Lost Art of Drawing

A freehand sketch of the south facade of the Denver Central Library, which the writer designed. Image courtesy of Michael Graves & Associates.

In an op-ed for last Sunday’s NYTimes, Michael Graves discussed preserving the “lost art of drawing.” He mentions the trend of declaring the “death of drawing” in architectural circles. Graves partook in just such a conversation this Spring at Yale’s Is Drawing Dead? Symposium.

As the argument goes, computer-aided design technology (AutoCAD and Revit were named in the piece) is quickly making drawing obsolete and with it something like the soul of the architectural design process. Graves is resigned to hand rendering’s replacement by photorealistic computer rendering as a final presentation tool. However, he is quite concerned with the decline of hand sketching and the drawing-led design process.

At the heart of the hand sketch’s decline is a shift from formal/spatial design exploration to a computational model: “Buildings are no longer just designed visually and spatially; they are ‘computed’ via interconnected databases.” Personally, I think we are much farther from real computational architecture than the marketing leads one to believe. Regardless, what’s at stake is the intuitive connection between mind, eye and hand that has shaped architecture since, at least, the renaissance.

I agree with Graves – to a point. There is something magical about the hand sketch (there is a good reason why architects’ drawings have always drawn better museum crowds than their presentation boards). In my design experience (academic and professional), designs that begin and end in the computer seem to be missing ‘something’; Graves might say “personal, emotional connection with the work.” As Graves points out, the computer-reliant “blobitecture” of the early 2000’s simply fails to resonate. In school, I also noticed the phenomenon of converting hastily contorted geometry into evocative imagery and then becoming enamored with that imagery – architectural tail wagging the dog. (BTW: Good photography can do the same to quick, junky sketch models.) The disadvantages of going digital too early in the design process are patent.

Blobitecture. Credit: 2005 MoMA/PS1 competition. Image courtesy of Xefirotarch

Where I disagree with Graves is what seems like overly sentimental coddling of the sketch. The sketch has more resilience than the “death of drawing” meme gives it credit for. After 30+ years of computers, there is still nothing faster or easier for turning an idea into a thing that can be pointed at and talked about than the sketch. I work with computer-aided design tools and their users all day and the sketch steadfastly remains the starting point for ideation and collaboration. When it is not, miscommunication ensues. Every room in my site office has a whiteboard, or an easel and pad. As I write this, I sit in front of a whiteboard wall covered in sketches of floor plans and workflow diagrams that I have use daily. I could not diagram without hand sketching it first.

I believe the prevalence of computer-aided technology will actually make hand sketching more important. As digital tools increase in sophistication and complexity they will continue to usurp the computational heavy lifting once left to disconnected hand processes. This complexity only elevates the need for a reliable, flexible, intuitive tool for idea creation, and the sketch is still that tool.

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