sebastian serlio drawing via wiki

The Pleasures and Futility of Teaching Drawing to Architecture Students

I teach architectural drawing and architectural design studios at the undergraduate level and share many of Martin C. Pedersen’s concerns about the lost art of drawing. Sometimes it feels like I spend as much time advocating for its usefulness as I do teaching it. Truth be told, it’s often a battle. Here are some thoughts on why and, yes, why I still think it’s important.


A Tough Sell

In the first class of semester I always reassure students that the rules of 1- and 2-point perspective drawing are simple, but I’m finding it’s increasingly difficult to get students to appreciate why doing it matters. I usually explain how an understanding of the rules of perspective will mean they’ll unconsciously and automatically apply those rules when they sketch. They know (and I know) that’s never going to happen.


Keeping It Real

I don’t encourage students to carry around sketchbooks and pretend they’re Le Corbusier in the south of France, or mimic those architects who obsessively commit every thought to paper. I just believe the creative process in architecture should begin with an architectural and/or spatial thought—just as chefs have initial thoughts about combinations of ingredients and techniques, or playwrights about characters, situations and dialogue. If one is going to have architectural thoughts, then they’ll need to be communicated, and sketching remains the quickest and most efficient way to do that.


The Pecking Order

The most important person those thoughts will need to be communicated to is a client. I ask my students to imagine: they’re in a meeting with the client, who mentions some aspect of the building. If you can quickly grasp that idea, draw it, and push a piece of paper across the table and say, “You mean like this?” and they say “Exactly!” then that’s not only a great place to be, but what’s expected. Eventually those architectural thoughts will need to be communicated to a team leader, or perhaps the rendering guy in the corner. “You don’t want to be that guy in the corner,” I tell my students. “You want to be the one who tells them what to do, and sketches are the best way to ensure that.”


First Things First

I don’t have anything against “visualizations” as such, and I’ve nothing against virtual models either. I just have this quaint belief that they should exist in an architect’s imagination first. The ability to imagine 3D shapes and spaces and translate them into two-dimensional representations is Spatial Ability. It may not be as essential as other cognitive functions, but it’s central to what architects are paid to do. In the light of my previous point, however, this might be another quaint belief of mine.


Don’t Blame the Software!

The general level of Spatial Ability is in decline, but don’t blame it on the software. I took to CAD’s integrated 3D capability immediately and have been a user for around two decades ago now. It complements how I think and work since I use its 3D capabilities for confirmation and communication. I’ve seen students use modeling software to do incredibly useful things, such as understand structure, construction and performance, but it’s far more commonly used for trial-and-error form-finding. This kind of use stifles the ability to imagine shapes and spaces, as well as the ability to communicate them. It’s unfortunate that the same program can be used either as an aid to thinking, or as a substitute for it.


Form Surfing as Design

When universes of parametric possibilities are generated in the name of “form-finding,” design becomes the act of setting and tailoring parameters, of selecting the best fit given the design agenda. But here’s the rub: it has always been this way! Imagining entire universes of possibilities and then eliminating all but one is something designers once did in their heads. Using computers to automate that process doesn’t make it any less subjective or, for that matter, any more modern.


Facts on the Ground?

The ease of spinning 3D models around has led to the new normal being aerial views dramatically displaying the building rather than describing the user experience. To me, this shows how architectural representations are now more concerned with marketing and branding than with the communication of ideas. A little while back, MVRDV felt obliged to defend a visualization of theirs against criticism for being unrealistic. When architects and companies compete for media attention with spectacular high-res visualizations from unlikely viewpoints, students can be forgiven for thinking this is what architecture is all about.


Looks Good Onscreen

“To draw a building is to design it,” architect Sebastiano Serlio once said around 1500. I used to think he meant to conceive of a controlling geometry, but now I’m not so sure. He may have meant design was coming up with an idea that looks good on paper. This isn’t a problem of drawing but of using drawing to depict ideas rather than having them. It explains the bravura yet shallow Mannerism of the Late Renaissance. It also feels familiar. Many architects and architects-to-be in this early 21st century would have us believe that “to model a building is to design it.” Our modern replacements for drawing aren’t the problem, but using them to replace thinking is. Regarding modeling tools as design tools has given us an architecture of money-shot visualizations, the bravura yet shallow Mannerism of our times.


The Seductive Drawing is Rare

Drawing and modeling tools can each be misused to communicate to others something more appealing than what’s likely to result. They can also be used to deceive ourselves within a personal design process but there’s less danger of this with drawing—it’s not so easy to draw something without knowing what one is going to draw. The strong point of drawing is that it can’t make design ideas look any better than they are. By the same token, this is probably why it’s falling out of favor with architects and students alike.


Featured image: a drawing for a stage set by Sebastiano Serlio, via Wikipedia. 


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