BeLoose Graphic Workshop

The Pencil vs. the Might Computer by Carol Hsiung/FXFowle Architects

Eleven Times Square, Pencil

Pencil Sketch: Eleven Times Square

In the days of the “Ecole De Beaux-Arts,” the pencil was the only tool. Now, the pencil has been replaced by the mighty computer. The transition inevitably reflects the current state of architecture and life. It is a good thing, but also a sad thing to me. When I graduated from architecture school in the 1980’s, the pencil was the only tool I knew. Everyone was required to draw by hand. I transferred into the Architecture program from Fine Arts because I fell in love with the analytical drawings displayed in the school’s corridor. I wanted to become an architect because I loved to draw. I spent my first 15 years after graduation trying to avoid using a computer. Being good at drawing helped avoid the inevitable, but eventually, I was forced to succumb. Slowly it has become another tool and even a “friend” where I can peacefully integrate the two worlds.

Pencil + Photoshop: Renaissance Tower (left), Hotel/Spa Project (right)

Drawing is more than a tool; it is a skill, a way of seeing and expressing. Le Corbusier said, “I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster and leaves less room for lies,” while Escher said, “Drawing is deception.” In my opinion, drawing can be both. It is integral to the design process because it communicates the story (an honest one or not). It is true that one can also draw with a computer, especially with software like sketch-up creating beautiful images. But who drew them? How many people worked on them? They seem to be missing the human touch, the craftsmanship, the emotion, the quickness, spontaneity, and imperfections that can only be achieved by a human hand holding a pencil. Because of this, hand drawings still hold a valuable place in architecture. They leave room for personal interpretation, in contrast to computer images that sometimes becomes too “true,” too exact, too defined. That can become a problem, especially when an architect has no time to resolve the design. The hand drawing is great at “faking it.” And, it can be much faster to execute.

Collage of sketches

I feel lucky to be able to do what I love and still draw by hand at work. I feel happy and a bit guilty when my husband laughs at me for being paid to “color.” But for the majority in the field of architecture, hand drawing is a skill that is slowly dying. It worries me because the act of hand drawing is more than making pretty images. It is essential to the design process. It links the connection between the hand, the eye, and the brain. And it seems to be the foundation for every art form. Walt Disney was quoted, “Mickey Mouse popped out of my mind onto my drawing pad 20 years ago on a train from Manhattan to Hollywood…” Disney did not need a battery or electricity or Google images for help. He used his pencil.

I am not one of those “old farts” who thinks that the past is better. I appreciate technology and its results, but I think it does hinder the art of hand drawing in architecture because there is not enough time and opportunity to exercise it. This isn’t anyone’s fault. It is just the nature of progress. Frank Gehry’s “scribbles” and his crinkled up pieces of paper forms could not have become “real” without technology. The development of Building Information Modeling has improved team connection and system integration. The computer has become a great interactive tool for 3-D visualizations for meetings, finding resources/information, and connecting the world. The public demands and expects the computer-look. Most would opt to watch the amazing animated films of Pixar vs. the old hand-drawn Walt Disney movies…and only a few will still notice and appreciate the incredible hand-drawn/painted water colored backgrounds in Snow White. The computer is mighty for good reason. The pencil is essential for good reason. I think there needs to be room for both the pencil and the mighty computer. I don’t think hand drawing will disappear as long as they keep making tracing paper for our meetings, but without practice and opportunity, we may lose this skill.

So to answer the question, do architects still draw by hand?
Yes, but much less than we use to, so we need to keep sketching so that we will not forget.

Pen and Ink Sketch of Eleven Times Square

Pen and Ink: Eleven Times Square

Courtesy of FX Fowle Architects

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Comment by John Silva on February 7, 2012 at 1:05am

By the length of my reply, you have probably surmised that I am retired.  If so, you are correct.  However, even in retirement, I still have the need to do…to do something.  I’m teaching a watercolor class to seniors.  We are focusing on using architectural design principles to create abstract and impressionist art with great results.  I am also giving children we know art lessons, and I am forming groups in my neighborhood that make it easier for people to get to know their neighbors and learning new things.  If you would like to see some of my three dimensional art visit my web site

I also do a lot of thinking about why we are here and what we should be doing before we die.  Robert Fulgrum in his book It Was on Fire When I laid Down on It tells of a seminar he attended where the speaker said “We are here to shine light into the dark places.”  I would be interested to know what you think.  By the way it is a great book. If you can’t find it at your library and want a copy, I will find one and send it to you. 

Another great book is Random Acts of Kindness by Dawna Markova Conari Press or better yet Google “Random acts of kindness” and be blown away.

In closing, I think we need to work on minimizing greed, and encourage love, compassion, generosity and kindness.

Best wishes, John

Comment by John Silva on February 7, 2012 at 1:03am

Our current state of affairs dictates that most of the time you have to do what gets the job done most efficiently so the rent can be paid and you get to eat.  And, if along the way you get to do something you really enjoy like creating an awesome design, or finding a neat, simple, quick solution to a difficult problem, or doing a terrific hand rendering then that’s wonderful. 

The computer can draw every seat in a 10,000 seat auditorium with shades and shadows.  I'm all for letting the computer do it.  However, when I want to create something, I want a pencil and some grid paper...ninety degree, perspective or polar; it’s all good.

Recently, I re-designed a house that was in terrible shape.  It was a foreclosure that Habitat for Humanity had bought.  They wanted to fix-it-up and give it to a single mother who couldn’t afford decent housing and was living in a dangerous neighborhood. It’s a great program.  If you can, get involved. After a few days, I gave the plan and elevations to the project foreman who was also a small contractor and was donating his time as well.  The next day we had a meeting.  He had some questions.  He brought his laptop.  He had scanned my drawings and we were looking at a 3-D walk-through and fly-around of my design in color.  He also had a quantity take-off for the building materials and an approximate cost to do the job.  He said it took him a couple of hours.  All of this was done with a piece of software that cost less than one hundred dollars.

Someday, I suspect the debate will be mute.  The chip genetically implanted in your brain at birth will convert your thoughts into dynamic virtual images and transmit them instantly to your clients mind via his or her implanted chip.  Look out Brave New World.  Here we come (ready or not).

Change has been with us from the beginning of time.  I suppose there were those who lamented the good old days before fire and spears when you could go hand-to-hand with a saber tooth tiger and eat the meat of a kill raw with the blood dripping down your chin.  Change seems to be part of our nature.  In 1964, Dylan sang The Times They Are A-Changin.  It’s 2012, and we are still changing.  Albeit, faster and faster towards horrifying and irreversible possibilities. Hopefully, we will get to enjoy the benefits of our technological "advances" if we don't destroy the planet and ourselves first. 

Sometimes I have to wonder if these advances are really all that good for us.  I recall seeing a small dam in India being built by hand.  There were maybe five or six hundred people passing bags of dirt one at a time up to the top of the riverbank.  At the rate they were going, I remembering thinking, it was going to take a very long time to build this dam.  I thought, how much easier it would be if they had a drag line.  They could easily have the job done in a few days or a week at the most.  Now, I think about people in our own country on welfare or out of work, and I don’t think it is good for healthy and able people to be idle. 

On this same note, I was surprised to learn that in Oregon, I could not pump my own gas.  It was a state law that had been passed at the request of the people of Oregon.  After some time, I found out why.  Requiring that gas be pumped by an employee of the gas station put a whole lot of people back to work that wanted to work but couldn’t get a job.  They were additional benefits.  They checked your oil and wiped your windshield, it greatly reduced the number of people on welfare, increased tax revenue, reduced gas station insurance premiums, sold more oil, cars were better maintained, and there were less accidents because of cleaner windshields (I made up the last three). And last but not least, when it is ten degrees below zero you didn’t have to get out of your car and pump gas.

By the length of my reply, you have probably surmised that I am retired.  If so, you are correct.  However, e

Comment by Paul Fenner on February 4, 2012 at 6:08pm

Thanks for the article and illustrations.

Our firm does 100% of conceptual design drawing and rendering in color by hand.  We are good at it and we draw fast!  We scan all final drawings for future reproduction and archives.

We do 100% of construction drawings on computer, prelims by hand.

We are a small landscape design-build firm and this works very well for us.

Comment by Ken Nentwig on February 4, 2012 at 9:38am

Excellent commentary, thank you for sharing it.  Over my 40+ years in landscape design and professional work, my life has come full circle.  From struggling with hand drawing to becoming comfortable, even if not proficient; to 'discovering' CAD in its early PC stages and riding the wave for nearly two decades; to becoming a teacher and realizing both systems are valuable and necessary; to taking Mike's workshop and understanding the hand-graphic aspects I didn't see before; to enjoying sketching and colouring, and also SketchUp and CAD, and teaching both systems.  Perhaps I can sum up my perspective as: computers make it an interactive, somewhat impersonal, clearly-defined world for gaphics, while hand-rendering is a very personal communication tool, far more satisfying to me.

Comment by Duane D. STegall on February 4, 2012 at 7:30am

Great article. I came to the pencil sort of backwards. I started in the Architectural field because of the computer and BIM. I took a required class at the community college which was entitled 'Design Communications". In the class the instructor, a student of Mike's, introduced us to the pencil, marker, pen and pastels. That was over a year ago and I have not put either down since. The feel of the paper and the instument in use at the time I hope and pray are never lost. My brain has been in euthoria and I refuse to put them down.

BeLoose is a workshop where the experience will definitely change people's lives and increase their confidence beyond their expectation.

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