LIMITED BY THE TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Old days of architectural drafting (photo from Archinect)
For most architects, the design starts inside the brain. We are then challenged to extract that creative spark out of our head and on to paper, or these days, on to a computer screen. Urgently, we grasps at the tools of our trade to convert the abstract ideas into some visual form of communication, i.e., the sketch on the back of an envelope, the first computer drawing, or the crude paper model.
Often, our ideas are grander, more ambitious, than any tool can capture. Tools have limits, whereas our artistic spirits do not.
The old days of architecture embraced simple non-mechanical tools, such as the T-square and the triangle. This allowed us to merely draw parallel lines and only four angles—30, 45, 60 and 90 degrees. If our brain generated an architectural idea with a curved shape or at an 18.5 degree angle, our tools were challenged to capture the idea.
A new tool came along: the adjustable triangle. No longer a static piece of wood or plastic—this tool was mechanical, moving upon its little hinge. The adjustable triangle freed the architect to now make any angle of choice. During school, we used to joke by pointing out when students purchased his/her first adjustable triangle, because their drawings all of a sudden had a new complexity of diagonal lines.
Alongside other instruments such as the compass, French curves, elliptical templates, etc., new ideas could be expressed. Architecture started to have move diagonals, more curves, more complexity. Again, we poked fun, “With these new house designs and the angles, Frank Lloyd Wright must have purchased fancier drawings tools for his staff!”
A quantum leap in communicating design ideas arrived with digital technology. These days, almost anything architects can dream up can be captured using today’s devices. With algorithms, computers are not just communicating ideas that are in our heads, but are generating ideas without our heads.
Here is the question: just because we can think it, just because we can draw it, just because we can build it—should we? Just because software can describe a heroic complex form (like CATIA for Frank Gehry), just because a computer can document a complex pattern for water jet cutting a sheet of steel, just because 3ds Max and Maxwell Render can produce a near photographically realistic image, should we have technology replace the use of our brains and our hands?
One example: If you tour an architecture school or many architecture design studios, you will see the excessive use of the 3d printer. With limited time on the computer and a few clicks of the mouse, dozens of physical models of a particular design theme are produced in plastic. I argue that most of these variations-on-a-theme are insignificant. Just because an architect can generate 20 similar ideas, doesn’t mean that all these ideas have merit. Wouldn’t it be better to develop one idea carefully, strategically and thoughtfully?
My personal preference is to design ideas that are more hand crafted, then machine produced—relying more on heart than tools.