The following excerpt was originally published in Natascha Meuser’s Construction and Design Manual: Architecture Drawings (DOM Publishers). With our industry’s technological advances, “the designing architect is not simultaneously the drawing architect.” Meuser’s manual aims to help architects develop and hone their technical drawing skills as the “practical basis and form of communication for architects, artists, and engineers.” Read on for ten freehand drawing exercises that tackle issues ranging from proportion and order to perspective and space.
What is beauty? A few years ago, a group of international researchers sought to unravel the mysteries of human beauty. They used state-of-the-art, totally impartial computer technology and a huge dataset to establish once and for all why particular faces are perceived as beautiful, and whether beauty exists independently of ethnic, social and cultural background; in other words, whether it can be calculated mathematically. The scientists input countless photos of faces from all over the world, each described by survey respondents as particularly beautiful, into a powerful computer. The resulting information, they believed, could be used to generate a face that would be recognized by any human being as possessing absolute beauty. But what the computer eventually spat out was a picture of an ordinary face, neither beautiful nor ugly, devoid of both life and character. It left most viewers cold. The accumulated data had created not superhuman beauty, but a statistically correct average.
But that is precisely what you would expect of a computer. Here, I want to examine the relevance of this anecdote to architectural beauty, and discuss whether drawing by hand, a skill fast disappearing from everyday practice, is one worth preserving. It would appear to be a relic of the past – but does that mean that computer-generated images are the future? Thanks to modern design and display software, the intention of this book may seem quaintly anachronistic. Would any architect today think of presenting a client with a building detail drawn in Indian ink, or a perspective in pencil?
Clients often expect designers to produce pixel-perfect images right from the beginning of the design process, looking not unlike photographs at first glance. And even before the ground is broken, a virtual idea has already acquired the authority of a tangible reality that serves as the benchmark during the construction process. Often, the client is disappointed because a detail bears no resemblance to the initial plan. Sometimes, poor-quality rendering ends up provoking a protracted legal dispute: was the balcony supposed to be made of reinforced concrete, or just brightly painted steel? Like it or not, the computer is a handy desktop tool, a creativity machine that translates the most outlandish fantasies into physically realizable, fully costed designs that can be altered at a click of a mouse. The resulting photorealistic printout gives form to an idea that has not really even taken shape in the architect’s own mind.
It is easy to forget that, for all its apparent creative talents, the computer is just a machine. The image that emerges from the printer is like that of the perfect face in the experiment, shaped by complex, soulless programs. Paradoxically, the tool we use in an attempt to make it look less soulless is also the computer. After all, animation means adding life and soul to an otherwise lifeless object, creating a realistic, perhaps even moving image using infallible, invisible and incomprehensible computer code. The spaces inhabited by avatars in computer games are not greatly different to the standard CAD output used by architects to persuade developers, contractors, clients, and competition juries.
Precision is the death of thought
Anyone looking for soul in a building or interior design will not find it in these colorful animated digital images. Their impressive perfection is artificial and deceptive, their precision a challenge to the viewer’s imagination. To put it bluntly, architects who rely solely on the design skills of their computers are neglecting what was once one of their profession’s core skills since time immemorial: the connection of eye, head, and hand to create sketches, drawings, designs and plans.
In the old days, prospective architects had to start by learning to use a pen, analyzing structure, proportion, cubature, light and shade to break down the world into its component parts and reassemble them on the paper. To do this, their eyes and hands had to be trained. This can be an enjoyable and intuitive process: as my drawing teacher Heinrich Pittner once said, ‘What counts is not knowledge, but inspiration.’ His methods were based on clear principles, and he was not only a teacher but also a poetic artist with a philosophical turn of mind, who used simple exercises to teach the complexity of architecture. He made his students feel that they were both artists and architects. The next person I encountered who displayed this passion for architectural education was Alfred Caldwell, a legendary lecturer at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. His personality alone made his lectures worth the metaphorical price of admission, and he used to say: ‘The individuality of architecture is always based on personal experience.’ The following chapter is devoted to Pittner’s methods, which teach the basic principles of freehand architectural drawing in nine steps. The exercises can be carried out in any order, and are anything but comprehensive, but their aim is to introduce trainee architects and other interested readers to one of the most creative areas of architecture. Even experienced draftspeople should find the exercises an enjoyable reminder of their own training. This is also a reminder that the drawing marks the architect’s emergence as creator, giving visible expression to a unique idea without the help of computer programs. While many would say it is an outmoded pictorial technique, drawing transforms the idea into the intangible basis of the entire design process. In this context, and at this stage in the project, the image is not a mirror of reality, but it gives the idea credibility.
A decision that only the architect can take
Architectural drawing is like photography: it is no good having a high-end, feature-packed camera if you lack the ability to compose images and to capture the essence of the subject. Having the technology to generate preliminary architectural and design ideas does not necessarily mean that the final result will be convincing. The choice of medium, be it 6B pencil, drawing pen or watercolor brush, is no guarantee of good architecture, which demands a basic understanding of proportion, perspective, form, and color. The ability to connect the eyes, mind, and hand when designing details, buildings and cities also requires familiarity with a wide variety of architectural cultures, periods, and styles. It entails knowing, based on practical experience, that ideas build on one another, and -being able to absorb and develop traditions and use one’s own outlook and ideas to create distinctive buildings for clients that can be highly valued.
Such is the nature of architecture: it is very rarely created in a vacuum and is usually part of a context of variety and difference. Take away the sharp edges of architectural space, and you are left with nothing. The architect’s penstroke brings it together and gives it form, which assumes an ability to imagine the space and give it proportion, structure, and beauty. Only the architect can take these decisions. Like all talents, architectural imagination and creativity are God-given, but also born of practice and experience. People who have seen, understood and adapted other people’s ideas are more easily able to come up with ideas of their own, drawing on a rich menu of visual and spatial ingredients. A person who uses drawing to explore the built environment sees its variety in a different light, and perhaps with greater respect, than someone who can imagine nonexistent space only by donning 3D spectacles. Architecture and the art of drawing are inseparable – and people who are good at drawing usually make good architects.