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Yale Symposium Explores Drawing in the Digital Age

February 21, 2012

By Joann Gonchar, AIA

Archigram founder Peter Cook
Photo © Yale School of Architecture, Susan Surface

Archigram founder Peter Cook gave an energetic keynote address as part of the symposium.

 

In conjunction with the symposium, an exhibition of the drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings of Massimo Scolari opened in the Yale Architecture Galleries
Photo © Massimo Scolari

In conjunction with the symposium, an exhibition of the drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings of Massimo Scolari opened in the Yale Architecture Galleries.

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Judging by the number of attendees at a recent Yale School of Architecture symposium Is Drawing Dead?, many architects fear that the computer, and the increasing sophistication of tools for modeling, parametric design, and construction documentation, have made hand drawing obsolete. The event, held February 9 through 11, attracted more than 450 students, academics, and practitioners, making competition stiff for a spot in the 175-seat Hastings Hall—the auditorium in the school’s recently restored Paul Rudolph-designed building. The rest of the audience was relegated to several overflow spaces with audio and video links to the auditorium.

The roster of speakers was diverse and included Archigram founder Peter Cook, neuroscientist Marvin Chun, and Andrew Witt, director of research at Gehry Technologies. The presenters didn’t answer definitively the question posed by the symposium’s provocative title. However, several passionately defended the role of hand drawing in the creative process. Michael Graves, who focused on the drawings he made in the early 1960s of Rome’s historic monuments, advocated sketching from life as a form of note taking. “We never remember unless we draw it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if the drawing is good, bad, or whatever.” Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa made the case for hand drawing as tactile tool for discovery. While drawing, an architect isn’t focused on the individual lines he or she is creating, said Pallasmaa, but is instead “occupying that space, as if touching all its surfaces.” Such a connection is “difficult, if not impossible to simulate with computers,” he said.

For some of the symposium’s participants, digital tools offer just as much possibility for generating form and for investigation as sketching. Greg Lynn, for example, said he could model an idea more quickly than draw it by hand. Lynn does sketch, but typically after modeling first with a computer. He relies on drawing as a means to clarify his designs, he explained.

A few of the presentations missed their mark, including that given by Patrick Schumacher, director of Zaha Hadid Architects. Schumacher spent about 45 minutes constructing an argument that compared the role of drawing and digital models in architectural practice to the role of money in an economic system. He could have better used his allotted time explaining how his firm designs, documents, and realizes its buildings.

The most intriguing presentations showcased work that merges the creative potential of drawing with digital tools. Los Angeles-based artist Casey Reas, for example, sketches, but not with pencil and paper. Instead he draws with computer code. In Java, he develops a set of instructions defining the behavior of lines and shapes, and then the computer displays a piece on its screen that continuously changes but possesses an evident underlying logic. Julie Dorsey, a Yale professor of computer science, demonstrated a tool with a more direct link to architectural practice. She is developing “Mental Canvas”—software that combines the ease of hand sketching with the visualization capabilities of computer modeling and rendering systems. Users will be able to assemble sketches—either drawn on a tablet or scanned into the program—and then reconfigure and study them in three dimensions or virtually place the building on its site.

Timed to open with the symposium is an exhibition mounted in the Yale Architecture Gallery that affirms the value of hand drawing as an art form. The show, which remains on view through May 4, is a retrospective of the work of Italian architect Massimo Scolari, featuring 160 of his oil paintings, drawings, and watercolors. Scolari’s fantastical compositions take their cues from industrial scenes, landscapes, classical architecture, and contemporary cities and are remarkable for their precision and detail, not because they depict buildable form. The work, explains Scolari, “is more related to painting than to architecture. But it is what I do.”

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