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Mind and Hand: Drawing the Idea

You are what you draw.

It may seem strange to champion hand drawing today, in view of the universal triumph of digital graphics—especially when every progressive architect in the world seems obsessed with elevating computerized delineation to new heights of illustrative supremacy. At the same time, as the software revolution has increasingly taken precedence, there appears to be a fresh incentive among many architectural students—actually, a kind of quiet revolution—based on a newfound desire to hone their manual skills and learn to draw in the old way.

Geojae Hotel & Convention Center (late plan) - Okpo-Dong, S. Korea – SITE – J. Wines – ink & wash - 2009

Click image above to view slideshow.

I have been a long-standing supporter of dual skills, encouraging young designers to maintain equal graphic abilities on paper surfaces and computer desktops. This advocacy is based on a deeply felt conviction that, by focusing exclusively on computer-generated illustration, something conceptually profound is forfeited in the design process.

When electronic mechanisms replace the filtration of idea development through tactile means, the fertile territory of “subliminal accident” is lost. This refers to marginal calligraphy that dribbles off the edge of the paper, the inadvertent congestion of squiggly lines with no apparent meaning, the unwelcome blobs of ink that drop off a pen tip, or the inclusion of seemingly irrelevant references that have nothing to do with initial intentions. On innumerable occasions over the years, I have been the creative beneficiary of my own graphic musings and the chaotic trail of ambiguous images left behind by random charcoal smudges and watercolor washes. In a variety of miraculous ways, this pictorial detritus, hand-drawn on paper without any predetermined architectonic mission, has often become the springboard for new ideas.

Frequently, when watching some seemingly prepubescent computer whiz use software to whip out multidimensional views of a complex structure in a matter of minutes, I feel as though I may be pushing a hopelessly old-fashioned aesthetic ritual. I recall how impressed I was with the photo-fidelity of digital drawing a decade ago, when proficiency in computer rendering was applauded as some kind of transcendental feat. Everything churned out in those days looked too good to be true—and it was. As my eyes became accustomed to sorting out slickness from substance, I gradually acquired a highly refined aptitude for detecting mediocrity (or outright crap) lurking under the pictorial gloss.

Computer proficiency can never match the advantages of the calligraphic aptitude needed to draw really well. This is very different from the conventional capacity to produce photo-like images with great fidelity—a commonplace talent in architecture that is frequently mistaken for genuine drawing. The most noticeable deficit in young designers’ ability to draw is their lack of understanding of the complex aesthetic challenges that must first be met for accomplished draftsmanship. These include knowledge of the origins of language, the evolution of calligraphy, the nature of signification, and the abstract dimension that unites positive and negative visual elements on the picture plane. In this context, I am speaking mainly of drawing in its role as a recorder of thought process within the larger goal of building design. But, like the artist’s study for a painting or sculpture, the quality of calligraphic underpinnings in the initial sketch is always a decisive factor in determining its ultimate qualification as an aesthetic experience.

The beginnings

The discovery of the Altamira and Lascaux cave paintings (in 1879 and 1940, respectively) confirmed the fact that Paleolithic cultures as far back as 30,000 years ago had mastered the art of drawing and established the foundations for all subsequent graphic selection in the formation of written language. The illustrative factor was certainly part of the purpose of cave art; but those Magdalenian painters also knew that the profundity of visual language resided in its abstract and iconographic elements—in essence, the connections linking inscription and philosophy—apart from any basic reportage intentions. They anticipated not only the development of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese calligraphy thousands of years later but also the signifier/signified basis of linguistics and the role of mind and hand in the evolution of visual ideas.

Historian Andrew Robinson refers to Magdalenian art as “proto-writing,” seemingly based on the assumption that Ice Age people did not yet have a legitimate alphabet. On the other hand, there are enough abstract symbols punctuating the cave murals to suggest that these Cro-Magnon painters had already laid major groundwork for the development of written language—as well as all subsequent calligraphic innovation in art and design. In the context of prehistoric times, it was only a small aesthetic and linguistic leap to associate the gracefully tapered legs of a bison with all forms of stability and movement in nature. The next logical step was to abstract this fragment of anatomy into a pictographic symbol; refine it into a cuneiform inscription; and, finally, amplify its meaning by phonetic markings and syllabary alphabets.

With progressive logic, the extended legacy of this process evolved into the serviceability of e-mail on one hand and the expressive pathos of Picasso’s drawings for Guernica on the other. By following a similar route of graphic invention 4,000 years ago, China developed calligraphy to a degree where fragments of the first alphabet still remain a part of contemporary Chinese writing. Similarly, Chinese writing and drawing have remained synonymous skills in the hands of calligraphers. This interface between language development and the aesthetics of drawing is at the core of graphic expression.

You are what you draw

In my view, there is no question that the fluidity of connection between mind and hand determines the quality of the architect you become. It shapes your thinking and, therefore, the kind of firm in which you practice, including the creative level of people with whom you choose to associate. Certainly, a high aptitude in hand drawing influences the character and innovative level of the work you produce.

In 1970, I cofounded SITE; from the beginning, our work has been a fusion of art, architecture, and landscape. The philosophy of the firm is based on a view that communicative content in the building arts can be developed from sources outside the traditions of formalist design; our buildings are frequently interpreted as being about the environment rather than objects sitting in the environment. This approach proposes a narrative function of architecture. It springs directly from the questioning, multilayered, and sometimes-ambivalent process of sketching, as opposed to the limitations imposed by computer-generated abstract shapes—or, more specifically, preprogrammed digital systems for graphic delineation.

A number of my drawings explore the integration of architecture and landscape. As a result, buildings often appear to be consumed by their own environment—or, seen more perversely, as victims of nature’s revenge. In other examples, the renderings describe the need for more forested areas, water sources, and urban agriculture in the cityscape. The primary purpose is to explore the integration of architecture with context to a degree where it becomes difficult to discern where a building ends and the environment begins. In this way, vegetation, topography, and climatic conditions can become as much a part of the aesthetic/functional fabric of a structure as masonry, glass, and steel.

These drawings are often part of an interactive process that fuses computer graphics with hand drawings as a fluid interface between multimedia and conceptual development. From the incremental stages of source referencing and search-for-idea sketches through design clarification and, finally, renderings for pure aesthetic experience, the calligraphic underpinnings of the design appear in multiple formats and scales. These layers may not be apparent to the casual observer of the completed work, but they form its essence.

I encourage young architects to draw for reasons of idea development as well as for pure pleasure—advising them to follow Picasso’s obsessive example: “I draw like other people bite their nails.” In his enthusiasm for the power of the hand, the great Spanish artist is also purported to have taken a dim view of the digital revolution by commenting, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” Although overstating the case a bit, he correctly prophesized the current revival of interest in hand drawing and the widening acknowledgment that there are conceptual and aesthetic qualities that software, such as Form Z, AutoCAD, and SketchUp, can neither equal nor replace.

When I watch masses of architectural students locked into computer monitors as prosthetic extensions of their bodies and churning out facile simulations of buildings, I recall Baudrillard’s eerie assessments of postmodern culture. Particularly resonant are his views of media phenomena—as illusion replacing reality—where substitution ultimately becomes the reality. In a world of simulacra, I find that signs scratched on paper with a pen or pencil have a way of restoring authenticity, as well as validity, value, and symbolic content. As Baudrillard astutely observed, the illusions created by media tend to remove people from the organic and tactile world around them. Retaining this connection between mind and hand seems just as valid now as it was for the cave artists who immortalized the hunt in Altamira and Lascaux. The quest for calligraphic quality is no less relevant as well. It is an objective perfectly described by an anonymous quotation I found recently on the Internet: “We all have at least 100,000 bad drawings inside of us. The sooner we get them out and onto paper, the sooner we’ll get to the good ones buried deep within.”