why architects (still) draw 07/16

Bologna, Italy


The computer has revolutionized design by giving architects the ability to convey their ideas in 3 dimension. We now email 3D models to our clients so that they can navigate their way through our designs from their iPads. With this tool, clients can better understand their home design and be fully engaged partners in a way that wasn’t possible before. The advent of virtual reality will soon make walking through a future home and making adjustments in real time a feasible endeavor.


Given the extraordinary powers of the computer, why do architects still rely upon the use pencils, paper and a few simple drafting tools? To begin to understand the strong resurgence in architectural hand drawing, an approach that has changed little since the 15th century, just search #architecturedrawing on Instagram and you’ll be amazed by the vibrancy of the drawing culture.


I first found an answer to this question when I attended architectural school in the 1980’s. High on the walls of MIT’s drafting studio were ancient plaster casts made from iconic Greek temples from the Acropolis. For nearly 100 years, budding architects had honed their drawing skills by sketching these fragments. I took up the habit, making sketches of the historic pieces and then going on to try my hand at drawing everything is sight: caricatures of professors, campus buildings, and interiors.


As I practiced drawing, I learned that my hand-eye coordination and ability to understand objects in 3D was dramatically improving my ability to design buildings. By observing, and then drawing, the environment around me I learned how the built world is made: from its building blocks to its proportions. The act of drawing the world around us commits our observations to memory and they, in turn, become part of the designer’s tool box.


Urbino, Italy 


On a recent trip to Urbino, Italy I sketched the Piazza in front of the Ducal Palace. I focused on both the overall view of the space, and then on a close up of the Egyptian Obelisk in the Piazza. When doing the sketch in closer observation, I noticed how the Renaissance architects mounted the obelisk on a contrasting marble pedestal. While I’m pretty sure I’ll never be asked to design the support for an obelisk, I did learn how contrasting design elements can be incorporated into a seamless composition and how the pedestal served the purpose of raising the obelisk so that it visually held its own in the plaza. Perhaps the most interesting observation I made was how the 2,000 year old obelisk is weathering much better than the 500 year old marble supporting it.


While living at a time that is so technologically driven definitely has its benefits for our industry, sometimes you have to do things the “old school” way to not miss the details that make up the world around us.



Text by Colin Flavin, AIA
Flavin Architects