Q&A: Architects’ Sketchbooks

“I worry about students who might feel that the power of sophisticated computer equipment has somehow rendered the humble pencil if not obsolete, then certainly second rate. The pencil and computer are very similar in that they are only as good as the person driving them.” This quote, attributed to Norman Foster, the architect known for his technically-sophisticated buildings, gives voice to the growing apprehension that the new generation of architects and designers are too enamored with technology, paying little heed to the slower, more deliberate and tactile forms of creative thinking. To combat the relentless move toward electronic technologies, many schools are integrating such analog technologies as pencils, pens, water colors, pastels, in addition to teaching the manipulation of the latest computer software. The Foster quote appears in Architects’ Sketchbooks, a new Metropolis Books release, edited by Will Jones. Being one of those who worry about the loss of some part of us as we hurtle into the 21st century, I put these questions to Will, mostly to set my mind at ease.

Susan S. Szenasy: As our obsession with technology in design grows, many of us worry about what gets lost when we work our brain to its limits at the expense of neglecting our physical, tactile being. Firstly, do you agree with this statement, if yes why? If you see our relationship with technology in another way, how do you see it?

Will Jones: I think we imagine that we all use brain power to the detriment of physical exertion much more than is actually true. In the 1950s it was predicted that we’d have robotic slaves, totally automated homes, jet packs, etc. by the 21st Century. It hasn’t happened. And, while we do rely more on technology today than we did in the 50s, the vast majority of us have adapted our lives accordingly to maintain and even nurture our physical being. Case in point, I moved to Canada recently and now I chop logs in winter (you’ve all seen Rocky, right!).

PEA_WJ_LukePearson05Architect and artist Luke Pearson builds up dark, layered sketches with Copic Wide Markers. Courtesy Luke Pearson.

SSS: I find the subject and the work presented in Architects’ Sketchbooks really rewarding. As I look at the many, incredibly varied approaches to communicating ideas, I not only see architects thinking, but also having fun! As the book’s editor, Will, tell me about your experience of the different approaches as they coalesced to make the statement you hoped to make about the need for and outcomes of real hand-brain-body connections.

WJ: I didn’t hope to make a particular statement or search for a preconceived outcome when inviting architects to submit work for the book. Architects’ Sketchbook is simply a collection of works by a varied group of practitioners — old, young, famous, unknown, commercially- or academically driven. It aims purely to show the broad means by which architects begin to design. The one aspect of the process that I did find particularly fascinating, though, was that so many architects do still start with pen and paper – the most basic physical means of expressing their thoughts. And, somehow, that gives me faith in the human condition, when all around technology is affecting the way we live.  

SSS: Everyone one who picks up this book will have her own favorites. I tend to love the grainy, rough, sketchy images that pull me right into them and imagine a burst of creative energy at work. Which, for lack of a less violent term, blew the top of your head off, and why?

WJ: I think the work that surprised and delighted me most was the most simplistic, not to put to finer point on it. Whether that is the diagrammatic design of Ivan Harbour or Shigeru Ban, or child-like doodles of Paul Raff and Jeenne Dekkers. Work like this enables you to truly connect with designers because you can believe that you have the same ability somewhere within you.

YES_ELEPHANTSA sketch for the Neo-nothing, Post-everything project inspired by a drawing from the book, The Little Prince, by Frédéric André. Courtesy YesWeCanArchitecture.

SSS: What do you hope design students and design schools will take away from this collection of creative expressions?

WJ: Anyone in the design world will, I hope, gain inspiration from the book. It shows the diversity of talent and use of differing skills by which architects can all be successful. You may be a wonderful artist and with that ability you can create. You may be a great thinker and all you need is to be able to scribble to set down your thoughts. Everyone who wants to can achieve.

RAT_London Cloud 01Carlo Ratti’s sketch for the Cloud, an observation deck for the 2012 London Olympics. Courtesy carlorattiassociati — Walter Nicolino & Carlo Ratti. 

SSS: And, finally, is this the last gasp of the tactile (the handmade) in a techno-mad world, or just the beginning of something much more rewarding?

WJ: There will never be a ‘last gasp of the tactile’, so long as people have hands and minds. Our opposable thumbs made us what we are and our lives are still shaped by what we touch, the feel of texture, the appreciation of form. Technology is simply a means to explore new and wildly exotic new shapes, materials etc. We can now design buildings that would have been impossible just a decade ago. But, by example, one of Frank Gehry’s latest projects features an atrium in which beautifully smooth white walls curve magically away from the floor at an unusual angle. All of this is designed using computer. However, when the building opened it soon became clear that barriers would have to be put up in the atrium. Why? To stop people running their fingers along the super smooth curved walls. We like to touch. We like to create with our hands. We may create using computers but we’ll always create things that we can appreciate by touching them.

SSS: Thank you, Will, that is reassuring. 

More on Architects’ Sketchbooks, including additional sketches, in our May 2011 issue.

Categories: Bookshelf