A Perspective on Perspective

A good architecture drawing is a joy to behold. Since I was a child, I have lost myself in the intricacies of perspectives, sections, and, later on, axonometrics, isometrics, sectional perspectives, worm’s eye views, collage facades, and all the other ways architecture appears as a pure image. In recent years, the possibilities have expanded because of computer-assisted or -driven visualization technologies. This has led to an ongoing debate about the nature and future of drawings in an age when representations can appear with little assist of human hands. One of my students, Sol Edelman, went so far recently as to accuse me of trying to force him to make drawings “that don’t show the truth and are not how we see the world anymore." Stunned, I retreated to my den to peruse with great pleasure Nalina Moses’ Single-Handedly: Contemporary Architects Draw by Hand, recently published by Princeton Architectural Press—but not before pointing out that computer renderings can lie with the best of them; and, by the way, just get over it and show me the design in a way that makes sense.

I remain astonished that the debate about “hand drawing” (which means, I guess, manipulating a pencil, pen, or brush, along with a Mayline, a triangle, and whatever tools are around) versus “computer drawings” (meaning visualizations produced through computer programs) rages on. Who cares? Is one better than the other? Should we be sad about the loss of ink wash perspectives? Or of plans drawn on parchment? Some architects—most notably the venerable Juhani Pallasmaa—have argued that we are losing some direct connection between the brain and our designs because we are not using our hands, which seems absurd to me. Others have argued that the speed and the shortcuts built into computer-assisted visualization means we don’t pay as much attention to what we are doing. That seems a valid point, but you could blame the demands for speed created by the rationalization of the workplace and economic pressures, as well as the distractions of daily life, for that as well. Finally, there is the notion put forward by some blog writers that default techniques, such as “[t]he ease of spinning 3D models around has led to the new normal being aerial views dramatically displaying the building rather than describing the user experience...” That, in turn, has led to a predominance of images that are neither analytical nor allow you to understand the complex relations between sequences of spaces interrupted by structure. It also might make it difficult, as you are designing, to understand the relationship of one space to another, to light, to use, and to all the other factors that make up the “reality” of a building.

Moses, a New York-based architect and writer who has compiled work from 41 architects in Single-Handedly, makes the point that drawing is also a way that architects can evoke the mood or organization of a building with a quick sketch or reveal relations with a clever composition. The book’s production values could have been a bit higher, and the graphic design should have been better, but the final chapters, where Moses has placed the more speculative images, nevertheless lift it to the realm of being a printed paean to experimental architecture—and to the possibilities of hand drawing.

There is always the danger, of course, that my perspective is itself warped. After my student Edelman's tirade against drawing, I asked Eddie Jones, AIA, who was visiting us at the School of Architecture at Taliesin, to remind us how even the simple act of drawing a plan by hand can evoke particular qualities that disappear in renderings. Laying a piece of “flimsy” or tracing paper over the student’s printed plan, he slid his bar, twirled his pencil, and rotated his triangles around to show how a different line weight or the abstraction of a toilet stall can communicate so much more than a computer drawing. We were suitably in awe. Edelman’s reaction? Two days later he showed up with computer-drawn sectional perspective, its surfaces manipulated to appear as if they were drawn by hand. It was quite good for a first-year student, and gave me hope that, no matter how you draw, the ability to evoke the possibilities of architecture in representation is alive and well.

by Aaron Betsky

Mixed Use Concept, Colley Ave, Norfolk, VA

Mixed Use Concept, Colley Ave, Norfolk, VA