Have computers made architects less disciplined?

What we build.
March 30 2011 6:55 AM

Think Before You Build

Have computers made architects less disciplined?

Architectural sketch by Vasiliy Polenov. Click image to expand.
Architectural sketch by Vasiliy Polenov

We generally assume that technological advances save time, boost efficiency, increase productivity, and so on. Once we get used to the latest conveniences, we can't imagine life without them. I've been writing a book chronicling a building designed and built in the mid 1970s. During one of my interviews, an architect involved in the project reminded me that this was a time before faxes, cell phones, color Xeroxes, personal computers, and Power Point. The cumbersome and slow production of drawings and reports required extensive preparation—hurried changes were difficult if not impossible. Such working methods required what he described as "tremendous discipline and rigor of thought."

I remember, as an architecture student in the 1960s, painstakingly inking drawings, stenciling lettering, coloring prints with pastel pencils. These operations required a lot of preparation as well as time management, since you couldn't just throw things together at the last minute. Discipline was also a hallmark of the École des Beaux-Arts, the Parisian architectural school that dominated teaching in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Given an architectural program for a building, the student was required to produce, quickly, a parti, or architectural concept. The rest of the time was spent refining—but not altering—the parti into a finished building design. In part, this was an exercise in developing the ability to quickly deduce the crux of a problem. It was also a recognition that stick-to-it-ness was essential in the lengthy process of architectural design, especially as the large, elaborate watercolor renderings required by the Beaux-Arts took weeks of meticulous work.

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Rigor was equally a part of the Renaissance architect's working method. This period not only lacked Xeroxes and blueprint machines; it even lacked pencils. All drawings, including rough sketches, were done in ink. A finished architectural drawing required two steps. First, a stylus was used to impress an outline on thick, hand-laid paper. (There was no tracing paper.) Once the barely perceptible ghost drawing was complete, it was inked in. No wonder that Renaissance architectural treatises often seem cerebral; architects spent a lot of time thinking before they started drawing.

Over the centuries, a steady stream of devices altered the way that architects worked: pencils, erasers (what a boon they were!), T-squares, tracing paper, parallel rules, technical pens, rub-on lettering. No device has had the impact of the computer, however. It doesn't simply mechanize drawing; it allows the designer to explore scores of alternatives rapidly before settling on a final solution. Since the finished drawing is quickly drafted by a mechanical plotter, last-minute changes are easily accommodated.

Surely this march of progress is all to the good. Who would want to go back to the days before pencils and tracing paper? But the fierce productivity of the computer carries a price—more time at the keyboard, less time thinking. The thumb-nail sketch—an architectural staple since at least the Renaissance—risks going the way of the T-square. "But architecture is about thinking. It's about slowness in some way. You need time," Renzo Piano said in an interview last year. "The bad thing about computers is that they make everything run very fast, so fast that you can have a baby in nine weeks instead of nine months. But you still need nine months, not nine weeks, to make a baby." Some teaching programs have taken steps to remedy, or at least mitigate, the situation. Yale has a summer program in Rome in which students are required to sketch by hand. McGill University continues to require classes in freehand life drawing and sketching school in the summer. The University of Miami introduces computers only in the second year of its program. This is not a question of turning back the clock but, rather, of slowing it down—and recognizing that rigor of thought is as much a part of design as making shapes.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

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