shipping up to boston…

Our annual site visit/field trip for Comprehensive Design is well and truly underway with about 90 studenti spending the weekend documenting their respective sites and discovering, to their great disappointment, that Sam Adams is actually brewed in Pittsburgh.  (this last fact does not stop them from doing the “Boston Brewery” tour…)  All of them are finding out how challenging it’s going to be to put a 1200 seat jazz performance theatre with accompanying lobbies, backstage areas, etc., on a tight site with heavy historic baggage…

Boston has been an important place for us, because it represents an entirely different scale and urban sense than our midwestern-raised students are used to.  We’ve scattered around the big dig and found a total of something like five sites this year, all of which present issues you couldn’t find in Des Moines or Minneapolis.  In particular, my studio has picked two sites that show off just how tricky a city like Boston can be.  One of them is a large pier off of Atlantic Avenue in the North End, the other is right downtown, where the James Hook lobster roll shack has been for something like 70 years (more on this one after our official visit today…it’s a doozy).

We’ve always thought that Comprehensive should be, well, comprehensive, and while some programs focus on getting a complete set of construction drawings out of the project, we’re more interested in having students grapple with all aspects of large building technology in a complicated urban milieu.  Montreal served our purposes well for about five years, and Boston is getting up there as well–this might be our last trip here, mostly because the faculty are getting antsy for a new context.
This year we got our act together and got a group of about 40 students in to Symphony Hall–on opening weekend.  Our program scenario is that the BSO is opening a downtown satellite to focus on more contemporary music (unlikely?  sure, but…), so to see the Mother Ship seemed important.  The staff and tour volunteers there could not have been more helpful and welcoming, despite the chaos of musicians arriving, tuning up backstage, and shuffling their instruments back and forth.  This part, actually, was great to see, since it emphasized just how important all that circulation stuff can be when you’re trying to get a set of kettle drums up a freight elevator.  And the bassist who followed us around with a bit of a soundtrack was much appreciated, too.

Of course, it’s also important to get a sense for Boston’s wider cultural context, so last night we did the honorable thing and introduced a not-unenthusiastic group to the greatest urban space on the planet:

wind bracing talk at caf

Many thanks to all at the Chicago Architecture Foundation–especially Kristy Peterson!–for hosting my lunchtime talk today on wind bracing.  As always, it was a solid, knowledgable crowd.  Lectures where the Q&A lasts longer than the talk are the best!  I’m scheduled to be back for a docent education event in November–not open to the public, but since a sizable chunk of the readership here consists of CAF docents I think it’s only proper to mention it and to say how much I’m looking forward to returning…

drawing–a lost art?

This weekend’s article by Michael Graves in the New York Times resonated with, um, just about every faculty discussion at every school of architecture on the planet.  Graves’ point is that with the enormous impact of digital design and production, the act of actually putting pen to paper by architects or architectural students is increasingly rare.  Or, in his words,

Architecture cannot divorce itself from drawing, no matter how impressive the technology gets. Drawings are not just end products: they are part of the thought process of architectural design.

This is a common argument with architects of a certain age.  The eye-hand link has, to those of us who grew up sketching, an inherently meaningful link, and the less that link gets exercised, the less genuine thinking we do about positioning ourselves in the world.  And, therefore, the less our buildings are connected to our actual experience.

There are two possible responses to this:  1) Graves and those raising a stink about this are essentially the field’s equivalent of the old guy yelling at the neighborhood kids to get the hell off of his lawn, his office itself uses plenty of digital technology to design buildings, spatulas, etc., and he’s being far too precious, or 2) sure, there’s plenty of cognitive science to show that diddling around with buttons is a qualitatively different experience than moving a pen around on the paper, and it encourages shortcuts while discouraging the painstaking attention to every bit of building that sketching or drawing demands.

Loyal readers will no doubt guess that I agree with Michael Graves on approximately nothing, but I do have enormous respect for him as a scholar–and as a draftsman.  His sketches are unquestionably thoughtful and often insightful, even if they are also often cartoony, and he knows his stuff when it comes to drawing history and its link with architectural composition and (surprise, surprise) construction.  I do suspect, however, that a lot of what I find unattractive in his buildings has to do with making drawing a fetish.  It’s easy to interpret his methodology as design through elevation, which tends to make his buildings more about the image and less about the spaces within or around them.

Still, I think he’s got a point here about the cognition of spaces on the part of the designers, but I’d take it a step further.  As worrying as the lack of drawing in a typical office or school studio may be, I find the lack of model-building in the profession today even more staggering.  Part of the new digital packages’ appeal is their fluent conversion of 2-D plans into three dimensions.  It’s easier than ever to get your plans sorted out and to then tip them up into a spatial model that you can navigate on the screen, and while one might think this set designers up for even more engagement with real-world space, I’m not so sure.  I suspect that, because the resulting spaces are constantly viewed on screens and on printouts, this nifty tech shortcut actually reinforces the tendency to composing photographs rather than orchestrating spaces.  In other words, we’re still creating images, but instead of creating them directly we’re letting the CPU figure out what the image is going to be, given what we’ve input in terms of plans and sections.  That’s marginally more engaged with space as a reality than Graves fears, but not much–the designer in this scenario ends up an editor more than a composer, which probably doesn’t get the job done all that well.

So I guess I’m in the “get the hell off my lawn” camp on this one, though maybe slightly skewed toward an even angrier neighbor who’s telling the old guy shouting to knock it the hell off, look what those kids have done to my garden bed…

One nifty bit of phraseology from Graves’ article–drawing as object versus drawing as process.  As interested as he is in objects, he constructs a neat argument for three modes of drawing that deserves some attention in first year studio classes:

For decades I have argued that architectural drawing can be divided into three types, which I call the “referential sketch,” the “preparatory study” and the “definitive drawing.” The definitive drawing, the final and most developed of the three, is almost universally produced on the computer nowadays, and that is appropriate. But what about the other two? What is their value in the creative process? What can they teach us?

The referential sketch serves as a visual diary, a record of an architect’s discovery. It can be as simple as a shorthand notation of a design concept or can describe details of a larger composition. It might not even be a drawing that relates to a building or any time in history. It’s not likely to represent “reality,” but rather to capture an idea.

These sketches are thus inherently fragmentary and selective. When I draw something, I remember it. The drawing is a reminder of the idea that caused me to record it in the first place. That visceral connection, that thought process, cannot be replicated by a computer.

The second type of drawing, the preparatory study, is typically part of a progression of drawings that elaborate a design. Like the referential sketch, it may not reflect a linear process. (I find computer-aided design much more linear.) I personally like to draw on translucent yellow tracing paper, which allows me to layer one drawing on top of another, building on what I’ve drawn before and, again, creating a personal, emotional connection with the work.