pencils process…perfect

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Oh, don’t judge me, just let me talk.

I was quoted recently in my local newspaper in an article highlighting the use of 3D computer software by architects and designers. (I recommend you first read it and tell me what you ‘heard’). As always the tone of the final article is slightly different from the image I perceived during the interview. The article doesn’t misquote me, and I don’t think the other architects interviewed contradict the point I was trying to make.

However, I don’t believe it gives proper due to the process of making architecture, thus my rant.

We make architecture; we use various tools to get there. Despite different preferences, ultimately what matters is the work. However, when given the opportunity to share our profession, we must be accurate to explain to those of you who’ll hire us how the design process works so our value is evident.

sketch 03

Most architects today use some type of digital tool to develop their work and to create their final (construction) drawings. Many use some type of 3D software beyond that including me. Yet, when I was interviewed I was trying to convey two aspects of the PROCESS of making architecture that can reveal the degree of inquiry and depth of discovery. Two elements of that process are frequently ignored in the analog/digital debate or misunderstood by users of architectural services.

dawson sketch 02

First the conception of ideas and the study of those ideas in my (not so humble) opinion must include SOME aspect of thinking and testing with a pencil or a pen. I can even buy into a digital pen on an iPad and I believe there’s still an important place for physical models. There is something special and essential in the mind of an architect that takes place when the hand, the eyes and the mind work through ideas on a flat surface. I’m rather particular to a #2 pencil and my sketchbook; and I love using chipboard for models. Jumping right into digital modeling may make the client seem happy that they’re getting a solution quicker (less $$), but does it lead to a really good solution?

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The second concept is the working through of the components and details during the latter design phases or during construction. BIM tools are great for finding collisions, envisioning the project in 3D and spitting out data. However, the architect (again…opinion here) best studies and THINKS through the assembly of materials with a process that includes sketching and making relevant notations. We can’t “sue” the computer for not doing its job.

sketchbook steel details

No one said we don’t do these things, but no one says we do. Let’s not mislead people into thinking we just press a few buttons on the computer, turn the crank and out comes architecture. As I said in the article, we use tools and each tool has its proper role.

There is a haptic perception that occurs by the use of the architect’s hands. I find it very useful to consider ideas and details with a pencil and trace working feverishly over a period of time. At the end of that session, my hands are messy, I’m drowning in bumwad (yellow trace paper for those of you architects under 30) and my mind is racing with possibilities. At a single glance, I can see the results of my process and can keep that record for reference.

Buildings are complicated objects with many components. Too many times 3D drawings are pretty pictures but do not allow the operator to immerse themselves into the project as a real object or place. According to a friend of mine, who fabricates materials used for construction and employs CAD operators, “I see it all the time with my guys – they do not understand the fundamentals and logic of putting it together.” On a recent project we found it crucial to create multiple mock-ups on site to understand detail complexities that could never have been understood any other way. And yes, I had a stack of drawings for this project.

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You might not understand how architects work. Therefore, it’s extremely important to me to find ways to educate as many as will listen to what we do because it will reinforce our value and it will allow our profession to flourish. You might not understand us, but hopefully you’ll respect us (and hire us).

Tomorrow I’ll make two more points. Keep reading.

pencils process…perfect

12 thoughts on “pencils process…perfect

  1. Hand sketch, modelling, scanning and various software are fusing into one act. I’m not a traditionalist, but I use what I need to get the job done in the best way. As dentists don’t have to sell their use of drills to fix their their clients teeth, we don’t have to sell our pencils. The need for living shelter is as eternal as the minds and hands that make them. For samples of this go to

  2. I read through the newspaper article prior to reading through your post, and it definitely misrepresents your position. It clearly sets up a dichotomy between BIM and everything else as though they cannot work together.

    It also irritates me that they refer to BIM as 3D design, as though nothing else is. Just as CAD is not “Computer Aided Design”, but rather “Computer Aided Drafting”, BIM is not 3D design. It is merely 3D drafting or modeling. Whether we are sketching, manually drafting, using CAD, building physical models, or computer modeling we, as Architects, are participating in 3D design. The design comes from the mind, not the tool.

  3. Interesting these different ideas about what is distancing and what is direct in terms of design intent. Before drawing, some ancient culture’s just bring materials to the site and put them in the air, like a sculptural construction. What better way to feel the strength,and test the way things evolve, than to get materials to the site, and hand build it in space yourself. When we introduced orthographic drawing in the Renaissance, and left the site as master builders, it introduced a level of abstraction, control, alienation and leverage to building, possibly making it “architecture”. Further to that distancing and control is the BIM model, introducing scientific tools and discipline integration. But of course that comes with a price, loss of direct feeling, and putting us under the control of institutions of discipline.

      1. I did a BFA in studio art and art history. Even though most people may not care, we do and must. As we create the structures of the world everyone lives in, they are directly effected by what we think and do every day. Architecture is an inside out museum. Drawing is our trade, and on constant display as we effect the arrangement of matter in space, and the movement of people and objects in cities, for many years.

  4. Jason Brody says:

    The May Issue of The Architectural Review is devoted entirely to this issue. I personally have not read much of it yet, but it looks to be a good read including dialogue of conversations with the likes of Eric Own Moss, Eisenman, Peter Cook, Sou Fujimoto and many others.

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