I spend about one third of my working time in front of a computer. Another third is spend on various jobsites. The final third or so is still spent with paper and pens, glue and blades, pencils and scales. I am a great believer in the use of computer technology in the service of architecture, especially 3D modeling and the access to design tools that were previously so infrequently used. However, I do miss the haptic aspects of the practice of architecture.
Part of the practice of architecture was about educating your hands. Along with struggling with learning the basics of designing spaces, a lot of the time spent in architecture school was also devoted to learning how to make things – models and drawings and sketches. And drafting.
Now I don’t miss the endless hours of erasing the graphite and ink while trying not to “polish the mylar” only to redraw the same scheme again when a client changed their minds. And I love the ability to make 3d computer models and easily work up multiple options and reconfigurations with CAD programs. But I miss the careful, slow twirl of a lead holder when you draw those long, thin lines. And the smell of sepia remover drifting through the studio punctuating the high cost of design changes. And the dusty powder of pounce spilling down shirts and trousers when lunch time rolled around. The only sounds in the studio now are the incessant clicks of keyboards, not the snap of an adjustable triangle, the snarling whir of lead pointers or the whine of electric erasers.
Does all of this sound like the pitiful nostaglia of an old architect? Maybe a little, but fundamentally hand drafting took care and concentration and most importantly it was a skill of hand and eye. A deep and sometimes painful knowledge of a whole universe of paper textures and weaves, inks and leads, made us craftsmen of a sort. We made drawings. You had to have good hands, a fine touch, that was more than simply analogous to the practice of design itself. The making of architecture was a haptic practice, design was about making, not merely visualizing and imaging.
I don’t use all these drawing and drafting tools very often. When I do, their familiarity in my hands is striking and melancholic. I hope the practice and design skills learned with them have not simply vanished, eclipsed by screens and keyboards. I’m pretty sure that those lessons learned are deeply buried in at least the muscle memory of my hands.