Back to the drawing board

One of humanity’s oldest skills is making an unlikely comeback as designers rebel against the render

December 2018

Words by Nick Jones

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.”

Tall building, an early construction sequence, by Ron Slade; pencil on paper
Tall building, an early construction sequence, by Ron Slade; pencil on paper
Foundation construction, part of a sequence, by Ron Slade; pencil on paper
Foundation construction, part of a sequence, by Ron Slade; pencil on paper

The use of drawing as an observation tool is as old as architecture itself. Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Vasari all drew by hand on site, Inigo Jones twice visited Italy to record the details and construction techniques of Palladio’s buildings, and even after the advent of photography, architects such as Le Corbusier would take extended field trips with their sketchbooks. Several years ago — and having just spent two years at Columbia’s paperless studios — Miami-based architect Jacob Brillhart picked up his sketchbook and retraced Le Corbusier’s 1907-11 trips through Italy, Greece and Turkey to better understand the relationship between close observation, drawing and architectural design. By comparing his drawings with Le Corbusier’s — the details they highlighted, those they left out — Brillhart began to understand how this direct engagement with the world had informed the Swiss designer’s work. “Le Corbusier drew on site to deeply understand scale as well as light, shadow and form in full, physical three dimensions.” In the flat two dimensions of a computer screen, on the other hand, “there’s no sun, no shadow, no weight, no material, no scale and very little physical and cultural context”.

Chamberlain’s research also explores how observational drawing improves spatial perception. When she studied the impact of foundation drawing classes on design students at the Pratt Institute in New York, she found they became more aware of the relationships between objects. “If we asked them to make a five-minute drawing and they had to pick out the most important aspects of a scene, they got better at selecting that information,” she says.

“Something I’ve noticed with new buildings is that you can almost tell which software they were designed in”

Tatiana von Preussen, vPPR Architects

Honing drawing skills gives designers a far better sense of relative scale, says Maurice Brennan, associate partner at architect Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, who posts sketches from his travels and daily life on Instagram. “It’s not about drawing well, or beautiful shading in, it’s about being able to put things in relation to each other, at the right scale, on a piece of paper. That’s not a drawing ability, that’s a cognitive ability. An engineer who draws to scale is really important — you’ll find the guys who can draw in the meeting are also the ones who can give you the quick answer.”

Digital tools, on the other hand, can offer a deceptive sense of gratification, he warns. “The process of drawing is about constantly assessing, reassessing — have I got this right, should I move this? — whereas in CAD software, you move from a hard line to a completed visual very, very quickly. You don’t go through that process of gradually building up information. That’s why there are some very complicated, advanced-looking buildings out there that don’t really stand up as bits of architecture.”

Brillhart describes hand-drawing as real-time printing, “because as you’re drawing you’re printing it. You stop immediately when it starts looking bad and you reflect on it. The computer, on the other hand, offers very little time for reflection — and that’s because you’re not thinking and printing at the same time.”

Foundation construction, part of a sequence, by Ron Slade; pencil on paper
Santa Maria Novella, Florence, by Jacob Brillhart; pencil and watercolour on paper

Jacob Brillhart on observational drawing

“I was so tired of looking at a screen for two years straight, I wanted to kill somebody! So I picked up my sketchbook and Corbu’s sketchbooks and travelled round Europe, standing in all the places he stood, looking at the things he drew, and I just drew them again because all I wanted to do was make physical things, and see physical things. What was funny was that sometimes I didn’t even look at the things he was looking at — he exaggerated some things but left others out. It gave me insight, and allowed me to be more critical, more analytical about the work.”

“It’s kind of amusing — instead of just sitting down and drawing for an hour, they spend eight hours making it look like a hand drawing”

Jacob Brillhart, Brillhart Architecture

One consequence of this is that the architect can be led by the computer. London practice vPPR Architects’ process involves a mix of “delicate line drawings and precise computer modelling”, but co-founder Tatiana von Preussen, another Columbia alumnus, says that certain software comes with constraints that encourage a particular style. “Something I’ve noticed with new buildings is that you can almost tell which software they were designed in. For instance, if you take Revit, it’s very hard to freely create non-orthogonal, non-linear geometries, and it’s very easy to create repetitive elements, so it lends itself to a particular way of building.”

Form has always followed medium to an extent, but drawn architecture comes from the human imagination: “If you look at the [1980s-90s] deconstructivist period, that was very much an exercise in drawing, and it was a love of drawing that produced those amazing buildings. All of Zaha Hadid’s early work comes out of the drawing — it’s a direct relationship.”

A universal language

As a tool for communication, hand-drawing is difficult to replace. Artist and architect Chris Loyn remembers a site meeting when he was a young architect on a particularly complex project where the roof and walls both curved. “I was trying to convey to the contractor the critical junctions using traditional orthogonal plan and section drawings. Ralph, the site foreman, sat me down and upturned a dustbin to work as a make-shift table. ‘Chris,’ he said, ‘you can sketch. Take out your book and draw for me what it looks like. If I can see it, I can build it.’ I drew it, he built it.”

In a design meeting, drawing is quicker, more effective, and more fun. Kevin Winward, executive chairman of WSP Structures in Melbourne, comes from a generation of engineers for whom drawing was the primary means of engagement between designers. “When I’m working with an architect, we’ll be sitting there, scribbling on paper and leaning over one another,” he says. “It means you’re more likely to come up with creative ideas that work straight away. You can’t really do that on a computer, side by side, and it can save you a lot of time compared to doing it remotely.”

Drawing “stops the room”, according to Laurie Chetwood, founder of UK-based practice Chetwood Associates, who has written and spoken extensively on the importance of drawing to the profession as well as exhibiting his own artworks. It’s also far more effective for reaching a decision: “If someone says ‘what about if we did such and such’ and you sketch it, it accelerates the process. Instead of saying ‘let’s go away and come back’, you can do it in front of people. You probably cut out 25% of the time it usually takes.”

hand drawn illustration of a city park
Sketch views of houses in Radyr, South Wales, by Chris Loyn; pencil on paper
Sketch views of houses in Radyr, South Wales, by Chris Loyn; pencil on paper

Narinder Sagoo on his innate need to draw

“Growing up, drawing was a form of escapism for me — a way of exploring the world. It became a way to connect, see dreams, see the world and record it. I would draw my grandmother as she cooked, or my grandfather, a carpenter, as he tinkered with his tools. I often found myself in my father’s metal workshop, furiously sketching all the wondrous apparatus and equipment that surrounded and captivated me. My passion for drawing started early, perhaps at the same time as my passion for making. The two were inseparable. While sketching allowed me to have fun, the discipline of drawing fascinated me. I really enjoyed the dance between the pen or pencil and paper, and when I draw now I still try to reconnect to that childhood curiosity I felt then.”

RSHP’s Brennan also knows the power of a well-timed sketch. “I’d be in meetings with, say, 30 people — engineers, project managers, all round a big table — and everyone would be having side conversations. But as soon as you grab a pen and a piece of paper and start drawing something, everyone leans over, and you command the table.”

A skilled draughtsman guides these conversations by selecting and emphasizing details in a way that computer programmes cannot. Ron Slade, author of Sketching for Engineers and Architects and a structural director at WSP in London, calls it “conversational drawing”. He notes how botany field guides are always based on detailed drawings rather than photographs — as much for what they leave out as for what they show. “Extraneous material that might exist in a photograph is eliminated. It may be important to pick out and illustrate particular areas and leave other parts in sketchy or broad outline.”

An honest trade

There’s another area of architecture where elements of a project may be best left to the imagination: communicating to clients. Narinder Sagoo, senior partner at Foster + Partners and an ambassador for The Big Draw, describes architecture as creating sets for people’s lives, “giving their theatre a backdrop, be it a momentary experience or wholly encompassing, such as the workplace. Therefore, when we draw, we create storyboards, much like those for films, to which we can add emotion and complexity, or innocence and simplicity.”

Observational painting of a Barcelona street by Chris Loyn; pencil, pen and watercolour on watercolour paper
Observational painting of a Barcelona street by Chris Loyn; pencil, pen and watercolour on watercolour paper

Chris Loyn on drawing in meetings

“I use a day book in which I have recorded every meeting since I started up in practice in 1987. The ability to sketch in front of the client to illustrate one’s thoughts and early ideas conveys an intimate knowledge and understanding of the project, which in turn gives confidence. I see sketching and painting as a vital part of the ‘art of the architect’. It trains the eye.”

Many younger practices are shunning digital renders in favour of a more crafted approach, creating evocative imagery that more loosely captures the characterful spaces they hope to build. Some, such as Rotterdam’s Monadnock, are as renowned for their drawings as their finished buildings. “We think drawings are part of the total production of a practice,” says Monadnock’s Job Floris. “We try to show the possible structure in its context, consciously resisting the killing photo-realism of render-culture.”

This is partly a question of architectural fashion. Just as the brutalist revival was best depicted in the moody black-and-white photographs beloved of Flickr users, so the more recent fashion for narrative-based, historicist architecture — often grouped together as a postmodern revival — lends itself to more esoteric, authored illustration. But the rejection of CAD also chimes with the millennial search for authenticity and artisanship in all things. Back in 2009, a study by the University of the West of England found that most people viewed photorealistic representations as more credible than hand drawings, and that there was “near universal” belief that computers were more accurate and more precise than humans. Today, when lying with photography has become as simple as a carefully positioned smartphone and a well-chosen filter, and the combined might of Twitter can call out photo fakery in seconds, trust levels would likely be much lower.

There is, suggests Slade, an in-built honesty to drawing, and particularly to sketching. ‘‘Sketches often provide physical evidence of the thought and effort that goes into their production. You might see guide lines, reworking and even corrected errors and smudges.”

Psychologists have noted that people tend to place greater artistic value on images when they can see the work that has gone into them — a tendency known as the “effort heuristic”. They are also more likely to connect emotionally with the work if they can detect the human hand, says Goldsmiths’ Chamberlain. “There’s an argument that if we see a brush stroke, we almost recreate it, and that’s part of the connection we feel with the artist — you can feel the intention.”

Perhaps to capitalize on this, some architects now show presentation drawings that look hand-drawn but are actually generated entirely by computer. “It’s totally fake,” says Brillhart. “They just take a computer image into Photoshop and put filters over it to make it look like it’s drawn by hand. It’s kind of amusing — instead of just sitting down and drawing for an hour, they spend eight hours making it look like a hand drawing.”

This could backfire, warns Chamberlain: “If something looks like it’s handmade but just not quite, that’s probably worse than just looking purely digital. We don’t like that uncanny sense, blurring the boundary of looking like real life when it’s not.” It’s a similar effect to the “uncanny valley” phenomenon in robotics, where machines that are too lifelike make us uneasy.

Thinking with our hands

Perhaps drawing will one day be what separates us from the robots. Organizations such as The Big Draw emphasize drawing as an innate human activity, an instinct as much as a learned skill, which children pick up naturally and automatically. The hand is less a tool for externalizing imaginative thought, rather it works together with the brain and eye as a single thought-generating entity. “Drawing is knowledge,” argues Kate Mason, director of The Big Draw. “It’s that process of illumination as you’re doing it — it’s not the end product at all. A lot of people talk about going into almost a meditative state, where they can just focus on the shape, the form, and it opens up new ways of thinking.”

drawing of a building at different stages

Maurice Brennan on drawing and thinking

“For drawing to operate well it has to be an extension of your thinking — literally a physical presentation of your thought processes. Even now on CAD software, you really can’t do that early stage design — just putting planes and lines into space. I think that’s one of the key things about manual drawing, you’re able to put ideas down and move on from them very quickly. You find people who are at quite an advanced stage in a project still doing elaborate freehand sketches. Not because it’s the easiest way to develop that part of the design, more because it allows a freedom to think, unencumbered by a computer screen.”

Concept sketches for Broadwick Street, London, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, by Maurice Brennan; ink and Pantone markers on paper
Concept sketches for Broadwick Street, London, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, by Maurice Brennan; ink and Pantone markers on paper

“A lot of people talk about going into almost a meditative state, where they can just focus on the shape, the form, and it opens up new ways of thinking”

Kate Mason, The Big Draw

As many traditional roles become obsolete, a greater proportion of jobs will rely on this type of intuitive human cognition, says Mason. “We won’t need so many linear skills. Instead, we’ll focus far more on the roles of critical thinking, problem-solving and aptitudinal skills.” The trouble is that governments don’t necessarily recognize this, Mason adds, still preferring to see activities such as drawing as ephemeral and separate from “serious” subjects such as science and mathematics. “There’s a very big disconnect about where the jobs will be in the future and the way we are educating young people.”

Chetwood is adamant that everybody can draw. “It’s just that certain people liked drawing when they were kids so they drew more, practised more and got good at it. If you sat someone down and got them to draw one thing for an hour a day, they would get absolutely brilliant at it. I knew a guy who couldn’t draw anything but he loved cars and he could knock out a car in 3D with all the bells and whistles in about two seconds flat.”

Drawing appears to be coming back, in design schools at least. Brillhart teaches architecture at the University of Miami and says that all his students want to know how to draw by hand. He has detected signs of a renaissance at Yale, Harvard and even Columbia — where back in the 1990s he resorted to building his own drawing board. Chetwood has noticed a major push to get architecture students to draw at some UK universities, where he is involved as an examiner: “They have to have a proper design notebook, which is shown alongside their final presentations.” Some universities are even re-opening their drawing studios, adds Mason. “There was a time when they were replacing them with computer rooms. Now they are starting to take those computers out and turn the spaces back to what they were originally intended for.”

The disruptive screen

Of course, you don’t necessarily need a paper and pencil to draw. Many artists and architects have seized on tablets as the best of both worlds — not least iPad evangelist David Hockney, who has devoted entire exhibitions to his crossover works.

An early stumbling block was the haptic response of the screen — the way it recreates the sense of touch, or fails to. “Like drawing on glass with a nail,” according to WSP’s Winward, who uses a tablet for convenience but prefers paper. Loyn also misses the sheer physicality of traditional (and not so traditional) methods when using a tablet: “I just like the feel of the paper and being able to smudge stuff with my hands, or grab some mud or something and smear it. I once sat at a cafe outside Notre Dame and didn’t have any paints, so I dipped a tissue in my wine and painted the cathedral with red wine. It was quite successful.”

iPad drawing of infinity beach

Laurie Chetwood on drawing with an iPad

“It’s amazing: all the colours, the opacities, you can layer things, you can scribble things out, you can take things off, you can reposition things. And it’s fantastically versatile. I can do it anywhere, on the train, in a tree if I wanted to. If I have to be very relaxed and do a sensitive drawing, I still usually resort to paper because I’m in complete control, I’m used to it and it’s force of habit. But then I might scan it and put it back into the computer and I’ll use the computer on top of that.”

But in the past couple of years, Brennan believes that tablets have caught up, with apps such as Apple’s ProCreate and Morpholio’s Trace becoming far more responsive to the user’s marks. “Tablets didn’t used to have that immediate response, from brain to eye to hand to pen to paper. A half-second delay has a huge impact on how you think — it causes you to stumble. But now that lag’s gone, it’s almost the same as drawing with pen on paper. You don’t need to engage with the airbrushes or other features — just use it in its purest form.” The stylus, too, far more convincingly apes a manual pen: “You’re able to tune it to almost replicate your favourite pen — and it doesn’t run out of ink.

From The Possible, issue 04

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Chetwood is an iPad devotee, using it to produce fantastical urban artworks as well as architecture. Far from hindering the drawing process, he believes tablets will give rise to a new era of creative drawing. “A lot of people say technology and computers are taking away the true art of drawing. That’s rubbish, it releases sketching. You can move so much quicker and change things much more quickly, and it keeps a record of what you’re doing. The control is just brilliant.” The polished glass surface is the only flaw, but textured acetates applied to the screen can make it feel more like paper.

So perhaps the end really is nigh for paper in the architect’s office. But in an age of automation, one of humanity’s oldest and most innate skills is coming back to the fore. The paperless studio may soon be back, but this time it will involve manual drawing skills — in fact, it will depend on them.

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