Skip to Content

On “Media” (Winter 2011) and Elizabeth Padjen

James Wines’ essayMind and Hand: Drawing the Idea” was provocative, trenchant, and relevant. His reference to the increasing interest in traditional drawing among design students suggests the onset of what RISD president John Maeda has termed the “post-digital era.”

I share Wines’ advocacy of “dual skills” for the designer — I work as a “hybridist,” using the more effective tool for the specific task at hand, then combining the two. Traditional drawing techniques accomplish certain things efficiently and well; the computer accomplishes others. Chirographic (hand) drawing is stochastic, messy, suggestive, and warm; digital imaging is ordered, clean, denotative, and cool.

Within the architectural design process, timing is the principal determinant for selection of the appropriate media. Traditional tools such as the pencil are conducive to early, impressionistic sketching because of the imprecision and fortuitousness that trigger ideas, whereas digital imaging is more effective for detail documentation later in the process or beyond — when public illustration of a solution is required. A “digital sketch” is something of an oxymoron.

Because architectural design is conceived and preliminarily developed during the sketch phase of the process — and sketching is so conducive to ideation — facility in traditional drawing skills is crucial to effective conceptualization. 

Architecture, like music, is termed an “allographic” art; signified as distinct from “autographic” — in which a direct act results in the artwork, such as the case with painting or sculpture. Architects create intermediary documents which instruct others (e.g., builders), rather than directly realizing their craft. Those documents are usually two-dimensional representations, schematic or pictorial, of the eventual physical building which is the ultimate work of art.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous observation: The challenge for the painter is to turn the mundane into the sublime — “paint into light.” The architect’s alchemical challenge is to transform graphite (ink, pastel, charcoal, watercolor) into architecture.

Paul Stevenson Oles FAIA
Interface Architects
Santa Fe, New Mexico

I read James McCown’sI Saw It on HGTV” with a strong sense of recognition, mixed with a wistfulness for simpler TV times. When he quoted one design-show host’s catchphrase — “It’s about going slick or going home” — I was reminded that watching HGTV is, for me, a lot like watching ESPN, MTV, or the local news. Quasi-hip idioms, jump-cut editing, loud guitar-driven music — the quest to capture young eyeballs drives shows toward what executives pray will be seen and heard as “edgy.” Home improvement, home runs, homeboys, or home break-ins, the subject doesn’t really matter, as long as they just keep watching.

Don’t I sound like a cranky old guy? Well, I did have my bearings set way back in the 1980s when I joined the This Old House (TOH) team. Our leader was Russ Morash, how-to television pioneer and the son of a homebuilder, who said he was inspired to start the show by coming home one day to find the plumber’s bill.

What had that plumber done to make that money? Wouldn’t it be interesting to unlock the secret world of the trades and perhaps even encourage a little sweat equity in those heady Whole Earth Catalog days? Pioneering a genre allowed Russ to play it straight — TOH showed the renovation process, more or less step by step. The before-and-after took up to 26 episodes to unfold, the big reveal was unknown, and folks got a good taste of how much time and what kind of thinking went into a plumber’s, a carpenter’s, even an architect’s work.

During the 17 years I spent producing TOH, the how-to quotient dropped, and the product placement pressure grew, especially after the “brand” was acquired by Time Inc. The show made a tempting acquisition in part because it was so inexpensive to produce — show up at a house, and you’ve got a set and content — and HGTV’s success is in part due to the attractiveness of that production model. McCown identifies how today’s shows squeeze even more airtime out of less content by teasing and recapping: The pacing is “two steps forward and one step back, but it accommodates casual viewing and short attention spans.” Not long ago, I briefly went back into TV to produce a show for HGTV; as I struggled to find the right rhythm, the network producer took me aside. “Bruce, I want you to imagine a 22-year-old guy lying on the couch with a smartphone and ADD. Your job is to make him keep watching.” We went fast, loud, and slick.

Bruce Irving
Cambridge, Massachusetts

In her role as editor of ArchitectureBoston, Elizabeth Padjen provided an extraordinary service to the Boston Society of Architects, to the design professions, and to the Greater Boston built environment.

With talent, persistence, and intellect, she led an entity that captured and articulated the highest aspirations of our profession. Constantly asking just how this or that subject proposed for the magazine would be relevant to the profession’s contribution to the improvement of our environment, she ably managed to produce content that was always time sensitive and challenging, issue after issue.

She enlisted an incredible bunch of people year after year for an editorial board that met regularly, and discussed and recommended just what the content for upcoming issues should be. As a chair of that board for a number of years, I was continually impressed not only by both the high quality and diversity of the people Elizabeth enlisted but also by the interaction, openness, and creativity that she inspired at the monthly meetings. They were, for me, a regular highlight.

Not only did she lead with distinction, she wrote for the magazine very well, too. You could count on every editorial to be thoughtful, incisive, and often provocative. She cared deeply about both the form and the content of ArchitectureBoston, and it showed. We and our environment are the beneficiaries.

Wilson Pollock FAIA
Jamestown, Rhode Island

It’s astonishing to look back on the growth of ArchitectureBoston and to understand the imprint of Elizabeth Padjen on its heart and soul. When we first batted around the idea of a magazine back in the mid-90s, through those familiar brainstorming sessions at the annual BSA retreat, the proposals ranged from creating a regional Architectural Record to a New England Journal of Architecture. However, the ArchitectureBoston we have today really evolved from Elizabeth’s own unique vision for a conversation about issues: issues that matter both to architects and to the public.

Now that I’m on the AIA Board and engaged with members around the country, I’ve been delighted to discover the level of respect other AIA components hold for ArchitectureBoston. At a recent AIA Communication Summit in Kansas City, staff of regional magazines from New York and Texas expressed the highest regard for the magazine, and editors at ARCHITECT praised Elizabeth’s work. Her intelligence and reputation make all of us in Boston look a little better, and a little brighter. Elizabeth’s perspective on how we live in a world we are continuously designing reached thousands more minds than merely those of our members and friends here in Boston, and we’re the better for it.

I will miss her constant presence in our ongoing discussion about the designed world, but we’ll just have to rope her in on something else.

Peter Kuttner FAIA
Cambridge Seven Associates
Cambridge, Massachusetts

At Elizabeth Padjen’s going-away party, I felt compelled to stand up and thank her for the many times she had called upon me over the years to write a story for ArchitectureBoston. Even though the themes varied widely (from the spirituality of hot tubs to how bankruptcy affects women), each time I was honored that she “got” me — she knew what I was passionate about and that the topic was perfect for my particular voice.

As I spoke, I looked around the crowded room full of architects, engineers, designers, lawyers, planners, and others and saw that nearly every head was nodding; all of her writers shared my belief, that Elizabeth knew their passions and their voices, too. What a wonderful gift for an editor to have!

Thanks again, Elizabeth — we will miss you.

Tamara M. Roy AIA
ADD Inc.