How 21 Famous Architects Sketch Humans

Long before Photoshop files of people were a dime a dozen, architects had to draw their own scale figures.

You’ve probably noticed that in most architectural renderings today, the people populating the images look eerily similar. Noor Makkiya, an architectural designer, argues that design tools like Photoshop and the ease of cutting and pasting imagery have robbed architectural depictions of their ontological layer.


“True architects since the early centuries used human figures not only to describe the quantity and the quality of the environment but also for deeper purposes of study and expression,” she writes on her website. “Architects project themselves into the human figure. So if we compare drawings from different architects, we frequently find differences in body shape and body activity, for practicing architects often represent their own ideologies as a reference for understanding the human physical condition.”

In her series called Figures, Makkiya corralled 21 different depictions of the human body–from classical architects such as Leonardo da Vinci and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, to modernist masters such as Mies and Oscar Niemeyer, and contemporary practitioners such as Frank Gehry and SANAA. These sketches show the architects’ building styles and philosophies at a glance: Le Corbusier’s obsession with the Modulor proportion systems based on the height of a man; De Stijl artist and architect Theo van Doesburg’s use of geometric shapes to compose a human; Gehry’s scribbles mimic his frenetic buildings.

All of the sketches have a story to tell, according to Makkiya, but a few are especially symbolic. “Léon Krier sketched a human figure as a messy system of street highways, arguing the effect of the auto industry on the city and urban design,” she says. “The Smithsons‘ figures are considered significant, because they were the first who used the revolutionary technique of collaging human figures cut from newspapers, the initial steps of Photoshop. I personally love Oscar Niemeyer’s smooth lines when he draws the female in the foreground of his renderings—if you see the whole sketch you can see the same smooth, curvy lines in his architecture.”

I, for one, am especially fond of Steven Holl‘s watercolor. He famously begins every project with a painting and that artistry and sensitivity remains infused in the completed works, such as this house and gallery in Korea inspired by a musical score. See the whole Figures series in the slide show above.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.