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drawing

an architect's education - figure drawing

ADVICE to future architects

I have been asked on more than a few occasions what advice I would give to a teenager who may be interested in being an architect.  I try to avoid the cranky, cynical responses that most of us can toss out with aplomb.  More often than not I talk about the passion necessary to see you through the grind of thousands of hours work trying to just get the basics down right.  And the passion required to see you through years of working in offices, often 60+ hours per week, detailing mind-numbingly boring buildings before you get the chance to really be in charge of the design of a building. And then I am asked, most often by inquiring parents, what classes or skills their child should undertake in preparation for architecture school.  And to that question I always reply the same: drawing.

a haptic practice

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

a haptic practice

drafting stuff 02

drafting stuff 02

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.

drafting stuff 01

drafting stuff 01

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.

an architect's education - figure drawing

I have been asked on more than a few occasions what advice I would give to a teenager who may be interested in being an architect.  I try to avoid the cranky, cynical responses that most of us can toss out with such aplomb.  More often than not I talk about the passion necessary to see you through the grind of thousands of hours work trying to just get the basics down right.  And the passion required to see you through years of working in offices, often 60+ hours per week, detailing mind-numbingly boring buildings before you get the chance to really be in charge of the design of a building. And then I am asked, most often by inquiring parents, what classes or skills their child should undertake in preparation for architecture school.  And to that question I always reply the same: drawing.

angus sketch

angus sketch

I am admittedly pretty old school about this, but I feel strongly that there is no substitute for learning how to draw competently.  I don't mean art.  I mean the ability to depict in two dimensions a three dimensional object in a manner that is clear and unambiguous.  This is not so much a question of talent as it is the learning of a simple skill.  Everyone can do it and drawing was part of the basic educational package for the educated class back in the nineteenth century.  With the advent of worry-free photography, and especially all the digital visualization tools that we can currently access, there has been a marked loss of the basic skill of drawing in general and in architects in particular.

diagrams

diagrams

So why spend so much time learning to draw?  We certainly don't need drawing to depict something and have the ability to show someone else.  My Iphone does that quite well.  But in architecture and design, we are charged with imagining things that don't exist yet.  I can't take a photo of the house I haven't designed yet or the detail I haven't figure out.  But I can draw it, on the spot, and explain it through drawing to someone else.

I draw everyday.  Not beautiful architectural illustrations or artistic visions, but the most rudimentary of sketches and diagrams that help me work out a design that is plaguing me.  More often than not I have at least one sketchbook with me at all times and I use it often to simply describe something I'm talking about to a carpenter or a client.  Frequently I start drawing an explanation of a detail that someone else is trying to describe, unsuccessfully with words alone, to another person in a meeting.

rail

rail

So I have dozens of old sketchbooks piling up on shelves and they are filled with these kinds of diagrammatic drawings and explanatory sketches.

sketchbooks

sketchbooks

A few weeks ago I decided to take my own advice and take a figure drawing class, a kind of drawing that I haven't done in decades and one that frankly I wasn't too good at when I did.  In two-hour long sessions I work diligently to accurately describe the figure in front of me, sometimes with stark, beautiful success, more often with awkward marks cascading across messy pages.  And I love every minute of it, even if most of the time I think my drawings are a failure.  The discipline of working very hard just to see and mark that seeing with a few lines is satisfying work.  The time flies by and I am usually pretty frustrated at the end of the session but fulfilled in a way that only making something can truly satisfy.

heads 01

heads 01

So, to the prospective architect:  draw.  As much as you can.  And if you don't like it, if it doesn't in the end engender a love/hate relationship with it, don't bother with architecture school.  You don't have to be good at, but if don't like this part, the rest may not go so well.