Why hand-drawing still matters to teaching architecture

(NOTE: Despite multiple edits on my part, this is a bit of a sloppy post; sorry. I am going to try to use the blog as a barn for brainstorms, in the hopes of producing more coherent writings for more formal publication (but I will post those here too, don’t worry!).

I am a proponent of hand drawing, especially hard-line hand drafting, as the first means of representation that architecture students should learn. This is rapidly becoming a radical position in architectural education, it appears. Anyway I think about it all the time and I’ve recently discussed it with somebody important who didn’t understand what I was trying to say. So it’s time to get some thoughts down.
Here are some reasons why hand drawing still matters in architecture schools:

1. (strong) Hand drafting is the quickest way to learn about line-weight — i.e. about different kinds of line and how to deploy them to establish a meaningful hierarchy or set of relationships in a drawing. AutoCAD and other software can do this too, but they do not put the same onus on the student to establish a set of line weights and then to stick to that decision for the duration of the production of the drawing (because in digital work you can always adjust line weights ‘at the end’).

2. (strong) Hand drafting is the only way to really understand how projected drawings (axons, perspectives) work. I.e. it makes the difference between a 3D software “user” and an architect. Why? Because in hand drafting you draw not only lines that define the form of the space under discussion, you also draw lines that carry information about that space around the page, to project to other views. So you develop very quickly an understanding of which views are richest in information, or most productive in terms of comparing different parts of the space. This argument is one of several you’ll see here that depend on the slowness of hand-drawing (see below).

3. (weak) Hand drafting is still a skill most architects have and care about and can critique, even though they don’t use it much in their work. So it is still relevant to discussions among architects and to architecture culture. I consider this a fairly weak argument, given the amount of special equipment and desk space hand drawing requires. This is essentially an argument about preserving a culture special to architects and architectural practice. Nonetheless architects have benefited from having a shared vocabulary and way of thinking, a shared technical culture, and we should be careful about where it’s going. Hand drafting isn’t the solution to our current problems in architectural technical culture, but it should be an element of the discussion (more on this anon).

4. (strong) Hand drafting makes it very easy to teach and critique work in a studio setting, because it’s all right there on the desk in front of you and the student. Mistakes can be fixed, and be seen to be fixed, almost immediately. Trace paper becomes a site for negotiation between instructor and student about what’s being done, and why. In other words, the hand drawing is a site of shared learning; the drafting table acts something like a miniature surgical theater. This, to me, is one of the strongest arguments I can give. It has to do with the pedagogical space around the student’s work. The computer screen can’t yet provide this level of shared, quasi-public accessibility to the work in progress.  Nor do online forms of collaboration (e.g. using flickr for image sharing) capture the full sense of shared observation and discovery that the physical space of a classroom can give – though I imagine we will get to the point where online collaboration is so rich that the difference will be negligible, and in fact some of the special strengths of online collaboration will make it more desirable than sharing a classroom space.

5. (weak) Hand drafting boosts students’ confidence to acquire these very physical, real skills. This is something they can demonstrate on a kitchen table with a ruler to their parents at Christmas while discussing their new cabinets… etc.. This is another fairly weak but non-trivial argument related to architectural culture and student psychology.

6. (strong) Hand drafting allows beginning students to focus on the work and the drawings themselves without getting bogged down and stressed out with printing problems. It also fosters a palpably intense work atmosphere in studio because the students are all in there producing work at a scale that makes it easy to peer-review, or even just peek at over somebody’s shoulder. Finally, it lets students run through most of the major forms of architectural thinking and representation without needing to switch media or programs. This is a logistical and psychological argument that is also quite strong. Ask the students!

7. (weak) There is a pleasure in hand drawing that the computer does not replicate, though computers offer other pleasures. This is clearly a cultural and psychological argument. It may seem unimportant, unless you think taking pleasure in your tools and the everyday gestures of your work might make you think more clearly and produce better work. Ironically it is the younger architects I know who make this argument the most, perhaps because we actually do the pointing and clicking to pay the rent — older architects delegate and sketch and want everybody below them to be as efficient as possible. The specific nature of the pleasure of drawing is akin to dance and improvisation, and I will try to unfold it in a later post.

8. (medium) There is a way of thinking about line in hand drawing that the computer cannot replicate easily. Namely, each line in a hand drawing is laid down over time on the paper, as the deposit of a controlled gesture. Curvature, planned or spontaneous, is seen as a steady, incremental deviation from the ruled line. This is really an argument about accuracy, I would say: are you really producing the line you are trying to produce? How is your tool limiting you?. I recognize that the computer can be an accurate tool for thinking, also — it just takes experience to be able to resist the shortcuts and the easy outs. Hence, again, my focus on a student’s first exposure to architectural drawing.

9. (strong) There is a rigor in planning and work-flow that hand drawing imposes that, despite its anachronism in a modern office setting, teaches the young architect a great deal in terms of time management. Hand drawing is a kind of improvisation during a performance: the speed of drawing affects the quality of the line; the transition from drawing one line to another becomes part of the craft and part of the thinking; the space required for each part of a drawing on the page is always in question; the best place to cut a section and the best direction to project information are contingent on the execution of earlier parts of the drawing. Basically, in contrast to computer drawing, the relative permanence of each line imposes a level of pre-planning and improvisation on the draftsperson. Since the drawing is played out in a set of planned sequences (e.g. drawing all the horizontal section lines, then all the vertical… or drawing the outline of an object, then the details inside, etc.), hand drawing affirms over and over that there is a continuous range of options, choices, and decisions in every drawing, that a drawing is not simply a specification, but the registry of a smooth thinking process, one that reacts to what it has just produced, revises itself, but never forgets where it has been. Hand drawing is inherently self-reflective.  (NOTE: I’m revisiting this post after several years of working in CAD, and I think I have to now add that in order to draw good details in CAD it is also necessary to think quite logistically, figure out which things to draw first, determine clear spacing of lines, etc… The staying power of each hand-drafted line is still a factor, but the logistics of drawing anything complex will come up in every medium).

10. (weak) Within the classroom or a single firm, hand drawings can be identified with the person who drew them. Computer drawings are typically anonymous (though the digital files themselves may show many specific character traits of the draftsman). This is another psychological argument, and as such may be blown away by the strong wind of so-called practical arguments. But basically hand drawings register more personality.

Okay, I’ll stop there for now. Looking over the sketched arguments above, I see two general issues:

1. The publicness of the work — where is the student/designer doing his thinking, who else has access to that space, who can comment, how closely can the comments be made (e.g. a layer of trace paper), and how quickly can the student react to the comments?

2. The timing of the work — how permanent is each decision in the student’s process, how quickly does the student learn to think about what he is actually doing, what is the distance between a thought, its expression in some medium, and its ‘rendering’ in some more permanent way? (I’m thinking of the distance between thinking, clicking, and printing, for instance).

8 comments to Why hand-drawing still matters to teaching architecture

  • jd

    “Art. 22. School. At twenty minutes to eleven, at the drum-roll, the prisoners form into ranks, and proceed in divisions to the school. The class lasts two hours and consists alternately of reading, writing, drawing and arithmetic.”

    Léon Faucher, rules ‘for the House of young prisoners in Paris,’ in De la réforme des prisons, 1838.
    (Quoted in Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish, The Birth of the Prison)

    My reasons for beginning with this; from the last Prime Minister of the Second Republic; are twofold, closely interrelated, and bear on George’s arguments in favor of hand drawing:

    First, note the inclusion of drawing as a fourth ’R,’ so to speak. Drawing is not relegated to ‘art therapy,’ or to the realm of education viewed as ancillary, secondary; it is included as a means of acquiring knowledge as valuable to the reformation-education of young minds as reading, writing and mathematics.

    Architectural education has been one of the few locations which have, over the last century and a half, preserved, if not the notion of drawing as a legitimate form of knowing, than at least the tools. Unfortunately, this understanding of drawing, even within architectural education, has become more and more obscured and devalued, reduced to being a mode of communication, a means of presenting knowledge, ideas and concepts originally derived through other means.

    The general devaluation of the ‘graphic’ as a tool for the creation of understanding has begun to be reversed in various fields, including mathematics. The complexity and accessibility of the information that can be found in quality ‘graphics’ can easily exceed other means, such as text, including the traditional symbolic logic of mathematics. An historical example:

    When the Archimedes Palimpsest (www.archimedespalimpsest.org) was first re-discovered and partially copied in the early 20th century by J.L. Heiberg, he ignored the diagrams which had been included in the treatises, assuming them to be merely illustrations of the ‘real’ knowledge, which was to be found only in the symbolic logic of the text. One of the most exciting early realizations of the on-going effort to recover the original treatises is the experimental use of drawing, including the earliest known insights into what would, almost two millennia later, be called the calculus. This amazing illustration of Archimedes’s genius was previously unknown, because he hadn’t conceived of a means of expressing his insights textually; the insights were achieved and developed through drawing.

    Second, if architectural education is to have a raison d’être, it must concern itself with the continued exploration of means of understanding through distinct methods. It is in relation to this that hand drafting has a continued usefulness. Hand drawing, and specifically hand drafting, are particularly effective pedagogical tools because they are intensely experiential; they promote transformations in understanding. The dangers in relying upon software packages, of any sort, are at this moment centered upon the limitations of the GUI, and especially of the screen. There are almost certainly ways in which these detrimental limitations could be resolved, but for the time being, they remain obstacles rather than expedients. George has created a thorough list of these limitations, to which I will add only one more.

    The critical question for me, as both educator and designer, is the site of transformation; in other words, has the methodology employed enabled the employer to reach a new understanding within, or has the realization been contained without. This bears further explanation: I find it highly problematic when the tools engender understanding in the product and not the producer; two potential examples being the use of algorithms to generate architectural ideas, or the use of BIM to generate highly integrated, effective building systems. Both examples run the risk of installing a majority of understanding within the product, leaving the producer unchanged. This is undesirable because of the inherently dialogical aspect of the design process, which necessitates constant judgment inputs from the designer. As the process moves forward, and if the designer’s understanding is lagging, the product and tools of production, the pre-sets, become the only options for the designer.

    Compare this to the blank sheet start-up condition of hand drawing. In order to begin constructing even the most basic orthogonal or perspectival view, the person drawing must have already gained some sort of internal understanding. There are no pre-sets, no always-already constructed view-port space – the understanding evolves line by line, action by action, thought by thought. Of course, this too can become ‘mechanical,’ as when perspective drawing is taught via a series of short-cut methods for the purpose of representing a pre-determined object, limiting the need for critical engagement. Used in another way, generatively, this method of hand drawing maximizes the need for critical engagement, enabling understanding in both product and designer.

    Finally, the oft-made distinction between education and training. There have been many successful binomial definitions made here, but I will try to add another – training involves the engagement of persons in processes which require minimal understanding on the part of the individual, while education privileges the types of processes which engender the evolution of the understanding of the individual. The major advantage of the educational approach is that it has a higher potential for creating new processes and understandings.

  • George

    A thoughtful friend (who will remain anonymous unless he cares to jump in with his name) emailed me this comment:

    Well, I think most of your “strong” arguments are very rational, and…well strong.

    But I actually find the “culture” arguments the most compelling. I mean, in terms of how architects individually think about space and geometry, they are heavily influenced by the tools the use and the way that they use them, regardless if they are hand or computer based techniques. The difference is that with hand techniques anyone can try someone else’s technique out. With
    computers there are all kinds of practical barriers to experiment in a massive way; a capable computer, software license or usable cracks, and then serious investments in learning another software program. The effect is that we may learn a few programs, and really only one the best. Then we tend to focus on that one program, even if we know better. Soon, we can only share techniques with those who have chosen to focus in the same way we have. I guess if you were an optimist you would say that this should lead to a culture of plurality, but I think rather that it’s like the loss of Babble. You are left with disparate groups of architects speaking different languages, thinking different thoughts (which is different than not agreeing on a debate, it’s the absence of a debate).

  • ben


    Your post is really interesting as i am currently in the beginning stages of writing my dissertation at university on the importance of hand drawings compared to computerised drawings in architecture. Any publications that you may have found are published would be of great interest.



  • George

    Hi Ben,

    Thanks for your comment. I unfortunately don’t know of any readings specifically covering this issue — or none I can think of off the top of my head. I suppose it would be interesting to look at what was being written when AutoCAD first took off (in the ’80s, I suppoose?).

    In a general bibliography of drawing, I would include such works as:
    - Robin Evans (both major books: “The Projective Cast”, and “Essays on Drawing and Thinking”, or whatever it’s called)
    - Sue Gussow, “Architects Draw”
    - “The Perspective Hinge”, by X and Y (can’t remember their names offhand, apologies)

    But I haven’t even read any of these books all the way through, alas. I’ve made very little time for serious reading in the past ten years, I’m afraid (since getting into architecture!).

    I’d be very curious to hear how your dissertation develops, though! This is a real issue for architectural teaching, if not practice (I tend to think there is not much to discuss in practice – the computer offers too many advantages, except in fringe cases that mostly have to do with charming clients, explaining something in the field, or rapid ideation… all of which amount to only 10% at most of the actual drawing work in architecture).

  • Ben

    Hi George,

    Thank you for your reply, that information is very helpful and I will try to Read up on this very shortly. It is proving a difficult topic area and one with little debate (which is understandable due to the younger generation being more comfortable with CAD). I myself was brought up by hand drawing and even though i have worked on CAD for the past 5 years i still feel that any hand sketch or technical drawing is far more beneficial to both client and architect/ technologist. It adds personality and a little soul to something that could look rather simple or boring. Each has there own way of drawing where as CAD has one.

  • Ryan

    I’ve noticed that this is a rather old post, but I will leave this comment in hopes that it will be read anyways. I took one architectural drafting course when I was in high school and really enjoyed the class. This introductory course taught the basics of drawing floor plans and elevations using a drafting board, T-square, triangles, and other hand tools; and a lot of the lessons stuck with me through the years. I am now 30 years old, and despite never having pursued architecture any further than this one class, I have often thought about getting some things to sit down with and work on a floor plan. Recently, I did just that. I already had a small drafting board and T-square, etc that had collected dust in the attic, so I pulled them down and picked a couple of other things up, taped down a piece of vellum and sat there looking at the blank sheet… Turns out, I had forgotten a lot more than I’d thought, so I turned to the internet for help. It amazes me how very little there is out there about drafting using a pencil vs. using a computer. I find the raw satisfaction in sitting there, hunched over the desk, pencil in hand, sketching out the design. I find that showing a hand-drafted work to someone else draws pure interest from them. “Wow, you drew that?”, then they begin asking questions about the drawing. A plan on a computer screen, by contrast, seems to draw little interest, earning nothing more than a glance and a “neat”. I agree that the art of drawing puts soul into the work. I wish it were easier to find resources about drafting online and in print.

  • samiko

    wow!!! I really like this. Like Ben i hav been checkin online for materials about manual drafting cos am an undergraduate in a Nigerian University researchin on d topic: a comparative analysis of traditional drafting techniques n CAD. Pls help me…i almost changed my topic cos i cnt get materials any help?

  • samiko

    plus i wouldnt mind if u can help me with Ben’s email (of course wt his permission)

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>