Why Do We Draw?

Quite simply, we draw to communicate our ideas.

More to the point, we draw to define things at would be difficult — if not near impossible — to describe in any other manner.  If you’ve ever tried giving someone directions, and, three turns into your narrative, you stop and say ” you know what, let me draw you a map…” then you implicitly understand the concept.  Consider how difficult it would be to describe a floor plan in words, in a way that would be clearly understood by anyone reading it.  Maybe I’m a little biased — hand-drawing, in any medium, is something that has always come easily to me, and is a large part of why I wanted to become an architect — but there’s an inherent beauty and simplicity that comes with a drawing.

Maybe you caught Michael Graves’ article, “Architecture and the Lost Art of Drawing,” in the New York Times over Labor Day weekend (it was hard to miss — it was shared and re-tweeted by virtually everyone in the architecture community).  Graves laments the loss in the craft that has come with the increased reliance of our profession on technology.  He does so by celebrating the art of drawing, the simple act of adding lines to a blank slate to define a concept, and the joy that comes in creation.  “Architecture cannot divorce itself from drawing, no matter how impressive the technology gets,” Graves writes. “Drawings are not just end products: they are part of the thought process of architectural design. Drawings express the interaction of our minds, eyes and hands.”  A drawing is organic, an extension of ourselves.

The piece has had some detractors — most notably, this guy — who feel that Graves is being something of a technophobe.  I didn’t take it that way at all.  Why can’t there be room in today’s practice for both tools?  Why does an advance in technology always need to be at the expense of the simple, the more quaint?  Some of the best advice I’ve ever received is that architects should always draw for a client — on a napkin, a paper placemat, whatever is available — because it’s that skill that sets us apart.  It indicates an ability to think on one’s feet, to put one’s thoughts into a format that can be understood by the other party.  It allows us to engage.

I rely very heavily on my computer — I was pretty strong in my use of AutoCAD, and I’m getting better at REVIT every day — but I still spend a little bit of time each day sketching by hand.  It helps me think through a problem before I commit to a drafted solution.  I’ve redlined details for interns, and scratched them into scrap pieces of plywood for superintendents.  But I feel like the last of a dying breed.  Like Graves, I fear that drawing is a skill that is slowly fading away, so much so that an entire generation of architects risks losing it.  And that will be an enormous loss to our profession.

4.0 Average: Where to Begin…?

The shift from ARE 3.1 to ARE 4.0 was implemented by NCARB to create an exam that was more reflective of the profession.  The seven divisions of the exam are now more integrated with each other, rather than parceled out into neat little packages.  The graphic vignettes have been combined with the multiple choice sections of the test, as well, in keeping with the idea (rightfully so) that architects need to have a wealth of knowledge while representing themselves in visual form.

The exam format gives you the flexibility to tailor the experience to your own strengths and weaknesses (my thoughts on this, if you’re interested, will be offered in another post)… but it comes at a small price:  one of the biggest questions about the exam is what order one should attempt to take these seven divisions.  Every opinion is slightly different… from fellow bloggers The Artichoke’s Guide and AREndurance, to a neverending stream of posts on AREForum.

AIA-Pittsburgh’s YAF is kicking off our 2012-2013 series of formal ARE Review sessions this week.  With the disclaimer that every exam candidate is different, and you really need to do some homework to figure out what’s going to work best for you, we’ve decided to endorse the following sequence:

Construction Documents and Services (CDS)
Programming Planning and Practice (PPP)
Site Planning and Design (SPD)
Structural Systems (SS)
Building Systems (BS)
Building Design and Construction Systems (BDCS)
Schematic Design (SD)*

In the interests of streamlining the study process, this sequence seems to work out well by building upon prior knowledge.  CDS has a (relatively) narrow focus, making it somewhat easier to study the material.  There’s a lot of overlap in content between CDS and PPP, and again between PPP and SPD, making these three tests ideally suited to be taken together.  BDCS, by contrast, is extremely broad in scope; a lot of the content will come from related subjects in the SS and BS divisions, so studying for them will help build your knowledge base (and comfort level) for BDCS.

* – The only “wild card” is Schematic Design — as the only division of the exam with no multiple choice component, it is an entirely different animal.  It could conceivably come anywhere in the sequence — some candidates use it as a “break” from the hardcore studying for the other divisions.

The first exam you take will be the hardest, mostly for psychological reasons. It doesn’t matter which division you decide to start with. It has a lot to do with the fear of the unknown – getting to the testing center, finding the actual space itself, waiting to be given a computer terminal, watching that clock count down your time remaining and knowing that it’s FOR REAL this time. That feeling will pass – somewhat – when you take exam #2.

Lastly, to any exam candidates reading this, let me ask for a small favor — If you’ve found an exam sequence that works for you, or if you think I’m insane for suggesting such a thing, please leave me a comment!  I’d love to hear how you’ve decided to tackle this thing.

Pride, Without Prejudice

No matter where you are in this process that I affectionately refer to as “a path,” it probably goes without saying that you’ve already realized that a career in architecture is a crazy one.  It’s incredibly demanding and labor-intensive.  The hours can be long and the work difficult.  The rewards are often few and far-between.

My office specializes in higher-education work, and for the past two years I’ve been working on a handful of projects for Penn State.  I’ve probably mentioned that I’m a Penn Stater, and I’ve never been ashamed to admit it (even though the events of the past year — during which you would have had to have been living under a rock to not know what I’m referring to — have tested that resolve a little).  One of those projects — the Wellness Center, a 3,800-square-foot addition to the Gymnasium building at the Beaver campus — officially opened last week.  The campus held a formal Dedication Ceremony, and an article about it ran in today’s edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  It was a modest affair, but done right — over a hundred people attended, including Penn State’s president Rodney Erickson, who was on-hand for some celebratory remarks.

Somewhere in the middle of the pomp and circumstance, listening to Dr. Erickson talk of bright spots that otherwise could have been overshadowed in this difficult year, I started to feel an overwhelming sense of pride.  Pride in my alma mater, for sure, but also pride in the work that I had done in the service of it.  Functionally, it’s a brand-new fitness center… architecturally, it’s steel, brick, and glass… but metaphorically, the Wellness Center represents a new beginning, one that I had a hand in making a reality.

I’ll admit it — I sometimes get lost in the day-to-day minutiae, so much so that the enormity of what I do is lost on me.  The project has affected the students, the campus, the community, and, by extension, the entire university.  I realized that I have not only been working to create a wonderful new facility, I’ve also been helping Penn State take steps forward into its future.  It’s times like these when I am truly humbled by this great profession that I’ve chosen to serve.  I can think of no greater reward.