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Architects' Sketchbooks: Back to the drawing board

An intriguing new book delves into the notepads of leading architects to show the sketchy origins of some truly monumental buildings

If you were asked to draw a building, what would you do? A square with a triangle on top, perhaps with four smaller squares and a rectangle inside, for the windows and doors? Most of us would probably come up with some variation on the childish doodle of the dream family home. But what if someone asked you to draw a completely new building? You'd likely be stumped.

If you were an architect, though, you might create a beautiful rooftop in a single sweep of your pen, dash out a new type of tower block on the back of a napkin or see potential living space in the curves of a skull. You might even, if you were Narinder Sagoo of Foster + Partners, imagine an entire city in the body of a cow, with stairs running up the haunches and a swimming pool in the udders.

From such sketches – some idle, some functional, some fantastical – skyscrapers are born. Though it's sometimes difficult to remember in an era of ever-soaring skylines, buildings don't sprout, fully formed, from the ground. There's a seed of inspiration, an idea for a shape or function, which has to be scribbled down first. It's the initial step in making imagination reality, long before fiddly plans and measurements and the messy business of bricks and mortar come into play. Think of the most extraordinary additions man has made to the landscape – from the Eiffel Tower to the Gherkin – and they started as a stroke of pen or pencil on a blank page.

Now 85 architects from around the world have rifled through their studio drawers and thrown open their Moleskine notepads to share some of these early sketches and doodles for a new book. Architects' Sketchbooks provides a fascinating insight into "the blood, sweat and pencil lead that go into designing the world we live in," says Will Jones, who spent 18 months compiling the volume. "Architects have all of this wonderful work that never gets seen. All of a sudden you see this big new tower appear in the London skyline, but you don't see the work that goes into it. Perhaps 10 years before it ever gets built there's something on paper."

These are no meticulous technical diagrams on squared paper or detailed blueprints, though. "That could be a little bit heavy," says Jones. "We wanted to look at the inspiration behind the architects' work – how they initially put pen to paper. Some of the work is very detailed. Some of it is the first mark on paper, just scribbles. You think, 'how can they ever turn that into a building?' But that's what these guys do."

As such, the book is a mish-mash of styles, approaches and formats. There are watercolours and smudgy pencil sketches, crayon scrawls, cartoons and comic strips, imaginary cityscapes and communities with stick men and humans Photoshopped in. There are pages torn out of notebooks and designs "drawn" on digital sketchpads. Energetic flights of fancy that are yet to be set in stone, they reveal the personalities of the people behind the glass-and-steel megaliths of the modern city.

"It just has to be fast, to enable me to demonstrate the essence of the idea without getting too complex," says Ivan Harbour, of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the man behind the Lloyd's building and the Welsh National Assembly, among many others. Often discussed in technical terms, architecture can be a rather dark art to the man on the street. Harbour's cartoonish diagrams, drawn on tablecloths, scrap paper or whatever comes to hand, strip buildings back to their essence, marking out how people will move around them and what they will see. Shigeru Ban, a Japanese-born architect, has a similarly vivid approach, with childish miniature men and yellow arrows indicating where the sun will hit his buildings. His primary colour sketches for the Centre Pompidou-Metz, with its giant latticed timber roof inspired by the woven bamboo strips of a traditional Chinese hat, are fun, functional and easy to read. It's as if the two architects are explaining their ideas to us on the back of a cigarette packet in the pub.

Norman Foster, apparently, can't get through a meeting without doodling on a pad for emphasis. His sketches, whether of the Commerzbank HQ in Germany or a school in Sierra Leone, are pictures of discipline and expertise – pages of worked-over grids or beautifully proportioned buildings with sightlines dotted in and self-critical notes written in the margins: "More atmosphere!" "This line is too curved".

Rafael Vinoly, currently working on the transformation of Battersea Power Station, takes a similarly traditional approach, using charcoal and watercolours to capture his original ideas in lyrical, free-flowing style. There's rigour behind the art, though: for Vinoly, drawing is the crucial first building block in a long and meticulous process. "I like to work large-scale because I think it teaches you to control proportion, and makes you think about dimension and form so much more," he says. "Small sketches are exercises in self-indulgence."

Others take their design cues from popular culture. 3Deluxe communicate their spaceship-like designs via futuristic Manga imagery. Elsewhere, the Spanish practice Mi5 Arquitectos create bubblegum sci-fi cartoons complete with characters pointing out architectural features – "The invasion of the prefabricated reef!" – while C J Lim, who teaches at London's Bartlett School of Architecture, produces humorous monochrome narratives in fountain pen where stick men interact with the building as idea bubbles reveal their inner thoughts. Comic strips, it seems, are the new blueprints.

Most surprising are the sketchbooks that offer art rather than architecture. Though there isn't a building in sight, the bold smears of pink paint, blooming flowers and riotously patterned collages that fill Will Alsop's pages are clear, if distant, relations of his shockingly modernist work such as The Public in West Bromwich. "It's not about designing something," he explains. "It's about discovering what something could be."

The book also asserts the primacy of drawing as the foundation stone of architecture in an era where computer-aided design (or CAD) has become the norm. "Formal training has veered away from teaching people to draw," says Jones. "I spoke to an architect recently who was bemoaning new students coming to him for jobs who couldn't draw." For many, picking up a pencil has become a mere formality; why spend time drawing straight lines and measuring angles when a click of the mouse can do it for you? Still, there are plenty of architects fighting the tide, including Carlos Jiménez, whose sketchbook is crammed with intuitive crayon shorthand and who insists that his colleagues have pens and paper on their desks "to break the hypnotic tempo of the computer screen."

Foster, too, has his reservations about relying on technology from the earliest stages. "I worry about students who might feel that the power of sophisticated computer equipment has somehow rendered the humble pencil if not obsolete, then certainly second rate. The pencil and computer are very similar in that they are only as good as the people driving them," he warns. Now 75, the doyen of world architecture is no less thrilled by the possibilities of the blank page than he was half a century ago. "I'm always excited by the potential that lies within a sketch... the absolute first step towards a new building."

'Architects' Sketchbooks' by Will Jones is published on 14 March by Thames & Hudson

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To order your copy of 'Architects' Sketchbooks' for the special price of £22.95 (RRP £29.95) , including UK mainland delivery (overseas costs available on request), please call our distributor, Littlehampton Book Services, 01903 828503, quoting "TH126". Offer is subject to availability.