In today’s practice we have a blended culture created by a generational overlap – architects who were trained via conventional means and methods co-existing with emerging architectural professionals who are coming of age with the digital revolution. On one hand, we have a generation whose training and practice is rooted in years of proven architectural conventions such as orthographic plan, section and elevation, of which, two dimensional drawings are central to the process of making architecture. And on the other hand, we have a new generation of architects who have grown up with computer modeling as the central tool in the process of making architecture. This tool, which has evolved to be predominately three dimensional in nature, is changing the process of how we create architecture and how we define architectural drawing. In the current architectural practice, model translation from conception to building via means of two dimensional architectural drawing techniques is dying, if not dead. Traditional methods of drawing have only a small role in communicating architecture today, and the term drawing has been redefined and replaced with the build-up of the digital model as the fundamental tool in the process of making architecture.
Traditional architectural drawings have, for centuries, been used by architects: to develop a design idea into a coherent proposal, to communicate ideas and concepts, to convince clients of the merits of a design, and are often paired with physical models to complete the communicative spatial experience. Drawings have traditionally been the primary means of communication between architects and contractors as a road map for the completed work and a study or analysis of construction methods. Conventionally, two dimensional architectural drawings were made with ink on paper or a similar material. And for centuries, drawings have adopted set conventions, which include particular views (floor plan, sections, elevations, axonometric, etc.), standard sheet sizes, units of measurement and scales, basic principles of geometry, proportion and line weights. In addition to orthographic drawing, prescriptive methods of constructing one point and two point perspectives were essential to conveying the user experience. And, often times free hand sketching would begin the process of making architecture which would eventually lead to the more finite deliverable of orthographic drawings, perspectives and study models.
Early uses of computer aided drafting utilized the computer as if it was an extension of traditional hand drafting, employing the basic rules of orthographic projection akin to the buildup of lines on a blank canvas. If we look at a brief history of architectural drawing one can see that the digital tools that started to influence the process of creating architecture did not appear until the latter half of the 20th century and that prior to digital intervention architectural drawing and practice techniques have not changed for several centuries. What an exciting time for today’s architect – we really are just at the tip of the iceberg with digital drawing.
Today, two dimensional representations are still largely used by architects to convey design ideas and communicate to contractors, however the process of making these two dimensional representations has significantly evolved from previous generations. Drawings are not built-up line-by-line. Instead, they are abstractions or viewports of a model that are built up via the input of data, the modeling of masses, extrusions of geometry and the repetition of components. Rarely do we start with a line on a blank canvas. The architectural process is more akin to the process of sculpture, in that it begins with the molding and formation of geometry in a three dimensional space. And through this process, which is more analogous to previous generation’s physical model making or sculpting a form, we sculpt, carve, push and pull, always working in three dimensions aided by the digital processing power of the computer.
The growth and advancement of digital processing power is also taking architectural practice into new territory. Many savvy architects also double as computer programmers or scripters who can use computer code to resolve difficult geometrical algorithms. This process yields to the advancement in geometrical form-making not possible with simple paper and pencil as well as the integration of technology into building systems and building science.
With the process of making architecture significantly differing from that of previous generations, why then, are we still communicating to our clients in similar methods of the past? Two dimensional products are now a post process, not the process. We still discuss architectural deliverables in client presentations as “drawings,” which in most cases are nothing more than abstractions of the sophisticated three dimensional, data intensive models. The digital presentation and communication of architecture is starting to catch up to the digital process of creating architecture with new methods of virtual and augmented reality tools, animated GIF’s and choreographed architectural animations.
The evolution of the digital architect is rapidly writing its own history, of which, this particular time in the architectural profession is pivotal in terms of its ability to influence the direction for the future. This blog post was fodder for a larger in-house discussion which really just scrapes the surface of digital architectural advancements. And with all of these advancements, one can’t help but wonder what will happen to the profession when paper and pencil are retired tools of the past. One can already see classes of graduating architecture students who are incapable of putting hand to paper. And with that, there is a strong argument that has been made that the profession will intrinsically lose far more than paper and pencil when the generation of traditionally trained architects comes to a close.