Monday, December 12, 2005

The Expanded Roll of Drawing in 21st Century Design

For architects, the act of drawing has had two functions.

The function palatable to the rest of the world is ‘drawing as illustration.’ Avoiding the terrific expense of constructing architectural ideas to convey them, we are in the habit of borrowing the language of drawing to communicate design ideas. An extreme example of this lies within the American legal system. Litigious architects are careful to state that construction documents are sometimes only burdened to show design intent, and most architects release construction documents of any other legal performance. More often though, presentation drawings, fly-throughs, and any other ‘eye-candy’ have the purpose of selling, convincing, and inspiring. In these cases, drawings must transmit meaning. This deep mental connection is embedded in the double meaning of our language. One illustrates his ideas with ‘illustrations.’ One shows a client his plans by showing his client ‘plans.’

In contrast, for most architects, drawing is also the site of calculation. Sketches and rough drafts are the place where designers ‘work out’ ideas; one does code-checks in drawings; one figures out risers and treads in stair sections; one premeditates the construction of a building in the construction details. A friend recently described witnessing the design of Saarinen’s JFK Terminal ‘evolve’ by flipping through archived design development drawings in a school library. Accurate calculation is the primary importance of architectural drawings being to scale, and this purpose doesn’t compete with the first.

However, it is this second function of drawings that is being expanded and augmented by computational tools.

(In the past twenty years, architectural designers have had increasingly robust modelers come to market that accelerate the way one thinks in three dimensions. These include 3dStudio, Form-z, Rhino, and Maya. This has merely been an incremental improvement.)

The fundamental change in the site of calculation is being realized by designers using Building Informational Modelers. The value of these programs lie in the abstraction and legibility of the decision making process. By writing scripts of code to generate forms, we’re explicitly generating design decisions. Before, others would have to read a designer’s drawings to see the implicit design decisions, much like a handwriting analyst with love letters. Now, for example, when window placement is a function of solar orientation, designers literally compose ‘a function’ described mathematical terms and variables. Designers are removed from the instances of their composition, and address thoughts that describe their solutions immediately. In other words they are less likely to think of window #7, and more likely to describe why windows should orient north off a buildings face.

Being one step removed from the instances of a design allows designers to meditate on the system of decisions that create buildings, not merely the individual decisions. The innovative drawing ingredient that allows designers this new tool is control flow – and this is the start of a post later this week.


Blogger Norman Blogster said...

Have you read "Why architects draw" by Edward Robbins? Me neither. Probably should though, it's supposed to be good.
Anyway, I think you omit a REALLY important reason why architects draw, and that is to communicate with themselves, i.e. use the pen(cil) & paper as a medium to feed off. It's like an external part of the brain, making the loop from brain to pen to paper, to eye back to brain. Like an autopoietic system (a la Varela & Maturana).
Unless you're a genius like FLW, it helps you to respond to your ideas better than trying to imagine it all in your head. So while I think that writing lines of code in order to generate form is REALLY interesting, it does separate you another degree from your creation. This is why I really like Tomato Sketchup, because it's as close as I've found to resonating in that feedback loop on a computer. Looking forward to your post later this week.

3:40 PM  
Blogger J said...

Mr. Bloggster,

Really good observations as par. With this post the editors are trying a new idea... something of an online debate. Instead of letting me prose unchecked, the other editors will be posting a reply tomorrow. (Secretly, I'm expecting a Preston Scott Cohen reference, but the Robbins mention is interesting.) Can the "site of calculation" not be understood to include the conversations with oneself you mention? I think that was the spirit of the evolving comment mentioned, but I can see how my language is foggy.

7:20 PM  

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