architecture + SKETCHING: Drawing on Imagination

Napkin sketch of the Phase Tower by Thom Mayne

Design inspiration can strike out of the blue. We have all heard stories of musicians waking in the night with the perfect melody, a writer suddenly breaking through her block while in the middle of a conversation, or an architect grasping the concept for a new building while waiting at the cafe for his order. In all cases the creative individual frantically retrieves a pen and paper – maybe a notepad, or a receipt, or the back of a napkin. They doodle a few chords, scribble a few words, or sketch the genesis of a building. These are methods of capturing the fleeting inspiration. Such scenarios serve as a reminder that, despite advances in technology and documentation, the most fundamental of tools of pen and paper still play a vital role in the creative process.

Since I began architecture school in 1981, there has been a paradigm shift in the tools architects use to represent their works, due primarily to the computer. While digital output from sophisticated programs now account for most of the architect’s deliverables, they have not completely replaced hand drawn sketches and drawings, nor will they. There is room in the toolbox for both. Computer generated drawings offer high-tech precision and accuracy. Hand drawn sketches offer a quick and intuitive form of communication that simply cannot be replicated.

A work of architecture begins in the head of the architect. There, the big idea is formed and (to some extent) developed; however, unless the idea can be transformed to something tangible, it cannot be communicated. And if it the idea cannot be communicated, it can never be constructed and will never become a work of architecture. It will simply remain as an unresolved idea. The process in which architects convey this “big idea” is (to slightly paraphrase Christopher Knight) “to allow it to flow from the brain, through the hand, to the pencil, and onto paper”. The resulting sketch is called a parti. As we’ve noted, this process of design can happen virtually anywhere, at any time. An architect may sketch out the parti on a napkin while discussing the project over lunch. He may awaken in the night and scratch out the parti on the back of the first piece of paper he finds. If all else fails, a scheduled client meeting usually provides the necessary incentive for inspiration! So, the seed of architecture may be planted in the brain, but it sprouts as ink on paper.

Parti by Renzo Piano

Beyond the parti, other types of drawings are used by architects to communicate ideas. Hand drawings give the impression that the project is still evolving, which is usually the reality. A crisp CAD plan or computer generated model gives the impression that the project is complete, which is usually not the reality. In meetings with consultants or clients, the ability to pull out tracing paper and sketch over previous iterations of the design allow the architect to develop and advance the project on the fly. A picture is worth far more than a thousand words.

Most believe that drawing and sketching is a God-given talent. While there is some truth to that, it is also a skill which can be learned and mastered. With a little instruction and a lot of practice, anyone can become proficient in drawing.

Let’s carry the tool metaphor out a little further. You may have heard the old saying that when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. With the tools of sketching and drawing in your toolbox you will soon find all kinds of places to use them. I have drawn not only buildings and houses but everything from our firm logo to the bed I sleep in at night. You’ll find a lot of nails too!

Many of us who once spent our days drawing and lettering on our boards sometimes find ourselves reminiscing about the “good ole days” of hand drawing and lettering almost everything. We’ll delve into that subject in the next post – To the Letter. Apparently there are enough of us out there that a museum has been constructed to cater to this nostalgia. The Museum for Architectural Drawing opened in Berlin in 2013. It promotes and displays collections of architectural drawings, primarily from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The building itself contains both subtle and conspicuous references to architectural drawings. The form created by the five levels of the building reminds one of stacks of drawings (subtle), while enlarged portions of historic drawings are transposed to the exterior skin. It may be because I am an architect, but I find the concept of a museum in which the “art” within is really architecture, truly intriguing. Sounds like a good idea for a future blog post – Art or Architecture?!

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