This article was originally published on Common Edge.
In 2012, the Yale School of Architecture held a conference on the topic of drawing. It posed a couple of provocative questions: Was the study and practice of architecture already beyond it? Was it is even necessary to draw in order to be an architect? Mark Alan Hewitt’s new book, Draw in Order to See (ORO Editions), is a resounding affirmation that not only must architects draw, they cannot help but do so—it’s like breathing. The connection between the hand and the eye, between a soft pencil and a toothy sheaf of paper, is how architects, in fact, “see.”
As it turns out, human beings are wired this way, as Hewitt demonstrates in this broad, well-researched, and absorbing cognitive history of architectural design. He writes about how research in neuroscience has uncovered the creative act as a conversation between our interior selves and the external world. Our brains have evolved to compare our store of embodied experiences in the world, the images we carry with us, and our personal memories as raw materials for the invention of new forms, visions, amalgamations, and realms beyond us. Hewitt quotes the Italian architect Carlo Scarpa to open and close his book with insights that go to the very core of what architects do when they draw by hand: “I want to see, that’s why I draw.” “I can see an image only if I draw it.”
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Between those quotes, Hewitt takes us on a historical tour of how architects, builders, and the untutored (to build is at the core of being human) have created the built environment. Before the Italian Renaissance, those who conceived and constructed were essentially the same people, relying on building traditions and mimetic experience in the field. The apprentice observing the master cultivated mirror neurons in the brain through imitation, as practical knowledge was passed between generations. Drawing was not a critical part of this process. In the West (particularly Italy) about 600 years ago, conceiving and making were cleaved. Guilds became less important in transferring building knowledge, and architects emerged as creative individuals in the realms of painting and sculpture, the arts and humanities. Artists separated from the artisans and developed new ways of depicting architecture and space through the development of perspective and detailed model making, not only to instruct the makers, but also to enter into a dialogue with design through feedback loops in the process of envisioning new ideas yet to be built. Drawing evolved as a way of thinking outside the self, a notation of the conversation between the architect’s interior world and the exterior world, and to embody these ideas in memory for future use.
The Enlightenment and the rise of science (and, with it, the Industrial Revolution) increased the complexity of architecture and building. Materials and structures became more sophisticated, Hewitt notes, and engineers assumed greater prominence in the conceiving and construction of a built environment in a more secular world. This conceiving was accomplished primarily with abstract mathematical notation, less with visualization of the whole (drawing to see), and more on the assembly of industrialized pieces. The creation of large, complex structures was more of a “problem solving” exercise and less about the conception of places of beauty as expressions of the human spirit. We are heirs to this abstraction of the built environment, and Hewitt perceives the tools we now use to “visualize” architecture as abetting this abstraction. Such tools respond less to our cognitive powers (verified by neuroscience research) that are strengthened through mimesis, memory, and embodiment.
Hewitt warns that the “digital void” of contemporary architectural representation is untethered to our experiences of our own bodies moving through space, how the physical world outside ourselves is imprinted on our brains, and how we are wired through hundreds of years to conceive of architectural spaces through the process of drawing with our hands, not a mouse. It might be a small point, but when we use our bodies to draw (moving fingers, hands, arms, torso, eyes) it is action that becomes embodied within us. We develop muscle memory (as does a dancer, a violinist, or an athlete in their own endeavors) that is unique to the act of architectural design and building neural networks. Today, moving and clicking a mouse as the physical act of “drawing” in architectural design is indistinguishable from buying sneakers on Amazon.
Hewitt is an architect, historian, and preservationist who has taught at several architecture schools (Rice and Columbia, among others). The value of his book is that it addresses education as well as practice. The tools of design education have radically changed in the past dozen years (not always for the better) as the process of design education at many schools is less one of mimesis, memory, and embodiment. The rising costs of a college education has heightened the focus (among students and their parents alike) on acquiring skills that make one immediately employable in the marketplace of practice. My own experience as an architectural educator verifies that students zero in on proficiency in digital software to make themselves valuable employees, at the sacrifice of hand drawing as the route to visual thinking and design. I hear from my own students over and over about how digital drawing software prevents them from achieving something in their designs, or frustrates them from exploring alternatives (which could quickly be accomplished with tracing paper and a soft pencil), or deters them from changing a design once it is committed to a drawing file—not to mention the horror stories of weeks of work that vanishes in the blink of an eye because of some computer glitch.
So, given hundreds of years of history, and recent discoveries and verifications in neuroscience about human creativity, what should we do? Hewitt closes his book with a dozen steps that architectural educators and students would be wise to consider:
- Go back to hand-drawing as the fundamental medium for design.
- Visit buildings and cities, and sketch them in situ.
- Study the breadth of architectural history.
- Engage with users of buildings and how they perceive the built environment.
- Introduce firsthand contacts with builders, artisans, and material manufacturers.
- Balance theoretical linguistics with visual and haptic means of presenting design.
- Integrate analogue and digital tools in studio.
- Hold off on virtual imagery until late in the design process.
- Avoid BIM software to explore conceptual design; save it for documenting construction methods.
- Promote academic research with applicability to the task of building.
- Teach drawing with reference to contemporary research in cognitive science and visual perception.
- Emphasize in studio the collaborative nature of architectural design.
It’s a tall order. But Hewitt’s book is an excellent road map of where we’ve been, and how we might get back to an architecture with a human face.