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Hand drawing makes you look, learn and immerse yourself

Tszwai So

Hand drawing is about much more than a finished image, says Tszwai So

Drawing by hand used to be the cornerstone of everyone’s architectural education. Gone are the days when students had to spend long hours at their boards in studios. Carrying a hardback sketchbook around seems a distant memory when one can take multiple snapshots with a smartphone in the blink of an eye. Nevertheless, many practitioners, given the chance, still like to use hand drawing to charm their clients – what would make a better first impression than a lovely napkin sketch done effortlessly on the spot?

I remember the tutor of the hand-drawing class in my first year had an Einstein-like haircut; he would give students a theme at the end of each class and we had to submit a drawing based on that theme the following week – drawing from photographs was banned. He never taught us any drawing techniques and he would only accept drawings that he liked for marking, ripping apart those he found less impressive in front of the students. My main task therefore was to second guess his acquired taste – just as I did to my design tutor (who also happened to be him). Weeks into the class, two other male students and I still had not got a single drawing accepted. Out of desperation we posed for each other to produce a series of nude figurative drawings which we presented. He accepted them with delight.

My drawing tutor from second year was much friendlier and would take us all around the campus to sketch; in those days for me it was an escape from the stressful studio life. For some reason he singled me out and asked me specifically to draw my classmates rather than the buildings everyone else was doing. I gladly accepted the challenge as I was most interested in observing people – and animals – and how they navigated in the built environment.

Mastering the techniques to sketch on location is a slow burn, as a neophyte I often found myself working against time as I was concerned with recording everything I saw with accuracy and precision. Over the years I learnt to be selective and record only what really mattered. At first, I believed in sketching for sketching’s sake, and that it was never necessary to have a purpose. Gradually I started to see its unexpected benefits for me as an architect.

So what are the benefits of drawing on location? It makes you more patient as a person for a start. Patience makes you a better spectator and a better sketcher recording the changing scenes. It is not about techniques or representation, the discipline of drawing from life simply compels you to immerse more in the world around you, to draw closer yourself and everything that is not you, as well as to discard a little of our architectural snobbery. There is a difference between what you see, feel and experience while sketching on site, and what a smartphone could capture. If you have to sketch anything, you have to deconstruct what you see into its elemental constituents, and then reconstruct it, putting all the elements and their relationship together.

In a strange way, sketching ephemeral moments could also make an architect more empathetic, because drawing is about seeing and understanding, taking the time to notice every nuance surrounding you. For example, the ecosystem in a slum such as Kibera, where life moves with a deceivingly placid rhythm under the metal roofs by day, teaches you more as an architect and as a person than visiting a building by a famous architect. Unlike the architectural Grand Tour to Venice and Rome, sketching in impoverished neighbourhoods gives you time to look reality in the face, seeing the neatly suited young men picking their way through the mud ground paved with litter to get to work for one dollar a day. It makes you question the relevance of high architecture or beautiful buildings. 

Tszwai So is a founding director of Spheron Architects



Although hand-drawing classes are rare birds in architecture schools these days, there has never been a shortage of exquisite hand drawings among the treasures to be found in RIBAJ’s Eye Line Awards. Perhaps it’s time to reinstate the hand-drawing module.