Axonometric versus Perspective

No drawing can capture reality entirely.  A drawing represents a particular perception of human experience. This rule applies to drawings in architectural communication as well. The question is when and how to justify the right type of drawing to accomplish the task at hand. This requires an understanding and evaluation of the function and the utilization of an appropriate drawing type in order to be successful.  This article will compare the function between axonometric and perspective drawings and their usages in architectural design process. 

Drawing by Sara Reh, Timothy Hefler & Brendon Bangert

In the Middle-Ages, axonometric drawing was used mainly for military purposes.  Due to its measurability and preciseness, it was the optimal medium of communication for building walls and other constructing facilities to protect their cities. Since errors meant the loss of life and their cities, precision was critical.  Axonometric drawing is parallel projection drawing that offers a unique view beyond our actual perception. Axonometric drawing, for Akos Moravanszky, has been considered an efficient method of visualizing spatial relation to true size. It is safe to say that we hardly see this type of view through the naked eye on a daily basis. In architectural practice, I normally utilize an axonometric drawing (an Isometric) to visualize constructional methods in design that relate in order to reveal the sequence of construction or material components.  It is an effective type of drawing that I often encourage students to use for exploring their constructional understanding in architectural design.  According to Akos Moravanszky, axonometric projection was considered an objective means of technical drawing. Akos cited that Auguste Choisy was be able to mediate structural clarity of major spatial construction in his studies. Due to the effectiveness of axonometric drawings, there have been many respected architects from historical eras to contemporary times that have utilized this type of drawing as an important vehicle in their design process. The drawing above is an example of an axonometric drawing by students in my steel building technology course. It was utilized to capture the constructional sequence and building components as part of their design exploration in addition to the conventional method of drawing (detail section drawing).


Drawing by Katherine Brewer

Unlike an axonometric drawing, a perspective drawing is often used to capture a particular angle of our perception as a being in space.  It is a useful type of drawing in design purposes to visualize and capture our perception in architectural spaces. Its function is similar to the photographing method.  It is used to represent our imagination. Well-known architect, Steven Holl, often uses perspective drawings along with other types of drawings to capture his architectural imagination in his water color sketches before the ideas are further examined. Perspective drawings are also widely used by architects to present their design ideas to clients since viewing this type of drawing requires little background knowledge to understand its content as well as its closeness to our actual perception when we conceive idea of spaces in three dimensions in contrast to axonometric drawings. In the Renaissance era, perspective drawing was widely used as the dominate medium due to its character.  The example above depicts the ability of a perspective drawing to capture our perception in viewing a space in three dimensions. 

When practicing architecture, it is critical to be able to evaluate which type of drawings shall be used  as a vehicle of design in order to explore the best possibility of design. Axonometric drawings seem to be an appropriate medium to explore and explain constructional methods in design while perspective drawings are good for three dimensional explorations in design as part of our human perception in architectural spaces. However, there is no distinct line of usage between the two. It is based on the experience and purpose of how and when to use them. The base line is understanding their capacities and functions which help to justify what type of drawing should be used to serve our purpose.

Drawing Method of Auguste Choisy

One of the common type of drawings that I normally use is Isometric drawing.  I often use this type of drawing to review three dimensional aspects of my design or constructional aspect of architecture. I also use Isometric drawing  when I design furniture for my wood working practice. The drawing offers a unique point of observation.  Most of my Isometric drawings will be visualized from the bird’s – eye view that allows the viewer to see the object from above. It is useful when utilizing this type of drawing to appropriate task in design precesses. Particularly for my object design (Wood furniture design) because it allows me to exhibit the entire elements of an object , and an Isometric also allowed me to implement scale directly into a drawing.

However when it comes to architectural design, I confronted the difficulty to visualize interior spaces  thorough bird’s -eye view isometric drawings because the view point is not related to regular level of human perception. I recently came across the book by Auguste Choisy called “ Historie de l’ architecture”.  Besides the content, the book depicted marvelous drawings in various types. One of those were Isometrics and cutaway drawings ,but instead of using bird’s -eye view technique, Choisy selected a worm’s – eye view to convey his point of architectural observations. Choisy’s drawings allow viewers to visualize quality of interior spaces over exterior of architecture. I personally think this drawing method is profoundly constructive in architectural design. Particularly when we need to examine quality of interior spaces of our design. Since qualities of interior spaces is an essence of creating architecture, utilizing Choisy’s method of drawing could be an answer. As far as I can recall, Rafael Moneo Architect used this method of drawing in his project, National Museum of Roman Art as well.

Figure-Ground Drawings

Drawing by Tomi Perl

Figure ground drawing is an important drawing typology as well as my favorite one, which I often use in my architecture and urban design processes. Figure ground drawing is an analytical drawing  that helps me to evaluate appropriateness when inserting a new design into an existing urban fabric.  In other words, figure ground drawings help clarify the order of existing urban morphology. It helps to justify the shape of new buildings in a certain level. Indeed it is a reduction drawing typology that is intended to eliminate and is fully focused on the relationship between open ground and buildings’ shapes.

When Colin Rowe submitted his proposal for a cultural competition “Roma interrotta” in 1978, he employed figure ground drawing as part of his drawing method for his proposal. Each of twelve renowned architects who participated in the competition were given a 1748 Nolli map as an important order of the existing urban fabric.  Rowe retained important elements of the city such as streets and plazas as existing conditions from the Nolli map.  Additional parts of his design proposal were created with various shapes that were filled in with black color to represent the shape of new buildings that ought to be new urban infill, which Rowe termed “ideal ground plans.”  It is a superimposed method of urban design. The result of his reinvention of using figure ground drawing as part of design strategy was remarkable. His proposal offered the opportunity of the city to capture the urban spatial quality and order of the existing urban fabric, but set free the new building design to be built in any era as long as they are aligned within existing urban order. For further understanding, please read “Urban Design Tactics” by Steven Peterson.

Typically in figure ground drawings, all buildings will be done in black Poche while leaving open land, streets, and plazas as white. I see figure ground as an another type of diagram drawing since it uses the reduction method of drawing.  I normally construct the drawing by using AutoCad, and I found that Cadmapper is a very useful website for this particular task.  The outline of each building will be drawn with thin lines (0.09 mm) and the buildings’ shape will be hatched with solid hatch. 1:2000 (Close to 1/160″=1′ in feet and inches) is an ideal scale for drawing figure ground in metric and it is likely the smallest scale that is being used in architectural drawing. The important elements that should be included with figure ground drawings are the north arrow and graphic scale.

The drawing above is an example of a figure ground drawing of Rome, Italy that was created by one of my students, Tomi Perl, in an urban design course as part of urban morphology studies. The drawing highlights the Pantheon in red the building of focus. With this approach, viewers will be able to spot the focused area of study easily.