The Lost Art of Drawing

Words by Russell Curtis, 10 June 2014
Russell oversees RCKa's commercial and residential infill projects and is responsible for the delivery phase of the practice's work. He sits on design review panels for LLDC and the London Boroughs of Croydon and Newham, and is a Mayor's Design Advocate.

For all their benefits BIM and 3D printing could lead to lazier architecture, warns Russell Curtis.

This article first appears in Building Design Magazine

The inexorable rise of BIM has coincided with the emergence of another disruptive technology that many claim will revolutionise the way in which we design buildings.
As with BIM, 3D printing can trace its roots back to other (and arguably more innovative) industries. For instance, Revit was started by two programmers who previously developed parametric modelling software for the engineering industry before launching a product specifically for the architectural market; 3D printing came about as a tool for rapid prototyping in industrial design.

An exponential improvement in both hardware and software has acted as a catalyst for greater adoption in small and medium practices as an expanding skill base and reduction in cost (at least where 3D printing is concerned – you can pick up a couple of entry-level 3D printers for the same price as a single Revit seat) has dramatically lowered barriers to entry.
The enthusiasm with which we have embraced the rise of the machines raises an important question that few seem to be tackling, however: do these technologies allow us to design better buildings by streamlining the decision-making process, or do they simply provide short cuts that absolve us of the responsibility of having to think about how things go together?

When I was working for the first time in an architect’s studio back in the mid-Nineties, drawing boards outnumbered computers by at least five to one. There we sat, perched atop our high chairs, scratching black lines across unwilling sheets of A1 tracing paper, wrinkled through repeated revisions carefully etched into the surface with razor blades and ink. There was a sense that each drawing, having been carefully amended over time by numerous contributors, was a lovely object in itself, the layers of its history faintly visible in pencil lines and Magic Tape.

But then: the elephant in the room. Or at least a beige, boxy 21-inch monitor not much smaller. The era of CAD had arrived.

Admittedly by this point AutoCAD had already reached version 12 but, as ever, architects tend to be late adopters and even then we were limited to two dimensions (the only capacity we had for 3D exploration consisted of lunchtime sessions on Doom).

The early days of CAD integration were woefully inefficient: an architect would instruct the CAD technician on what to draw, the resulting drawings were painstakingly plotted on to sheets of A1 tracing paper. From that point on the inevitable (and numerous) revisions were implemented manually and the increasingly stiff drawings carefully stowed away in numerous plan chests around the office.

Yet for all the inherent frustrations of working in pen and ink, this process taught us a valuable lesson that many young architects today tend not to appreciate: every line on the page has meaning. Placing a line on a drawing was a deliberate act: a carelessly placed stroke of the 0.35 (or impatient smudging with a parallel motion) would result in several minutes of painstaking scratching with a razor blade. This taught us to use our Rotring pens sparingly, providing only just enough information to get our intentions across. I wonder whether this appreciation has now been lost by a generation unfamiliar with the joys of Burmester sets and clogged nibs.

This isn’t just about the vanishing art of creating beautiful drawings: it’s about the connection between drawing and thinking – an appreciation of what it means to place a line on the paper. I wonder whether BIM – and by inference 3D printing – will make us better architects, or simply lazier ones.

To its evangelists, BIM offers numerous game-changing features such as “clash detection”, but of course good architects have always done this: it just never had a catchy name. Instead we referred to it as “knowing how to design a building properly”. Delegation of these decisions to a computer separates us from the things that make our buildings sing.

The connection between drawing and understanding has its parallels in model-making too. The beauty of a physical model is the way it allows us to explore space and light through the process of making: each carefully crafted cardboard component becomes a wall; each length of balsa wood a column. These materials have a direct parallel with their real-life counterparts, something that cannot be said of wilful shapes built up from layers of heated thermoplastic, and where anything is possible provided that your half-finished model doesn’t collapse overnight.
I’m not for one moment suggesting that things were better in the old days. Let’s embrace these new technologies, but while doing so let’s also recognise their limitations. God may be in the details, but if those details are assembled by algorithms rather than art, do we risk becoming not makers but manufacturers: will the buildings we design lose their soul?