The Importance of Human Scale When Sketching

I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster, and leaves less room for lies. (Le Corbusier)

Even with the evolution of technology and the popularization of advanced computer programs, most architecture projects still begin with a blank sheet of paper and the casual strokes of a pen. Rather than simply representing a project, the sketch allows us to examine the project, understand the landscape or topography, or communicate an idea to another team member or even the client. Its main purpose, however, is to stimulate the creative process and overcome the fear of blank paper. Sketches are usually made with imprecise, overlapping, ambiguous strokes, accompanied by annotations, arrows, and lack great technical accuracy and graphic refinement.

Doodling is nothing, the stroke of the pen—tracing—is everything. The stroke has a goal, it's a drawing with a specific intention—it is the design. (Lucio Costa)

Church of the Administrative Center of Bahia. Image © João Filgueiras Lima
Pedestrian Bridge. Image © Miro Rivera Architects

The main issue in a sketch is the act of recording an idea through a rapid drawing technique mastered by the designer. There are sketches that approximate children's drawings; some employ simplicity as a virtue, while others show a complexity and mastery of technique that makes them works of art.

Abedian School of Architecture. Image © CRAB Studio
© Sebastián Bayona Jaramillo

In this sense, although many sketches do not possess technical rigor or intrinsic artistic quality, the important thing is that they can communicate a clear image and pass on the intended message, either for other people or even for the designer themselves in the future. One instrument widely used to make sketches more understandable is the inclusion of elements that help support a better comprehension of the object in question. Among these methods, the "human scale"—a figure or figures that represent the future users of the space—stands out as perhaps the most common. The human scale, as the name suggests, gives an indication of the proportions of the object drawn, independent of its dimensions. It can also demonstrate the proposed functions of a space, suggest intended routes and breathe life into the design.

Olympic Golf Course Club House - Rio de Janeiro. Image © RUA Arquitetos
New London Design Museum. Image © John Pawson
Manzeum. Image © Modus Studio

After years of practice, Oscar Niemeyer developed the ability to create sketches with just a few strokes. With them, he could show complex perspectives, landscapes, and situations, that reflect the volumetric clarity proposed in his designs. The drawings’ human scales might be difficult to identify when first looking at them, but they are fused into the sketches and become essential for a better understanding of their scales and uses. Others, such as Eduardo Souto de Moura, demonstrate their design process with trembling, overlapping lines and an apparent confusion. If writing is the art of chopping words, should a good design also emerge from a tangle of lines? Maybe we'll never know.

Pampulha's Church. Image © Oscar Niemeyer
Passarela Professor Darcy Ribeiro - Sambadrome - Rio de Janeiro. Image © Oscar Niemeyer
Canoas' House. Image © Oscar Niemeyer
Bernardas' Chapel. Image © Eduardo Souto de Moura
Cantareira Building. Image © Eduardo Souto de Moura
Serralves Contemporary Art Museum. Image © Álvaro Siza Vieira

Aside from human figures, Renzo Piano is adept at writing in his sketches. With an artistic and almost unintelligible handwriting, the architect shows that most of his projects are generated from expressive schematic cuts. The human scale enters as an important unit of measurement for the parts of the building. João Filgueiras Lima, also known as Lelé, mixed artistic and representative sketches with labels for materials and structural elements. Lina Bo Bardi added colors to create humorous sketches that end up demonstrating various technical aspects.

Harvard Art Museums Renovation and Expansion. Image © Renzo Piano Building Workshop
Taguatinga's Regional Hospital. Image © João Filgueiras Lima
Church of the Administrative Center of Bahia. Image © João Filgueiras Lima
Valéria Cirell House. Image Courtesy of Instituto Lina Bo e P. M. Bardi

In a previous article, we discussed the role of freehand drawings in today's architecture, given the many available technologies and software, which led to a healthy debate by our readers in the comments section. We have also presented an interesting collection of human figures used by some outstanding architects, where we can observe how much their human figures mirror their work.

Check the gallery below for different sketches by different architects. Compare the styles for each one; which most resembles the architects' way of expressing themselves?

Image gallery

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About this author
Cite: Souza, Eduardo. "The Importance of Human Scale When Sketching" 25 Jan 2017. ArchDaily. (Trans. Valletta, Matthew) Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

Renzo Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell Art Museum. Image © Renzo Piano Building Workshop


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