Arch symposium debates role of drawing

An Architecture School exhibit featuring works by visiting professor and architect Massimo Scolari, which went on display last week in Rudolph Hall, examines the role of architectural hand drawings in the digital age.
An Architecture School exhibit featuring works by visiting professor and architect Massimo Scolari, which went on display last week in Rudolph Hall, examines the role of architectural hand drawings in the digital age. Photo by Kamaria Greenfield.

Does hand drawing have a place in today’s world of architecture education and practice? This weekend, members of the architectural community flocked to the School of Architecture to debate this question.

From Thursday to Saturday afternoon, over 20 architects, professors and developers of technical design tools gathered at the school to debate the place of hand drawing in current architectural practice. Conceived about a year ago by Yale professors Victor Agran ARC ’97 and George Knight ARC ’95, the symposium, entitled “Is Drawing Dead?,” brought together hundreds of individuals from the field to consider the drawbacks and opportunities of the digital age.

Though computer drawing has been commonplace in architectural schools and firms for over 15 years, the recent rise of parametric drawing — a technique that has afforded architects increased opportunity for precision by assigning “intelligence” to an object — has enlarged the debate over the relative virtues of digital and manual drawing, Knight said.

The advantages of this technique have led some architectural educators to place less emphasis on traditional drawing, Architecture School Dean Robert Stern said.

“I hope that this symposium will help clarify the value of drawing to architects, and I know for myself that [it] will certainly shape my teaching,” Knight said.

He added, however, that he hopes the symposium will also allow architects to appreciate the value of various drawing techniques, from the different phases in the evolution of digital drawing to the painting techniques that emerged during the Italian Renaissance. Each of these methods, Knight said, has different virtues and is suited for different purposes. Yet while architects often apply a certain method to a particular project, the architectural community still needs to define the pros and cons of each one.

Despite the symposium’s diversity of perspectives ­— speakers included architects, historians, neuroscientists and computer engineers — the participants largely agreed that free-hand drawing is, if not an architects’ most important tool, at least a significant one.

“Even though the symposium is conceived as a synthesis of many different points of view, one can guess the answer to the overarching question the symposium poses,” said Jeremy Kargon ’85, a Baltimore-based architect and professor who attended the symposium. “No, drawing is most definitely not dead.”

But some speakers explained that the divide between manual drawing and technological influence is not binary.

Deanna Petherbridge, from the University of the Arts in London, said in her Friday talk titled “The Remains of Drawing” that though supporters of traditional drawing often accuse digital tools of being restrictive, architects can use computers to supplement their manual work, rather than create completely new images.

“I am making a distinction between using technology to enhance drawing and heavily restricted cyber imagery,” she said.

Similarly, Yale professor of computer science Julie Dorsey encouraged “a constructive dialogue” between hand-sketches and techniques that can enhance them digitally. She added that an architect could initially generate a design through hand drawing but later add computer modifications.

But a few panelists said they felt computers are more than complements to hand drawing and are instead becoming increasingly necessary tools. Architect Patrik Schumacher, a partner at Zaha Hadid Architects in London, explained that digital media could allow architecture to respond to the complex design demands of an increasingly diverse society.

“We need to adjust our drawing,” he said. “We can no longer rely on shapes we can track on a piece of paper. We need to let our repertoire of aspects and opportunities proliferate, and acknowledge that there is a difference between what we as humans desire and what we can do.”

Though the speakers did not reach a fully conclusive decision by the end of the symposium, the attendees were unfazed. Peter Logan ARC ’13 said that by examining architecture through the lenses of different academic fields, the symposium highlighted how architecture is a hybrid discipline. Architect Karen Nichols, a principal at Michael Graves & Associates, agreed, adding that she felt the debate that was the conceit of the symposium was necessary.

“Everyone is so focused and impassioned here,” she said. “The diversity of opinion is truly stimulating, and the debate going on is truly healthy.”

An exhibit featuring works by visiting professor and architect Massimo Scolari, whose drawings capture the artistic spirit of buildings, went on display last week in Rudolph Hall. Scolari’s talk, titled “Representations,” opened the symposium on Thursday evening,

Symposia at the School of Architecture are supported by the J. Irwin Miller Endowment Fund.

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