The point of drawing, for an architect, is to convey or discover design. These are different, but both involve communication – with other humans or with the design itself. Drawing has been central to this practice for most of history, but it is not essential to it (in many cases physical models have been more useful). In fact, drawing’s role in documentation and design is a pragmatic convenience that reflects the available technology and the means of the client. Lately of course technology has taken both drawing and modelling from the board to the screen, and loosened the tactile connection that had for so long been forged between the thought and its representation. This haptic bond has been around since the beginning of design, so its disappearance seems cataclysmic to some. Yet, the hand’s true value to both the practice of architecture and production of design is unmasked by the fact that it survives today for the most part as a boutique offering of predominately nostalgic effects.
Because of its historic centrality to architectural production, however, drawing has been equally important to architectural education, and here its value may be more easily defended, and even its tactile practice proven useful still. Since drawing is not transparent to its represented subject it has been largely supplanted by the exact, index-like nature of the digital. But drawing’s blurry, lower resolution also enables it to carry the argument behind the design, giving it educational value in both vocational and disciplinary arenas long after the digital model has obsoleted its role in practice.
Further, the possibility of isolating intention from effect in drawing makes it particularly useful for gauging the student’s earned progress and spotting the accidental, or “found” effect. Finally, “hand” drawing in particular also provides a record of the student’s relative confidence and mastery.
Vocational drawing is not exploratory; its interest is clarity. It has long abandoned the hand for this reason. But clarity is not the same as transparency. The standard of clarity can be applied to the thinking behind the design as well as the representation of the design. Even when the medium is digital, the drawing that is constructed is easily distinguished from the drawing that is excerpted directly from the model, and the differences are often telling. The student’s understanding of their own design, so easily assumed in renderings and forgiven in found linework, is unmasked in constructed drawings. In such drawings the student’s decisions are visible and directly correlated to the situation depicted; it is possible to get it wrong. Renderings and found line work, in contrast, exhibit no judgement beyond choice of view, and their graphic faux pas are excused as modelling errors or accidents of that view choice.
Disciplinary drawing shares vocational drawing’s respect for clarity, but it is also intensely concerned with issues that divide the hand and the digital. As an abstraction drawing introduces a third term to the conversation between the author and the audience (whether that is the object, in design, or the audience, in representation). The medium forces the author to pay closer attention to what she is saying. When pursued as hand drawing, the opacity of this thickened intentional space – the space of translation – becomes absolute, and the two-dimensional object comes to stand in for the thing represented and intercepts judgments directed toward the thing. The drawing becomes the thing, rather than what is drawn.
But this allows the student, otherwise deprived of realising the depicted three-dimensional reality at full scale, to experience the connection that would be forged through the object between the author and the user, to feel architecture’s mandate to place us in the world.
Drawing is inherently educational because it records the intensely private design process, as amanuensis to the conversation between the author and the emerging object. Through drawing this dialogue is made public. Louis Kahn’s brick, Heidegger’s Greek chalice and Michelangelo’s Prisoners are all examples of how the object can evolve during this exchange and the importance of the medium as a participant. What makes these thoughts visible in each of these cases and in drawing generally is the evidence in the object of the duration of this conversation – the time it took to tease the thing into existence. In hand drawing this is epitomised by the “searching line”, or “artistic handwriting”, but it can also be seen in the idealised diagram that traces the primitive’s path to specificity, and the elaborated diagram that hopes for some automatic payoff beyond that horizon.
What is revealed in the drawing’s record of this duration are the emotions of the designer – the confidence, hesitation, curiosity, excitement, confusion, doubt, discovery that make the journey human. The temporal dimension exposing such feelings cannot be faked.
Though it works through the opacity of translation, drawing is as “natural” as speech because it directly catches the gesture. But unlike writing (we will take Derrida’s reversal of precedence as given), in which all of time can be compressed into the production of a single miraculous sentence, the gesture happens in time, and that duration remains palpable in the drawing.
Wesley “Wes” Jones is an American architect, educator and author. Founding partner of Holt Hinshaw Pfau Jones, in 1987 and then Jones, Partners: Architecture in 1993, Jones is a leading architectural voice of his generation, advocating for a continuing appreciation of the physical side of technology within a world increasingly enamoured of the virtual. Wes Jones has taught in the schools of Architecture at Harvard, Princeton, IIT, Columbia, UCLA, the Ohio State University, SCI-Arc and now USC. Most recently he held the Frank Gehry Chair at the University of Toronto, and Howard Friedman Professor of Practice at UC Berkeley. He is currently Professor of practice at the USC University of Southern California.
When the moment expands, the hand deliberates; the drawing might become as dense or complex as an overwrought sentence, or it might instead show evidence of hesitation. The critical narcissism of the art scene has lately cultivated clumsiness as representing greater authenticity (maybe in contrast to the easy self-assurance of technology, but certainly in critique of mastery) and depends on this interlude to guarantee the auratic value of its investments. And when that time speeds up as the designer senses discovery or incipient conclusion, the bolder stroke declares pleasure and satisfaction.
Through all this, the hand provides evidence of the author’s mind in a way that strictly digital representation cannot. They communicate differently and the stories they can tell end differently. The hand scribes the author’s intentions into the page like Edison’s needle in the wax cylinder, and that visual music is replayed in the viewer’s appreciation of the work. It takes time at both ends. Ultimately, this temporal dimension speaks of the limitations of that time, of finitude, and it is this that cements the relationship between the author, the object, and the viewer, the student and teacher, because all share that finitude – in contrast to the digital, which takes no time and asks for none. Architecture’s charge as an elective humanist enterprise is abetted by the natural humanity of this representational, gestural medium. So what is lost in the digital is not the connection forged between the author and the object in the making, which even a mouse or trackpad keeps (relatively) immediate, but the connection through the object, between the author and the reader, who is not yet a “user.” The line is always a line for someone as well as for something. The line connects.