation. It turns out that nobody fancies living in a rickety skeleton put together with just a whole lot of inspiration. Planning matters, and knowledge, and an understanding of real, habitable space.
Yet much of the creative process is similar to both areas. Inspiration smites the architect with no less force than it does the artist (though the artist will predictably be more operatic about it). A sight or sound, a piece of text, an isolated occurrence can be equally fertile for both. There are sketches, more sketches, scribbles, drawings, quick little paintings. Yes, the architect will still be working towards a manifested vision whereas the artist can remain purely fantastical or philosophical, but in the abandon of the embryonic stage, at least, the architect’s vision, too, can be limitless. At a recent exhibition at Karachi’s IVS Gallery, curator Hajra Haider, in a highly innovative and much-needed move, showed just that. ‘Non-Site’ features drawings by Arsalan Rafique and Anique Azhar, young alumni of the National College of Arts, Lahore. Haider explains, in her curatorial note, that the exhibition seeks to redefine place, space, and ‘non-place’, a term coined by French anthropologist Marc Augé for spaces transitorily occupied or traversed, spaces which “cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity”. While ‘place’ is a simple enough word for us, meaning any demarcated area, a point, a destination, ‘space’ is perhaps more charged with meaning, carrying as it does a temporal significance in addition to its obvious spatial one.
Between the two of them, Rafique and Azhar have all the connotations of these terms covered. Rafique’s series of intricate, labyrinthine pen and ink drawings, so aptly titled Rooms Without Destination, are the infinite libraries of Borges, the convoluted monasteries of Eco, the boundless, pitless prisons of Piranesi. They would be frightening with a kind of Sisyphean dizziness to them but they are drawn with such lyrical and minute attention that they become utopian instead. Some, likeRooms Without Destination 2 and 8, are akin to bisections of the earth – long, floating, graceful structures at once geological and architectural, revealing on closer inspection a wealth of linear detail. Stairways and corridors worm in and out of the untethered tracts, mysterious crossings and domes half-rise from a panoply of parts.
Others, like Rooms Without Destination 4 and 5, show arcane amalgams of nature and what appear to be classical architectural elements. They carry something of the ancient civilisations, there is an esotericism to their arenas and daises. They are reminiscent of the monastic, haunting sketches of French architect Francois Garas, who believed – in keeping with the fin de siècle ethos – in honouring art, beauty, and spirituality above all else and infused his architectural drawings with all of the same. He designed ‘Temples for Future Religions’ (never constructed, though you wonder why not, they look like just the kind of sanctums we need more of), dedicated to Beethoven, Wagner and the abstract deities of Life, Death, and Thought. In Rafique’s drawings, like in Garas’, architecture starts reflecting psychological shifts, his spaces stemming from a whimsicality and disinhibition we associate with the most private and nascent stage of creativity.
If Rafique’s drawings can be viewed as fanciful interpretations of ‘space’, then Azhar’s can be seen as examples of ‘non-place’. Drawn and rendered with the finesse of architectural drawings, these pen, pastel and charcoal sketches are all marked, nonetheless, with an anonymity that makes it impossible for them to be perceived in terms of details like location, dimension, or designation. Done in blocks of black and grey, they are monolithic and impassive; they seem intermediate. Referring to non-places, Augé writes that a person “entering the space of non-place is relieved of his usual determinants.” A non-place “creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude and similitude.” Azhar’s drawings, though replete with the trappings of architectural drawings, are still ambiguous to the point of being almost hieroglyphic. You eventually view them as you would a code on a tablet, or a specimen of some patriarchal calligraphy. Their success lies not in how habitable they may or may not appear but in how fundamental an aesthetic pleasure they offer.
When you look at Piranesi’s etchings of the architectural detritus scattered through Rome like the limbs and wings of a gigantic Icarus, or his Carceri (The Prisons) series, you wonder what it would have been like to see such cities, such daunting, proud and terrible spaces, such twisted architectural concoctions in actuality. What would the world have been like if they had existed, if Piranesi, a Venetian artist with his heart set on being an architect, really had become one? Or what couldthe world be like if Vincent Callebaut’s Lilypads or Hydrogenase came to exist? It is perhaps imperative that more of these drawings , these designs, these visions on paper deck gallery walls, proliferate artistic spaces. The divide is unnatural and mostly just a divide in our minds. Architectural creation or, as ‘Non-Site’ makes clear, even architectural musing, is art with only the added and crucial element of possibility.
‘Non-Site: Architectural Drawings by Arsalan Rafique & Anique Azhar’ was on view at IVS Gallery, Karachi, from 15 April – 7 May 2015. Images courtesy IVS Gallery.
Dua Abbas Rizvi is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan.