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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.

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.

Venice, place and memory

It's been over twenty years since I was in Venice.  That sounds inconceivable to me as that wonderful and awful city sits in such a dominant and insistent place in my memory.  I haven't visited except in the dozens of drawings in now faded sketchbooks and hundreds of film negatives tucked safely away.

Of the many photos I took over the course of  many months in Venice, very few have ever been printed.  In that student year I took not individual rolls of film, but one long roll of 400' of black and white film that I rolled into canisters as I needed it.  What came out is also many hundred feet of negatives, cut into single shooting days, as grainy and occasionally damaged as my self-processing would allow.  But as avid a photographer as I was and still continue to be, it is the hand drawings that evoke not just the place, but the weather - mostly the damp and cold of a Venetian winter and spring.

Not to sound too cliche', but I drank up Venice.  Its sights and sounds, smells and textures.  No place has ever insinuated itself in me more nor does any place reside so strongly in my memory.  I'm sure in some latent way that waterborne city makes its way into every building I design.  Living now in the arid American West, damp and slimy Venice seems even more of a dream than ever.  Even its name, La Serenissima, is the stuff of late night imaginings, not so much a city as a place/memory, equal parts fairytale and nightmare.  I have never doubted that I will go back there, that its sharp canal smell and filtered light will once again be the stuff of sense and not of memory.

(These sketches, now a bit faded, are from a twenty year old sketchbook -the first sketchbook I carried in Venice and the beginning of a drawing habit.  Some decades later I see these clumsy early drawings with some affection as the first sketches in the first sketchbook in a collection that now has over fifty sketchbooks and folios. )