Drawing and Design Are Intertwined
I grew up in the suburbs of Houston, next door to an architect. That was my first real exposure to architecture. He had mod furniture and an Eames chair, and he was always adding on to his house. And drawing. Big drawings on yellow trace. It seemed like a cool life. I wanted to do that. He was a role model.
So, in high school, I took a drafting class, where we drew suburban houses, not really knowing what we were designing or knowing anything about architecture. Then a group of engineers working for Shell visited our high school—their offices were next door—and asked my drafting teacher if there was anyone in the class who might want a summer drafting job. Of course I jumped at the chance to actually get paid to draw. Really? In the air conditioning? (This was Houston, after all). So that was my first job, drawing pipes and diagrams in ink for a bunch of young, creative engineers. Cool.
After a couple of summers there, I started working for a small architecture office and began my architecture studies at the University of Houston, where most of the design instructors came from the East Coast, were really into the New York Five, and loved presentation drawings in ink. Perfect.
Some years later, when I was getting my Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Texas at Austin, I found another role model in one of the program’s design instructors. He taught drawing and architecture and everybody wanted to take his classes. He drove an old orange Porsche that leaked oil, had his own small practice, and carried around a big fat pencil. He’d walk into class and just draw. He encouraged all of us to just draw and sketch everything, to never stop drawing and designing. Better.
After graduation, I stayed in Austin for a while, but when the savings and loan crisis hit in the late 1980s, the work dried up. I moved to the Bay Area and worked for a few firms until ELS hired me, maybe because I could draw well.
In those days, we were always designing through the process of drawing and model building. Then, as we all know, the world of architecture changed, essentially from analog to digital. Now we’re using Revit as a primary design tool, and I think it’s great. Design in architecture involves constantly evolving ideas, fast, so having control of a design medium, any medium, is key. Although I’m one of the few people at the firm who still draws as a way to express ideas, I’ve come to appreciate the value of both worlds. Not either/or. Each has their value.
For the last five years, I’ve been teaching a second-year architecture studio at Diablo Valley College. In a position of educating future architects, I’ve been thinking about all of these things and about the relationship between drawing by hand and digital designing. I first tell my students that my goal is to get them thinking as designers, no matter what the method or medium.
Because they are second-year students, I have them begin with understanding the importance of the diagram, understanding what a diagram can be and its value in illustrating the key organizing idea, the parti, of the building program. They then learn to develop ideas about building form and circulation through hand drawing and modeling, testing the parti, and eventually translating those ideas to digital modeling. Then rinse, repeat.
I also stress that there’s a valuable tactile lesson in working by hand, getting their ideas from head to paper, learning about the qualities and difficulties of the pen or pencil on trace and the hand cutting the cardboard. By learning and respecting the craft of each, they can discover, test, and represent different versions of their ideas. Will that effort eventually lead them to an appreciation and understanding of building materials as a way to get to building form? Perhaps.
In class, I also discuss a book by David Ross Scheer, The Death of Drawing: Architecture in the Age of Simulation (a deceptive title), in which he explores the shift from drawing (representation) to digital design (simulation) and observes that although drawing allows architects to represent ideas in form, digital design simulates experience and building performance.
My argument to the class is that both have value as design tools, that drawing is “not dead yet,” and it’s important for the students to build up a design methodology, a disciplined way of working, testing, and expressing design ideas with as many methods and mediums as possible. The design world they will enter as young architects is a digital one, but the development of a multilayered, critical, and rigorous design foundation is invaluable.
On the first day of class, I hand out a stack of blank copy paper and ask them to diagram the building that they are in. I give them just 15 minutes. They are familiar with the building, and some have drawing skills, so without discussing what architectural “diagrams” are yet, they work away, then lay them all out on a big table. I’m usually amazed at what they come up with. Some draw plans, some little sections, some fill up the paper, some don’t, and most put many different levels of information into one drawing. But there’s usually something that we can latch onto and discuss. It’s a way to begin the design process.
So drawing and design are intertwined.
I like to think that what may begin as a line or a scratch on paper, a tiny diagram, a word, an inkling of an idea, worked through multiple iterations with drawing and digital design tools, can, eventually, result in a good building.
Since high school, I’ve never stopped drawing and designing, but I never got the orange Porsche.