Friday, September 20, 2013

Architectural Sketches

My office was recently awarded a contract for the redesign of a high-rise condominium unit. We will demolish all remnants of the previous floor plan and start from scratch within the demising walls. We could not locate an existing computer aided drafting (CAD) file for the original project, so we are forced to create a new Autocad file from measurements for our "base" drawings. No big deal, except that our client is in a hurry to get started with the design and asked if we could move forward with "freehand sketches on tracing paper."
Freehand sketches! Who does such a thing? The days of hand-drafted architectural sketches are nearly gone. Certainly, we don't dare present an unpolished, manually-drafted sketch to a client. Today we produce crisp, clean, seemingly perfect images using our CAD programs. But something is missing from these perfectly pretty images. (I hesitate to call them drawings. Are electrons arranged on a screen, or reproductions from ink jet printers, really drawings?)
Sketch for a condominium. 
Years ago I went to a museum exhibit in Dallas of Frank Lloyd Wright's hand-drafted plans, elevations, and perspectives. Many of them were rough, colored pencil scrawls where you could see that the image in the architect's mind had directly connected to his moving hand and been impressed upon the paper. These were drawings I had seen reproduced in books many times, but that was nothing like being in the presence of the actual, full-scale drawings. You could smell the paper they were drawn upon. You could see the thick pencil lines, the smudges, the erasures, the overlay of multiple ideas in different colors. You could see the birth of ideas. I felt that I had to touch these drawings and be connected to them. Against all well-known museum rules, I did touch one.  No alarms sounded and I felt a direct link to my architectural patrimony.
Today I pull out my Prismacolors (the same brand of colored pencils used many decades ago by Wright) and begin sketches for our new project. It is a large condo unit, 4000 square feet. Multiple ideas spill out, and the hand moves as rapidly as the mind. No computer modeling is yet as quick as the mind/hand connection.  I have not seen an ap or a program that allows for the uncertainties of the design process as does freehand sketching. The sketchy line holds multiple meanings and suggestions that do not reside in the mathematics of a CAD-generated line.  Don't get me wrong. I embrace the brave new world of electronica. There is much to be said about melding our brains -- as we are doing -- with electrons in a box.  But we are not yet at the point of loving these electrons in the same visceral way we can love a hand-drawn sketch. Perhaps we will be soon. But, for now, human touch, whether from one human to another or from a human intelligence to paper, is a richly deep and unique experience. It may not be irreplaceable, but it is incomparable.

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