When you have a great idea for a building, you could try explaining it in words – but you’re liable to gesticulate wildly, confuse your audience, and end up reaching for a paper and pen! Concept sketches are a tried and tested means of communicating architectural ideas, and producing them can be one of the most exciting parts of an architect’s job.
This article explains exactly what a concept sketch is and does within the architectural profession, explains the different ways that architects might approach the activity of concept sketching, and offers some inspiration from master sketchers such as Peter Zumthor and Zaha Hadid.
What is a concept sketch?
A concept sketch communicates the most important aspects of a design, whether it’s for a building, a product or something else. It is usually a freehand drawing with some basic labels that explain parts, processes and relationships. Concept sketches are created in the early stages of the design process by architects, engineers, industrial designers, interior designers and others; they are not intended to be detailed or even 100% accurate, but to capture the essence of the thing that will ultimately be manufactured.
Specifically, what is a Architectural Concept Sketch?
Architects generally use concept sketches to explore their initial responses to a brief. The sketches are ‘broad sweeps’ that don’t necessarily take into account practical restrictions. Nevertheless, they can also be used to think through layout, site limitations, circulation patterns, solar paths and so on.
One of the most famous concept sketches in architecture is Renzo Piano’s design for the Shard in London, which he drew on the back of a restaurant napkin. Property developer Irvine Sellar, with whom Piano was meeting at the time, said, “He saw the beauty of the river and railways and the way their energy blended and began to sketch in green felt pen what he saw as a giant sail or an iceberg.” You can see the sketch in question here.
Felt pen, graphite and charcoal are the preferred media for concept sketches because they allow for speed and flexibility. Though a concept sketch can be produced on a tablet or computer, the resulting image would be too precise for many architects’ tastes (and arguably ruin the point of the exercise, since it cannot be produced quickly).
The role and purpose of the concept sketch
Make Architects have argued that the point of the concept sketch is to create a ‘touchstone’ or ‘motif’ for a project by ‘investigating [its] parameters and opportunities’ – in other words, the sketch should find, test and even push the boundaries of what can be done, and then be retained as a continual point of reference as the project progresses. The period in which concept sketches are produced is one of focused play. Architects do not enter this period with an aesthetic vision in mind, but allow the designs to emerge from their activity.
In a similar vein, Mike Davies from RSHP (who designed the Millennium Dome) suggests that a concept sketch should help architects get to grips ‘with the real issues of form and bulk, scale and mass and the generic appearance of a building within its surrounding urban context . . . it resolves the issue of ‘what’ and ‘how much’ and begins to set the stage for understanding ‘how’.’ The concept sketch is the rock on which later, more technical drawings, plans and elevations are built.
Concept sketches are a useful way for architects to communicate their ideas with each other, and also with clients who may lack the vocabulary to discuss the technical aspects of a building project. As the saying goes: sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.
How do architects create a concept sketch?
Different architects approach the concept sketch in different ways (and some may even prefer to make three-dimensional concept models). However, they usually begin by selecting a point of departure, such as function, material or philosophy.
A functional approach is driven by what the building will actually do, so it is particularly suitable for schools, hospitals and other large and/or complex public buildings. An architect might select a material approach if they know that the project will be driven by, for example, a local brick or stone – or if they are likely to experience material scarcity in the place where they will build, for example in a refugee camp. The philosophical approach, meanwhile, places the ‘values’ that underpin the building centre stage; for example, a government may want its offices to somehow communicate to the public a sense of transparency and inclusivity.
Other approaches include contextual, in which the site dictates to a large extent the form and appearance of the building, and collaborative, in which teamwork and the sharing of ideas are emphasised.
Some concept sketches by the world’s most famous architects
If you’re short of inspiration for your concept sketches, why not take a look at how some of the world’s master architects made theirs? We’ve picked out eight iconic designs from (almost) the last century for your viewing pleasure.
1. Vladimir Tatlin, Monument to the Third International (1919-20) – Tatlin’s Tower, as the monument is also known, was never actually built, although several scale models exist today. The double helix, which was to rise 400 metres into the air, was meant to symbolise modernity and the strength of the Soviet Union, but in reality was hopelessly impractical.
2. Le Corbusier, Notre Dame de Haut (c. 1950) – Le Corbusier is mostly associated with clean, straight lines, but this Roman Catholic chapel (designed late in his career) is spectacularly curved.
3. Robert Venturi, I AM A MONUMENT (1972) – Venturi’s classic sketch was not for a building he intended to produce, but was meant to represent of the vernacular, mid-century American architecture that fascinated him so much. He theorised that contemporary buildings used signs and symbols to advertise their purpose more literally than ever before.
4. Frank Gehry, Guggenheim Bilbao (1991) – Gehry’s remarkable sketch for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is barely identifiable as the waterfront building it now is, yet somehow captures its essence.
5. Norman Foster, Reichstag Renovation (1991) – Foster designed the glass dome which now sits atop Berlin’s Reichstag after the reunification of Germany. It has 360-degree views of the German capital and is open to the public, symbolising that the people should always be higher than the government.
6. Peter Zumthor, Therme Vals (1993) – Designed to represent a cave or quarry, Zumthor’s thermal baths simultaneously fit into, and stand out against, the mountains that surround them. This blocky concept sketch was made with little more than a few scrapes of charcoal.
7. Foreign Office Architects, Yokohama Terminal (2002) – This is the only digital sketch on the list, proving that it’s not impossible to represent a concept electronically. It’s also a great example of how an initial concept sketch can look nothing like the finished building!
8. Zaha Hadid, Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art (2003) – Hadid was famous for her expressive sketches, and this one exemplifies her sparse, energetic style. Additionally, this article includes images of the stunning perspex model she went on to create for this gallery.
A great concept sketch communicates the personality of a building in a simple way, sometimes with just a few brushstrokes (although some architects, such as Norman Foster, are fans of notes and labels too). It can act as an anchor throughout a project, and also allows architect to figure out what will and won’t be possible. Concept sketches are commonly driven by the building’s function, material or philosophy, and are created freehand in pencil or felt pen to allow for maximum versatility.
Because concept sketches are made at the start of the design process, there are few limitations on what can be set down on paper. For this reason, many architects enjoy producing concept sketches more than any other aspect of their work!