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Pass me a pencil: why architects still love to draw

Pamela Buxton

Five dozen architects from around the world tell author Will Jones why hand-drawing is a vital part of their creative processes

Making Marks: Architects’ Sketchbooks – The Creative Process by Will Jones is published by Thames & Hudson.
Making Marks: Architects’ Sketchbooks – The Creative Process by Will Jones is published by Thames & Hudson.

Mind bogglingly, Carlo Scarpa was apparently able to simultaneously draw different things with both hands. That’s just one of the little nuggets gleaned from perusing Making Marks, the weighty new tome on architects and sketching published by Thames & Hudson.

In this follow-up to the 2011 Architects’ Sketchbooks, author Will Jones has gathered the thoughts of some 60 architects from around the globe on the methods, purpose and art of drawing and – most importantly – their copious sketches. The idea is to show how hand-drawing still matters despite the profession’s immersion in computer aided design and digital technologies.

According to Jones, there is no better way to instantly express any idea than through sketching.

‘Much faster than fumbling with technology, this is the direct route: non-stop, no detours, no diversions,’ he says, adding that each of the sketches in the book ‘contain within them a small part of the architect’s soul’.

‘The very weight of the line conveys emotion, whether a speculative stroke, a fanciful flourish of smudged charcoal or a thick line denoting a particularly important aspect of the design,’ he says.

From the text, we learn some of the many reasons why architects sketch – to relax, to discover, to evolve, to explore, to clarify. According to 6a’s Tom Emerson, hand drawing is ‘the quickest and the most direct route from idea to design’. I like the description by Bruce Kuwabara of Canadian practice KPMB Architects of sketches as providing an idea and direction ‘like the opening moves in a game of chess or the basic structure of a jazz composition’.

Japanese architect Jun Igarashi also puts it succinctly: ‘The sketch is the perfect method for recording my thoughts. It is also possible to discover unconscious thinking and tap into ideas and inspirations that are not obvious at first. I think the sketch is the most important element or process in design.’

And as well as developing the architect’s own ideas, hand drawing is invaluable as a direct method of communicating these ideas, not just to design and construction team colleagues but to the client.

Daniel Libeskind describes how clients want to see an architect sketch. 

‘They are too smart to be fooled by virtual reality, and always want to know what an architect can do with a piece of paper and a pencil.’

As Cecil Balmond puts it: 'My clients love sketches…they feel involved: they feel like they are at the source.'

  • Untitled.
    Untitled. Credit: Cecil Balmond, Balmond Studio, UK
  • Study of Metropol Parasol, Seville.
    Study of Metropol Parasol, Seville. Credit: Ben Adam, Ben Adams Architects, UK
  • Santa Marinella.
    Santa Marinella. Credit: Jacob Brillhart, Brillhart Architecture, USA
  • Hearn Generating Station.
    Hearn Generating Station. Credit: Jack Diamond, Diamond Schmitt, Canada
  • World Trade Center, New York.
    World Trade Center, New York. Credit: Daniel Libeskind. © Studio Libeskind
  • Tonnara di Scopello.
    Tonnara di Scopello. Credit: Stephanie Macdonald & Tom Emerson, 6a Architects, UK
  • Arch of Septimius Severus.
    Arch of Septimius Severus. Credit: Benedict O'Looney, Benedict O'Looney Architects, UK
  • Gardeny.
    Gardeny. Credit: Felipe Pich-Aguilera, Pich Architects, Spain

In their highly personal comments, architects talk about the great pleasure they get from hand drawing. In his foreword, Benedict O’Looney describes his love of drawing out and about in the city and how capturing the buildings of others gave him greater confidence for his own work.

For another UK architect, Peter Morris, nothing can rival the act of sketching: ‘I began sketching before I could walk…sketching is intuitive. It requires very little thought, time, effort or resources, and gives me the freedom to explore my thoughts and ideas.’

Rob Miners of Canadian practice Studio MMA comments that while digital tools have made it possible to design without sketching, he ‘would miss sketching terribly: it is part of me and how I think’.

Last word should perhaps go to Richard Olcott of US practice Ennead Architects, who describes the physical pleasure of sketching on good paper: ‘it’s the feel of moving across a blank page that is special’.

But however illuminating the contributors’ words on the creative process, this generously illustrated book is primarily a visual treat, from the evocative watercolours and soft pencil sketches to densely annotated graph paper plans.

Making Marks Architects’ Sketchbooks – The Creative Process, Will Jones, Thames & Hudson, HB, £29.95

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