I dealt with architects and sketching in a past blog post, but with teaching my current design studio this concept, my own recent flurry of sketching and my participation on a related LinkedIn discussion, we’re going to revisit this topic in a slightly different way. I believe hand sketching is intrinsic to an architect and cannot be replaced by digital tools.
My policy here is to encourage lively discussion and debate, but it’s a bit difficult to pit a few decades of computer use against millennia of history with humans marking their ideas on surfaces with their hands. Even if you limit the time period to architecture as a profession closer to our contemporary understanding, we still cannot compete against centuries of brilliant ideas conceived with a pencil or pen. Are ideas best captured if we reduce it to the primal activity of brain/eye – hand – surface? Does the advent of multiple digital tools automatically supersede an activity with such a rich history? It doesn’t even matter if one is “good” at sketching or drawing, it is just a tool to communicate and how well one can communicate is the real test. I posit this is not a qualitative argument between manual or digital drawing tools, but simply stating a premise that being an architect means sketching with one’s hand at some point.
Sketching has many practical uses beyond just for the author’s own use, but whether or not one ever shares their sketches is somewhat irrelevant to the fundamental question of the importance of sketching. Some of you may prefer a digital world, but my intent is to share with non-architects that architecture is conceived with a sketch.
In my opinion (humble or not you decide) the hand drawn sketch is what makes us architects. It is how we think and it distinguishes us from others. It represents the purest form of an idea and it is also a quick and effective way to test or convey an idea. Other tools certainly make our job easy and more productive, but I believe as long as we are human and architects, we will sketch. To me it is as important as breathing.
This is not an attempt to put an absolute on anything here or be adverse to the future or newer ways of doing something, but something special and liberating occurs when someone takes a pencil/pen and makes a mark on some type of paper or surface to explore a thought or an idea. This is how an architect thinks. It can happen with your finger and an iPad, for some it can happen with a mouse, but the legacy has been with pencil/pen and paper. A series of sketches become a history of the process one takes to get from ideas to solutions.
In my almost ten years of teaching, I can say fairly confidently, that the students with the best sketchbooks almost always had the strongest work. Those that jumped onto the computer right away had a harder time developing thorough solutions and a harder time presenting clear ideas that others could follow. If I may further opine, rarely can one master drawing digitally before mastering it manually. We definitely believe where I teach that there is a direct correlation between thinking and drawing; that thinking is initiated with nothing more than a sketch (preferably by hand). In fact we often stress to our students that they need to use drawings not words to convey their ideas. The natural response is to talk too much and draw too little.
Let’s consider an analogue. Writers probably don’t write their manuscripts by hand, but I know many writers and journalists that keep a journal. The same goes for song writers and poets. They keep a journal or sketchbook to jot down thoughts, ideas or connections. They don’t produce the final work by hand any more than an architect produces final documents by hand. However, those root ideas, those initial thoughts are jotted down in their journal to capture the emotion of the moment.
Architecture is a process that occurs in cycles of thought, rethought, tests and iterations. With hand sketches and paper there is a visual history of the process. It creates a timeline. Even with saving multiple digital files, there is no easy way to track how one got from the sketch to the solution. There are no fingerprints left, no messy scraps of paper to pin up in sequence, no pencil lead or ink on your hands and certainly no memory of how ideas were judged.
Look, if sketching isn’t your thing, that’s fine with me, it’s not a panacea. However, I hope it is always important in the life of an architect regardless of how often, where, when and what. As long as I continue to teach whether at a university with students or to future employees in my own studio, I will teach that architects sketch.
Sketches are images from the author’s sketchbooks.