UP CLOSE | At School of Architecture, role of drawing in doubt

At the Yale School of Architecture, a student’s workspace contains space for hand drawing and modeling as well as a computer equipped with architectural software.
At the Yale School of Architecture, a student’s workspace contains space for hand drawing and modeling as well as a computer equipped with architectural software. Photo by Kamaria Greenfield.

From Feb. 9 to 11, more than 500 architects, professors and critics from across the globe descended on New Haven to debate the place of hand drawing in contemporary architecture. Meant to fill Hastings Hall to capacity, the symposium — “Is Drawing Dead?” — was so popular that attendees were relocated to overflow rooms elsewhere in the School of Architecture’s Rudolph Hall to watch the symposium via live-streaming video.

When architecture professors George Knight ARC ’95 and Victor Agran ARC ’97 approached Dean Robert A. M. Stern more than 18 months ago with the idea for the symposium, Agran said they were motivated by personal passions for drawing and a desire to improve on their own teaching of drawing in today’s educational environment. But they had no idea the subject would strike such a raw nerve in the global community. What was originally planned as a more modest event grew into one of the largest symposia in the school’s history.

The discussion did not end that weekend. In the two months since, architectural journals and blogs have been flooded with reviews, forums and opinion pieces that asked broad questions about what role drawing can, should and does take in architecture today.

“The symposium will hopefully spark a conversation between people in the field about different types of drawing and their virtues,” Knight told the News in February.

In the months since the symposium, the issue of drawing has come to occupy an important place in the school’s evaluation of its own curriculum. Peggy Deamer, a School of Architecture professor who heads the school’s curricular review committee, said that the faculty is considering increasing the emphasis on certain computer-based technologies.

Stern said that the school maintained a strong emphasis on drawing before he was dean and that he has advocated for retaining drawing courses in the curriculum since he came to the school in 1998. But since computers became a principal force in architectural design in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Stern explained, architecture education has been “in a crisis situation” where drawing is concerned.

“[By the early 1990s], architects began to use software to explore creating new shapes, and software has become a determinist force in architectural design,” Stern said. “This was, and still is, very seductive to students. But if every student is working in the computer, one has to wonder whether they have lost touch with the age-old relationship between the hand, the eye and the brain.”

ARTISTIC ORIGINS

The Yale School of Architecture has differed from its peer institutions since the school’s founding in 1916 as a department in the now defunct School of Fine Arts, a conglomeration of the disciplines that later became the School of Drama, the School of Art and Architecture, and the History of Art Department. When the School of Fine Arts split into separate professional schools in the mid- to late 1950s, the establishment of a School of Art and Architecture based out of Rudolph Hall kept the two fields inextricably linked, Stern said.

“Until 1969, when [Rudolph Hall] had its fire, there was a real intimacy between painters, sculptors and architects,” Stern said, referring to a mysterious fire that damaged much of the building’s interior.

It was only after the fire that the disciplines began to occupy separate spaces, and the architecture program began to forge its own identity independent of the art school. In 1972, the School of Architecture split from the School of Art, to be born as its own professional school, independent of other disciplines.

These artistic beginnings were “atypical,” Stern said, explaining that most of the School of Architecture’s peer institutions were once departments in technical or scientific schools. The first architecture school in the United States was founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1865. Columbia University established its program in 1881 out of its engineering school, the School of Mines. Harvard’s architecture department, established in 1914, was influenced by both engineering and fine arts, Stern said, but art faculty never had as much influence in the architecture program as they did at Yale, due to the absence of an art school at Harvard.

Only Princeton, which officially began its program in 1919, also chose to intertwine its architecture department with its art school. In its focus on studying architecture in the context of art, Stern said, Yale “seemed to be on to something.”

Before computer-based tools gained prominence, the School of Architecture devoted three faculty members and three courses to the art of drawing by hand, Deamer said. Now, architecture students learn hand drawing through a mandatory summer class taught in Rome and within broader visualization survey courses.

Stern said when the department of architecture was first planned, administrators intended for students to take technical courses at Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School, the undergraduate science and engineering school that operated from 1847 to 1956. But the group of faculty members formulating the department’s new curriculum felt that those courses were too technical, Stern explained.

“We felt we had to have our own faculty of engineering who would introduce students to enough engineering [to practice architecture], but that we were really an art discipline,” Stern said. “Architecture is an art.”

AN INDIVIDUAL EXPERIENCE

The school’s connection to the artistic thought process has led to a focus on individuality that both professors and students feel differentiates it from many other top-tier architecture programs. In order to allow students to explore their own developing aesthetic, the School of Architecture developed a pluralistic teaching style, a deviation from the pedagogic approaches of other top-tier architecture schools, Deamer said.

“Yale’s coming from the art school has its biggest impact in the idea that we, in teaching architecture, are nurturing each individual student’s voice,” she said.

Deamer added that the tradition of art education emphasizes students’ ability to make their own stylistic decisions, while engineering education has typically been more focused on teaching students one set of principles. An architecture school’s affiliation with either the artistic or the technical side of the discipline influences which of these approaches it adopts.

For example, the Harvard Graduate School of Design, which Stern said was influenced by engineering to a greater degree than Yale’s school, tends not to question the merits of the modernist movement to the same extent as other institutions, giving students a slanted view of architectural history, she added. This in turn impacts the work produced by Harvard students and their abilities to develop unique styles, she said.

At Yale, the root of individuality is pluralism, in both architectural style and preferred visualization tools. Just this semester, the visiting professors at the school include Massimo Scolari, an expert in architectural representation through drawings and watercolors, as well as Greg Lynn and Frank Gehry, who employ cutting-edge computer-based tools in their own practices. Reflecting this diversity of drawing methods, each budding architect is given a large drafting table in addition to a computer desk in their workspace in Rudolph Hall, David Bench ARC ’12 said. He added that comparable institutions like Columbia’s architecture school do not provide students the desk space to draw or model by hand.

Some courses at the School of Architecture still require students to model by hand.
Some courses at the School of Architecture still require students to model by hand.

“[The conversation about drawing] is a big deal here because there’s a plurality to the school — we have all kinds of voices,” Bench said. “That doesn’t happen at other places. They have very united fronts.”

Bench added that he feels learning to switch between different media forces students to develop flexibility and critical thinking skills that will serve them well in their careers. Yale’s graduate students are not explicitly taught to draw or use software like Building Information Modeling, which enables students to create “smart” models embedded with data that can be shared with and edited by multiple parties, including architects, electricians and clients.

Instead, students are provided with the resources to practice and explore the entire range of visualization options. While students can request informal workshops to learn the software from their professors, most achieve fluency in the programs through independent practice.

“I’ve had to spend a lot of time outside of class learning the software,” said Zac Heaps ARC ’12. Before coming to Yale, Heaps completed Notre Dame’s five-year undergraduate architecture program, in which students “don’t touch a computer” until their fourth year.

Rather than teaching technical skills, classes are meant to focus on the implications of tools and their effects on design and thought, not how to use the tools themselves, Deamer said. Several students interviewed said that at other schools they considered attending, faculty members offered courses explicitly focused on using software.

Heaps said that while professors integrate computer-based tools into classes, it would not be productive to have specific courses on them since the programs become obsolete so quickly. It is important to gain an intuition for how to use architecture programs, which are often more complex than the software used in everyday life, he added.

Stern said Yale should not offer courses primarily devoted to software, because Yale is not a “trade school.”

“There has to be an academic component to get credit for a course here,” Deamer said. “And just teaching software is not enough.”

FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE

The School of Architecture treats the field as both a theoretical academic pursuit and a professional discipline, aiming to send students to some of the nation’s best architecture firms. These studios are so diverse in focus that it is difficult to shape a curriculum around them, Jonas Barre ARC ’12 SOM ’12 said.

Barre added that some firms are so focused on winning competitions that they are willing to sacrifice constructability for theoretical complexity in design, meaning they would prefer to hire students with a strong capacity for manipulating forms on a computer over those with a more traditional education rooted in drawing.

But nearly every firm today requires fluency in architecture software, professors and students said.

“Basically you won’t find employment now if you don’t know how to use computer software,” said Antoine Picon, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design who spoke at February’s symposium. “The practice is already ahead in that aspect.”

While students at Yale are expected to have sufficiently learned how to use computer-based technologies by the time they graduate, not all feel prepared to enter the workforce.

In a survey by the News sent out to students at the architecture school, nearly half of the 61 respondents said that they were not completely confident in their preparation for entering the job market, given their current grasp of computer-based drawing and modeling techniques. Nearly half also said that they felt Yale had “too little” or “way too little” of a focus on these digital tools.

While Stern and several other professors interviewed said they feel this fear is unjustified, Deamer said she feels these students are rightly worried.

“I think it’s a valid concern for us to make our students [employable],” Deamer said. “They want to go out into the world with all the skills offices require, and the more tools they know, the more [employable] they are.”

Deamer said that she believes the school doesn’t sufficiently emphasize Building Information Modeling, and that the school is currently discussing increasing its focus on the software. She added that while she, as the head of the curriculum review, will push for an increased focus on BIM, not all members of the school’s faculty — or the review committee itself — would agree that the school is behind on this front.

She did not, however, apply this analysis to other computer-based tools, such as computer drafting, parametric drawing and the computer modeling software Rhino, adding that she believes the school already focuses enough on these tools to prepare students for the workplace.

“BIM is in a category by itself,” Deamer said.

Heaps said he believed that he would not have been able to get a job at a non-classical architecture firm with his heavily drawing-based Notre Dame education alone. He added that the emphasis on drawing lent itself far more to the classical tradition than to any other style due to the limits of straight edges and other hand-drafting tools — while the right angles of Yale’s Gothic structures, for instance, can easily be rendered by hand, more contemporary buildings that make use of curved organic lines require computer modeling. Accordingly, Heaps said, most of his classmates who did not go straight to graduate school began to work for firms that specialize almost exclusively in traditional architecture. Spending less time practicing computer-based tools pigeonholed the students into a “niche” market, he said.

Michael Lykoudis, dean of University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, disagreed that his students were destined to be employed only by a specific type of firm, arguing instead that modern and avant-garde firms value the solid grounding of a drawing-based education.

“When students draw and model by hand, they are able to better conceptualize the context and challenge of a client, which is what real firms do,” Lykoudis said. “They understand the principles of construction, which are the foundations of classical architecture. It’s a pragmatic approach.”

Heaps said he thinks Yale falls somewhere in the middle of a spectrum of architecture schools, ranging from those that more greatly emphasize hand drawing and modeling to others that focus on computer-based tools. Unlike many other schools, Yale’s program does not emphasize prerequisite software skills, Heaps said, which indicates the school’s versatility in its approach to the tools available today.

Agran, who co-coordinated the February symposium, teaches hand drawing at the School of Architecture during the academic year and in its summer program at Rome. But as a senior associate at New Haven-based Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, he said he thinks it is necessary for students to be fluent in software to be productive in the workplace.

“As a practicing architect I could not function without digital tools. They are much faster and more powerful than traditional hand drafting and model-making practice,” Agran said in an email. “Conversely, if one doesn’t know how to draw by hand or quickly develop a hand sketch, something is lost. Both are critical.”

Agran added that he believes hand drawing and modeling are necessary, because the physical nature of those techniques causes the body to absorb and remember the experience of a site. Architecture schools, he said, should advocate for both hand and digital techniques because of the critical thinking skills gained from both methods.

‘WHAT WE AS HUMANS CAN DO’

While many students and professors agree with Yale’s incorporation of both traditional and computer-based techniques into the curriculum, several students said they feel Yale is entrenched in a drawing-based mindset that takes away from its ability to fully embrace technology.

Barre said he feels that the introductory visualization courses at the school do not encourage students to use push digital technologies to their capacity.

“Early courses at the school focus on [formal hand] drafting at first, and even though you eventually move to digital tools, the aesthetic is based in the hand drafting aesthetic,” Barre said. “It’s not really an exploration into what the mode of digital expression could be. It’s rooting technology in an outmoded aesthetic — digital drawing is limited by the notion that it should look like a hand drawing.”

Deamer said that Yale is often deemed conservative since the focus on hand drawing constrains architects to shapes that can actually be constructed. She added that by contrast, many schools that focus less on hand drawing and modeling also have an ideological focus on shape and form for its own sake. At these schools, she said, students are encouraged to design buildings using fantastic shapes for the sake of dialogue and conceptual debate, even if it is unfeasible to construct them with the materials currently available.

But Heaps said that with the development of new construction technology, the emerging generation of architects now has the chance to build forms previously possible only on a screen. He explained that construction materials are beginning to keep up with design technology, and that by using BIM, architects are finally able to approach unique shapes and forms with pragmatic engineering elements.

“We need to adjust our drawing,” Patrick Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects in London said at February’s symposium. Zaha Hadid Architects is known for designing contemporary buildings that make use of fluid shapes and curves — their Galaxy Soho building in Beijing, for instance, comprises a cluster of five orb-like structures with no straight lines.

“We can no longer rely on shapes we can track on a piece of paper,” Schumacher said. “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.”

LIMITING THE SCOPE OF DRAWING

“In a sense, this isn’t really a question of whether or not people will actually be performing hand sketches [in the future], but what form those will take,” Bench said. “There’s general agreement that that initial sketch will never go away.”

Whether it takes place when an architect draws a prospective site, produces a quick pencil sketch to show a client, or gradually develops an idea through hand drawing, professors and students agree that the act of drawing will never be absent from architectural practice.

Zaha Hadid’s Galaxy Soho building in Beijing uses the fluid shapes made possible by computer-based drawing.
Zaha Hadid’s Galaxy Soho building in Beijing uses the fluid shapes made possible by computer-based drawing.

But as computer-based drawing and modeling tools become more prevalent in the workplace, it seems that Yale’s curriculum is shifting further and further toward the integration of technology into the classroom, even at the expense of hand drawing. While students and professors said they valued the critical thinking abilities developed by non-digital techniques, nearly all agreed that learning to sketch informally is an intuitive skill that can be practiced but is less important to learn in a classroom setting.

The more formal processes of hand drafting and modeling may take more training, but the functions of these tools have been largely subsumed by the computer with greater efficiency, Barre said. He added that there is a distinction between non-technical sketching and modeling, which Stern and Agran argue are necessary for the thinking process, and tedious and technical hand drafting.

In the future, it seems that the School of Architecture will aim to leave students with an understanding of both drawing and computer-based techniques, but it is unclear which functions of each of these approaches will remain relevant.

“Ultimately, it is best as a designer to have as many tools at your disposal [as you can],” Agran said.

Comments

  • Robbie

    GREAT ARTICLE! So well-researched.

  • williamwong

    This is actually an incredibly well researched, thorough article on the topic. Good job!