Dwayne Oyler/Single-Handedly

A good architecture drawing is a joy to behold. Since I was a child, I have lost myself in the intricacies of perspectives, sections, and, later on, axonometrics, isometrics, sectional perspectives, worm’s eye views, collage facades, and all the other ways architecture appears as a pure image. In recent years, the possibilities have expanded because of computer-assisted or -driven visualization technologies. This has led to an ongoing debate about the nature and future of drawings in an age when representations can appear with little assist of human hands. One of my students, Sol Edelman, went so far recently as to accuse me of trying to force him to make drawings “that don’t show the truth and are not how we see the world anymore." Stunned, I retreated to my den to peruse with great pleasure Nalina Moses’ Single-Handedly: Contemporary Architects Draw by Hand, recently published by Princeton Architectural Press—but not before pointing out that computer renderings can lie with the best of them; and, by the way, just get over it and show me the design in a way that makes sense.

Princeton Architectural Press

I remain astonished that the debate about “hand drawing” (which means, I guess, manipulating a pencil, pen, or brush, along with a Mayline, a triangle, and whatever tools are around) versus “computer drawings” (meaning visualizations produced through computer programs) rages on. Who cares? Is one better than the other? Should we be sad about the loss of ink wash perspectives? Or of plans drawn on parchment? Some architects—most notably the venerable Juhani Pallasmaa—have argued that we are losing some direct connection between the brain and our designs because we are not using our hands, which seems absurd to me. Others have argued that the speed and the shortcuts built into computer-assisted visualization means we don’t pay as much attention to what we are doing. That seems a valid point, but you could blame the demands for speed created by the rationalization of the workplace and economic pressures, as well as the distractions of daily life, for that as well. Finally, there is the notion put forward by some blog writers that default techniques, such as “[t]he 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...” That, in turn, has led to a predominance of images that are neither analytical nor allow you to understand the complex relations between sequences of spaces interrupted by structure. It also might make it difficult, as you are designing, to understand the relationship of one space to another, to light, to use, and to all the other factors that make up the “reality” of a building.

Katie Shima/Single-Handedly
Ashwin Patel/Single-Handedly
Bryan Cantley/Single-Handedly

Certainly you need a wide variety of tools to be able to understand and communicate what a building may be, which is why most schools—and many clients—ask for a range of information, from plans and sections to reference material and even statistics. Within that constellation of drawings, to use a generic term, each mode has its own advantages and disadvantages. Nothing can beat a good computer rendering for simulation, but nothing is better at understanding spatial and structural relations than a well done axonometric or perspectival section. Which is not to say you cannot build the latter on the computer, or that you can’t create evocative and accurate renderings by hand, but different tools lend themselves to different forms of analysis and presentation.

There is one reason that I would argue for the preservation and protection of that hand stuff: “hand” drawing has, as Single-Handedly shows, become the last refuge of experimental architecture, at least in terms of representation. That is not what I expected a few decades ago, when computers allowed architects to be able to display the weirdest shapes and complete science fiction universes in ways that it would take even the most skillful renderer months to accomplish. Now we are back to Bryan Cantley’s neo-tech collages, Dwayne Oyler’s endless networks of knots, and Daniel Mihalyo’s evocations of empty monuments. It is not just abstraction and a lack of function or site that gives these drawings the power to transport us from what we know into myriad different realities. It is also, at times, good storytelling. Architects such as Tom Ngo or Denis Andernach use drawings’ ability to seduce you into thinking that you are seeing reality to take you into a world of deformation and ghosts that subvert the normalcy of houses and homes. Ashwin Patel, Katie Shima, and Bishakh Som, meanwhile, create the kind of possible universes that let us imagine our future or our forgotten past as alternatives to a daily life constrained by economics and gravity.

Anneke Vervoort/Single-Handedly
Perry Kulper/Single-Handedly

Moses, a New York-based architect and writer who has compiled work from 41 architects in Single-Handedly, makes the point that drawing is also a way that architects can evoke the mood or organization of a building with a quick sketch or reveal relations with a clever composition. The book’s production values could have been a bit higher, and the graphic design should have been better, but the final chapters, where Moses has placed the more speculative images, nevertheless lift it to the realm of being a printed paean to experimental architecture—and to the possibilities of hand drawing.

There is always the danger, of course, that my perspective is itself warped. After my student Edelman's tirade against drawing, I asked Eddie Jones, AIA, who was visiting us at the School of Architecture at Taliesin, to remind us how even the simple act of drawing a plan by hand can evoke particular qualities that disappear in renderings. Laying a piece of “flimsy” or tracing paper over the student’s printed plan, he slid his bar, twirled his pencil, and rotated his triangles around to show how a different line weight or the abstraction of a toilet stall can communicate so much more than a computer drawing. We were suitably in awe. Edelman’s reaction? Two days later he showed up with computer-drawn sectional perspective, its surfaces manipulated to appear as if they were drawn by hand. It was quite good for a first-year student, and gave me hope that, no matter how you draw, the ability to evoke the possibilities of architecture in representation is alive and well.

Sol Edelman
Computer-generated drawings by one of the author's students
Sol Edelman Computer-generated drawings by one of the author's students

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.