return to drawing
The practice of architecture, in its essence, is describing an idea that eventually becomes an assembly of real objects and volumes. Most architects are not also builders; only in very rare cases do architects actually become the hands-on makers of their designs. So, good work will come from inspired thinking and accurate representation. The primary way we achieve this is through drawing, and generally, better drawings yield better buildings.
In my years architecture school we had a heavy focus on hand drawing and just touched on CAD toward the end. Professors encouraged students to sketch through our ideas and ‘think with a pencil.’ Presentations usually involved pencil or prisma-color drawings on vellum or trace paper - a typical studio presentation drawing could take ten hours of pencil work simply because it was a large scale drawing on a big sheet of paper. There was no shortcut to managing all those line weights and pochè.
With a drawing pinned to my drafting table for several days at a time, my professors were able to get a sneak peak at work in progress. I remember coming back to studio to find a post-it on my desk with a brief design critique from the professor… not something I wanted to process, but usually a suggestion toward a better design. Trace paper came back out, the design shifted, then the eraser or a fresh vellum sheet was deployed.
We were also taught to use a sketchbook out in the world in order to note our observations and just make cool drawings of things we didn’t design. In 1998 I went on the Study Abroad Europe trip for three months, creating a drawing a day or more. If I was in a quick and lively mood I would use a black ink LePen, or feeling more introspective and focused, I would go for pencil. Here are a few I did in those years:
Keeping a sketchbook was both enjoyable and agonizing, because the prospect of criticism loomed over every blank sheet. We were geared toward creating analytical drawings; the concept of making a beautiful drawing just for sake of drawing was not really a thing. Our program brief for the Europe trip stated, ‘We would like you to draw the light in Piazza San Marco. Just remember that you are not making a drawing to sell to other tourists.’ Think of buildings as projective casts, not picturesque forms and figures.
When I joined Rick’s practice in 2001, we still used hand drawings quite a bit for the design process. With the threat of picturesque-as-creative-death in my mind, I focused on ‘functional’ drawings: plan sketches, drafted handrail details, building elevations. School had also taught me Photoshop, so we would often start with a hand drawing and boost it with digital backgrounds or shading to save time.
Eventually the digital wave washed over us and drawing with Vectorworks became quicker and easier to reproduce… even for a schematic idea. For many Conceptual Studies we would sketch our ideas but keep those hand drawings to ourselves - the final client-facing document would be a drafted plan along with photo inspiration. This was not a bad method, but it does present two problems: first is that any drafted plan seems more finalized and thus can imply the design process and input is over. Second is that as we develop the design and construction drawings, it’s hard to pinpoint the original idea amidst all the CAD revisions. Sometimes we would just save over and continually modify the first draft, thus erasing all evidence of a progression.
That’s where the hand sketch has a magical power… it marks a place in time when the ideas are still pure and suggested, rather than hard and accurate. A squiggly line both implies a lot and not too much. It’s easier for a client to give feedback since it’s clear that we’re still at the beginning.
In 2016 we taught a studio at our alma mater, the University of Texas School of Architecture. The intention of our studio was to focus on hand drawing, but some particular challenges came up. First, only about half the students owned parallel bars for orthogonal drafting… they were expensive to buy so some students just didn’t. The drafting tables, which were always set on a slope for drawing in my day, were set flat for a laptop not to slide off. And all the pin-up walls were gone from the studios. These three details made it really difficult for students to commit to hand drawing. Plus, some of them were resistant and didn’t want to be left behind their peers who were creating fantastical 3d renderings and software experience. Many final presentations were drafted, computer-rendered, and plotted out like all the others.
After teaching, the question begged as to whether or not hand drawing was integral to architectural practice or an outmoded means of representation. Around this time I came across the work of David Gentleman, an British illustrator with books such as ‘London, You’re Beautiful’, ‘In the Country’, and ‘Paris.’ That last one in particular floored me. He emotive watercolor and ink sketches capture what he sees on the street - workers, trash trucks, pidgeons, fire hydrants - but also the charm and vigor of great architecture.
As I read through Gentleman’s books I thought about just how FUN it would be to draw that way, and to eventually include those details in our own work. For years I felt that artistic rendering was off limits and architects sketched with a purpose. But David Gentleman’s style proves that illustrative drawing techniques could bring a building to life in a whole new way.
Around that time I came across a posting of the ICAA Christopher H Browne Paris Drawing Tour: seven days of drawing instruction taught by classically-trained architects, with opportunities to visit Versailles, Fondation de Coubertin, Bibliotheque Ste. Geneviève, the Louvre and watercolor and plein air sittings at neoclassical Parisian sites. I decided it would be worth the money and effort to make it happen, and Rick was totally supportive of the idea.
Our first meeting in Paris was at Studio Zega + Dams, our home base for the week. Our instructors, Andrew Zega and Berndt Dams, are masters of their craft in watercolor and architectural drafting, respectively. They collaborated on highly detailed watercolors of the palaces at Versailles for their book ‘Palaces of The Sun King’ and instructed us through their methodology ( if you wish to dive deeper into this source of inspiration, visit https://architecturalwatercolors.com/) I’ll write about this watercolor and painting experience in a future post.
We spent two full days in the studio, and the rest out and around Paris, instructed by our two other great instructors Kahlil Hamady and Leslie-Jon Vickery. Kahlil referenced the work of Hubert Robert, a French artist of the 18th century. Robert’s plein air watercolor and ink sketches served as studies for highly detailed landscape oil paintings later created in his studio. In a particularly liberating exercise, we copied several of Robert’s smaller sketches to learn his ink and layered wash technique. This was one of my favorites, with Robert’s original on the right:
Two aspects were revelatory for me: first that architectural sketches from 300 years ago felt as vibrant, loose and modern as any that might be done today; and second, that it is OK to copy work in order to learn a technique.
The next day we took this exercise out into the real world: Place Des Vosges in Paris. Kahlil and Leslie-Jon showed us how to see values and work quickly, so as to preserve the gesture. Monochromatic watercolor washes were added in successive layers from light to dark; I chose a color similar to the fallen leaves and granite paths.
I became so absorbed in the watercolor exercise and so grateful to have a clear method with which to approach the subject. The final day of the tour was spent at three of Paris’ most beautiful libraries: Bibliothèque Ste. Geneviève, Bibliothèque Richelieu and Bibliothèque Mazarine. These experiences were truly life changing and most importantly, gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in drawing.
The obvious benefits of this practice led me and Rick to attend the Rome Drawing Tour together just 8 months later. The focus on this tour was toward plein air perspective drawing in sanguine pencil and full-color watercolor.
One of our more interesting drawing exercises, led by instructor David Mayernik, involved a walk down the via Appia, Rome’s ancient boulevard, under the powerful Arch of Drusus. Drawing a ruin presented a whole new sort of challenge - how to capture the comprehensive form of the original structure and representing the interesting texture of decay.
David instructed us through the basic steps of composing the page, drawing a perspective (always need a reminder!) and creating the illusion of depth through diagonal shading. In the final drawing, lines are used not to outline the form, but underline the shadows.
At Bramante’s Tempietto, instructor George Samaurez Smith led us through a measured drawing exercise - the goal is to use a 1/2” or 1” architectural scale to apply the dimensions to page. I found the pattern on the floor and corresponding interior columns really interesting, and started out with a few assumptions in a sketch.
Measuring the space revealed a highly rigorous mathematical structure that resolved down to the smallest mosaic tile. I needed about 8 more hours on site to document the details, but alas, we had to move on.
Later on that week, we visited the small town of Arriccia to see Bernini’s Santa Maria Assunta. In this sketch I tried to capture the drum shape of the main church volume, with the bridge and hillside across the canyon receding into the horizon. I started the sketch in pencil to check the overall composition, then added shading with three values of acetone marker. The gesture and a little bit of detail are finished with quick sketchy lines of the fountain pen.
The point of a quick architectural sketch is to capture the gesture of the place, the basic proportions, the weight of a building in the landscape. After our deep dive into drawing in Rome, I continued to draw on all of our projects with this new set of tools and methods. In this weekend house design, I was exploring the scale of the lookout tower on this west-facing elevation. Compared to the bold gesture of the tower, little windows and simplicity in the bottom sketch seemed to work best.
On this Garner Estate project, the big arch grew out of a sketch on trace paper. After tracing the existing cottage and its charming arched door, it became clear that we needed to repeat the element in the new main house.
The pencil and marker sketches of this backyard casita project convey the warmth of the materials, the texture of crafted millwork, and dramatic variations in scale between the bed nook and expansive windows. These quick sketches conveyed two different ways to situate the bed in a very tight space.
It’s been a long journey to realize that architectural drawing is not just a tool for blocking out diagrams, it can be the driver of beauty and clarity in a project. David Gentleman was 62 when his book on Paris was published. It can take half a lifetime to learn to let go of judgment and pragmatism, and just make a lovely drawing.