Words by Nick Jones
One of humanity’s oldest skills is making an unlikely comeback as designers rebel against the render
Surely hand-drawing should be dead by now? It is a quarter of a century since French architect Bernard Tschumi initiated the “paperless studio” at New York’s Columbia University to find out “how one can think with computers”. As his students unleashed a world of alternative geometries and amoebic forms, Tschumi suggested that the architect of the future would be less a skilled draughtsman, more a wide-ranging digital specialist. Since then, more and more of our buildings have started out as a line on a screen, before being revealed to the world in the form of slick CAD renders. There is even a question as to whether computers need architects to help them think at all — intelligent parametric tools can design spaces based on complex algorithms, while robots have “learned” to design and build elaborate structures without human intervention. It all feels a very long way from a roll of yellow tracing paper and a favourite pencil.
And yet hand-drawing is refusing to go quietly — in fact, it is showing tentative signs of a renaissance. As technology has become ubiquitous, perhaps it’s to be expected that we are more aware of its limitations. Many architects and engineers have found that the creative process is simply not as intuitive when the delicate relationship between brain, eye and hand is mediated by computer. The digital revolution has inspired reams of psychological research, much of which sees drawing as an innate human activity — as vital to learning, thinking and communicating as it is to artistic expression. Organizations such as Thinking Through Drawing in the US and The Big Draw in the UK promote the need for visual literacy in fields as diverse as particle physics and dentistry. Art should be as integral a part of the school timetable as science subjects, they argue, with STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — broadened to become STEAM. In this context, the idea that our buildings and cities can be designed entirely via a computer screen begins to look, frankly, a bit old-fashioned.
Why drawing matters
Drawing — in its widest sense — plays many roles in the creation of the built environment, from the inspired doodle on a restaurant tablecloth to the lavish watercolour painting that convinces a planning panel. It is used to generate concepts, to bring a sense of personality to a design, or just to swap ideas among members of the project team. A drawing can capture people’s attention, win an argument, describe the indescribable.
But one of the most fundamental reasons why designers draw is simply to help them to see what’s in front of them. “Drawing is a really important way of observing the world really, really closely,” says Rebecca Chamberlain, a psychologist at Goldsmith’s, University of London, who has explored the relationship between drawing and wider visual awareness. “Artists pick up on things like textures and patterns that other people don’t notice. In architecture too, you have to be alert all the time to aspects of your visual environment, interesting things that you then integrate into your work.”
Ron Slade on beginning a visual dialogue
“Sketching is an effective way of explaining spatial relationships, visualizing complex analysis, showing how ideas have evolved and demonstrating how something is going to be built. From a practical point of view, there is no better way to start than finding a tracing roll and a soft pencil and downloading ideas onto paper in a rough and ready fashion, just to develop your own thoughts and then help begin a visual dialogue with colleagues and designers in related disciplines.”