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.

2 thoughts on “Why Do We Draw?

  1. Sean,

    I’m that guy! And I stand by my view of Graves being a technophobe. In my response, I am not knocking the value of hand sketching. My argument is not an either/or proposition; just like your view, it’s a both. It’s about our value as architects and creative thinkers.

    If students come out of school creating flat dull work (like Graves suggests) it’s a failing of education, not craft. That is a bigger problem than the tools we use. As architects we need to embrace all options and not say my solution is the only one that works for idea generation. Real time creativity and problem solving in front of an audience is a great skill, but it is not tied to a specific medium. We need to master the tools of our era. If we don’t we’ll be in way more trouble than if we stop using pencils.

    • Thanks so much for commenting, Jared! I really appreciated your thoughts, both in your original post and your reply to mine.

      I agree, completely and wholeheartedly, that our profession needs to embrace technology, and risks becoming stagnant if it doesn’t. I also agree that the media does not dictate the quality of the work; rather, in the hands of a talented user, the choice of media actually enhances the intrinsic value of the designer’s intent. My only concern is the loss of what is (to me, anyway) a vital skill. It’s no different than waxing philosophic over vinyl records giving way to mp3s, or digital photography replacing film. Maybe that makes me a little old fashioned, but I’ve been called worse!

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