For pretty much all of my professional career I have worked at a desk with a computer. It’s just how architects work these days. Especially on larger projects, where surveys and engineer information comes in by email in a CAD format (“computer aided design” – the “computer” bit is true). Employers (I mean the people who paid me, not the people who paid them) like to see nice hard lines, data on the server. It’s easy to retrieve and transmit, plus if different people work on it, it sort of looks the same. Same title blocks, same fonts, same library elements (cars, tables, toilets, people). You can also build up a body of details that sort of work with different projects.
But if I think back to my student days I did almost everything by hand on paper: there’s no printing to worry about, you can erase mistakes fairly easily, you can collage, annotate, watercolour, glue on photographs, mix trace and paper. Mix hard line with freehand. Draw people doing stuff in your pictures. Add stuff. You can work without a computer, you just need a table and some simple tools. You can also work very fast if you need to – which you always do. When you have to make a presentation, you just roll the drawings up into a tube, go to school and pin them to the wall. No queueing in the print room with a copier card hoping to meet the deadline. It’s painful to watch people late for a presentation pinning up fresh prints that look unfinished. I have seen some amazing computer drawings, but they take a real skill and lots of time (fancy paper and lots of memory help too). Most computer drawings have a very dry, or a very messy look about them. To beat this, you need to work with more than one programme – you draw the hard line in CAD, then export to Photoshop to add graduated colour, sky tones, people, cars etc. It takes time but looks great, especially if your original is a 3D with shadows. But you get a not so easy to edit file format and for the customer it’s a lot of money for two or three pretty images.
The real value of hand drawing for me is something more than just the convenience and flexibility. When I draw by hand I get absorbed into the project and I begin to think of all the things that might be important to the client but that a CAD programme can’t readily include – light and shadow, access, text, questions, furniture, swirly shapes – that sort of thing. As the drawing appears I can see the whole thing at once and the elements within their context. The relationship between the small and large elements, the proportion, present themselves to me. The spaces tighten up or push out as their needs require. The hand drawings impose a kind of subtle accuracy on the project which is often lacking in computer drawn schemes. Before I know it, an hour or two has passed and the scheme has come to a higher state of resolution.
My colleagues used to wonder why I had my own T square and masking tape and my desk, but I found it so helpful to resolve a detail or work out an elevation. Now I can draw whenever I like. I still use a CAD package for the final design work, but one day I am going to draw a whole project only by hand. Bite me!