The first retrospective devoted to the work of architect-turned-illustrator David Macaulay, on view at the National Building Museum through Jan. 21, may be the last of its kind. The types of artistic, handmade sketches created by the 60-year-old Mr. Macaulay are becoming obsolete as a younger generation of architects increasingly relies on the computer to draw and design.
The shift from pen, pencil and paper to keyboard, mouse and screen began in the early 1990s when computer-aided drafting, known as CAD, became an affordable, efficient tool for churning out construction drawings. Today, CAD is a fixture of architecture firms and schools, where students learn to design on the screen rather than at the drafting board or in sketchbooks.
“I graduated from the University of Maryland’s architecture school in 1989, and there were two computers in the building,” recalls Eric Jenkins, an associate professor of architecture at Catholic University who taught drawing workshops at the National Building Museum earlier this month. “The next year, they had added two dozen computers. Most students today find comfort in the computer because of its speed and finished look.”
The replacement of the hand-drawn sketch with digital images has meant a loss of architecture’s most basic creative skill: doodling as a way of pondering space. “You learn to discover through drawing,” says Bethesda architect Mark McInturff, who teaches architectural design at the University of Maryland. “A computer wants to make a shape or a box. It can’t be fluid.”
Sketching, unlike computing, forces you to slow down and really look. This sense of discovery is captured clearly in Mr. Macaulay’s gee-whiz dissections of domes, minarets, bridges and entire cities. His confident but imperfect line work helps humanize these big, rational structures and convince us they aren’t so complicated after all. Much of the liveliness of these ink drawings would be lost if they had been sanitized on the computer.
Hand sketching is an important tool for representing the world not only as it is, but as it could be. This imaginative “taking a line for a walk,” as painter Paul Klee described his creative process, provides the freedom to explore a design concept in an imprecise, nonlinear way. It allows for mistakes, erasures, embellishments, a kind of visual brainstorming, which just becomes a mere memory on the computer.
“When I draw and paint, I connect the subjective and the objective,” says New York architect Steven Holl, whose lanternlike addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., opened in June. “It’s a way of open thinking and free-feeling, and it’s unpredictable. In order to get closer to a dreamlike subjectivity, I like to make these little drawings and paintings at dawn, before breakfast.”
Baby boomers like Mr. Holl may be the last generation to lay down their ideas on paper extensively and with regularity. Once considered an essential part of an architect’s education, sketching and drawing now are often considered optional or merely personal — like keeping a private journal. The decline of musing on paper is particularly disturbing considering its pivotal role in shaping architecture’s most influential ideas, including some that never made it off the page.
Architectural history is littered with such paper architecture, from Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s 18th-century renderings of ancient ruins to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 1920s drawings of transparent skyscrapers. It is hard to think of a similarly compelling image generated by the computer. The smoothly facile shapes and shading on the screen just don’t convey as much character or visual impact as those scrawled and scratched on paper.
“With the computer, a drawing becomes a database rather than just a representation,” says architect Luis Boza, who teaches design technology courses at Catholic University. “Information about costs and materials becomes imbedded in the drawing.” He notes that computer images can be sent directly to milling and routing machines to fabricate building components, putting the architect directly in touch with the building process.
Automation may make it easier to build the most irregular, unorthodox designs — think Frank Gehry — with precision, but it doesn’t mean the resulting architecture will be better. In fact, the computer makes it tempting to store and repeat details in sequential building projects rather than invent them from scratch each time. This cloning can foster banality rather than originality, as borne out by so many of the awful new apartment blocks going up on Massachusetts Avenue west of Union Station.
Increasing reliance on computer imagery also is making it harder for museums and libraries to archive digital drawings without investing in the expensive hardware and software used to create them. “We are going to have to collect original digital drawings because that is increasingly the primary source material. The paper print is only a byproduct, not the real thing,” says C. Ford Peatross, curator of architecture, design and engineering collections at the Library of Congress. “But we are at a difficult point now because we lack the tools to open and operate these computer files where three or four programs may be cobbled together. We need a new magic bullet to save and show these things.”
According to Mr. Peatross, the only digital images currently in the library’s archives are from Rafael Vinoly, the New York architect responsible for the jettisoned Kennedy Center expansion. “It’s very iffy territory in collecting something you’re not sure you can preserve,” the curator admits.
The increasing prevalence of computerized designs will no doubt drive up the value of scarcer, hand-rendered architectural drawings, which have become sought after by collectors and museums. This may prove a boon to older architects seeking to sell their drawing archives, but not to the cash-strapped institutions where they will reside.
The computer, of course, is here to stay. It has become an essential time-saving tool for fleshing out an architectural design and allowing it to be analyzed quickly, documented and built.
Picking up a pen or pencil to dream on paper is a tradition worth preserving, if only to encourage visual observation, creativity and literacy. As Mr. Macaulay is quoted in the exhibit, “I honestly think all of us would be better off if everyone took the time to draw, if for no other reason than the better we see, the more inevitable curiosity becomes.”