Architecture & Design

The Death of Drawing

deathofdrawingForget the “marketplace of ideas.” I say: put small gloves on ideas, stick ‘em in a cage with an opponent of comparable capabilities and gravitas, and let them “go toes.” Eye to eye. Mano a mano.  Mixed Mental Arts Fight Club (MMA FC).

Here’s what I’m talking about: David Ross Scheer’s The Death of Drawing, where the idea-rassle between Drawings and Simulations finds enthusiastic sponsors in philosophical categories like ethics, epistemology and ontology.

Scheer, a Salt Lake City-based architect and intellect with graduate degrees in physics (Wisconsin) and architecture (Yale), probably has the highest IQ among fight commentators since Howard Cosell. He sets things up this way: the architecture profession is in the midst of a transformation not experienced in 500 years. The last comparable paradigm shift started when Leon Battista Alberti’s writings caused the downfall of the architect as master-builder.  Prior to Alberti, the master-builder-architect controlled both design and construction. After Alberti, architects specialized in design (the Why) and builders focused on construction (the How), and both became respected craftsmen. The builder’s craft: workmanship and quality in the tools and processes for the erection of buildings. The architect’s craft: sketches and drawings which create or discover and communicate the form of buildings.  In the last 10 years the architect’s craft is being replaced by digital technology.  Less and less will architects lead projects, nor, by themselves, create form and represent it through sketches and drawings. Rather, Computational Design (CD) and Building Information Management simulations (BIM) make the architect a collaborator among a team that creates a database, which describes how a building might perform, and how the building might look to match desired performance outcomes.

The sponsors for this theory-rassle are three universal idea categories: Epistemology, whose tag line is “How Do We Know What We Know?” Ethics, doing business under the banner “How Ought We Behave?”  and Ontology,  addressing the question:  “What Is Really Real?” .

According to Scheer, epistemology benefits from this battle because the craft of drawing creates new knowledge through the interaction of eye-hand-mind. The Greeks call this “haptic” knowledge. Psychologists call it “kinesthetic” knowledge.  And Princeton-trained psychologists Mueller and Oppenheimer support this hypothesis in a study that suggests the act of handwriting notes of lectures helps students learn more than just typing the lecture notes on a keyboard.

Presenting the strengths and weaknesses of Drawings and Simulations from an ontological perspective, the book notes that architectural sketches and drawings are two steps away from what is really real.  Sketches and drawings start in the mind of the draftsman (step one away from the really real) but are only representations of what is in the mind of the draftsman (two steps away from what is really real). Simulations are an actual experience, though not necessarily the same as an experience with what is really real. Sure, those in a simulation, like a video game, are having a real experience, but that experience is not the same as being out in the real world with stuff that is really real. Scheer, with an interesting thought, suggests that the gap between the idea in the designer’s mind and the representation on the paper is a space for creativity.

As to Ethics, Scheer describes the pluses and minuses of Drawings vs. Simulations.  Today’s buildings are complex, and have constraints including regulations and budgets for construction and operations, and simulations produce benefits as BIM minimizes omissions and conflicts that make it difficult to control or predict outcomes of buildings and projects. CD, however, is giving architects an identity crisis as it changes the role of the profession. Algorithms are so advanced that it is possible to enter the constraints of a building (site and environmental conditions, regulations, budgets, usage, materials of construction, end users expectations), and the algorithm will suggest shapes and forms for the building; making the computer a collaborator with designers and architects in creating the form of the building  (making at least this writer wonder if the computer is ever surprised by the shapes and forms the algorithm suggests).

No question: Scheer is an ideas junkie and has done his homework. In the book you will find Immanuel Kant’s theories on knowledge and beauty mixed with practical details and the theoretical foundations of CD and BIM simulations.  If you believe ideas shape the expectations of what is seen, and that seeing the novel and universal is a desired outcome for designers of great buildings, this is a matchup you will want to follow and a book to read.   An additional Good: you can help the local economy; the author is thoughtful AND local, and the book is sold at The Kings English Bookshop for $39.95.

The Death of Drawing
David Ross Scheer
258 pp.

David_ScheerDavid Ross Scheer is an architect with 30 years’ experience and the author of many articles as well as The Death of Drawing: Architecture in the Age of Simulation. Drawing on his experience in practice and expertise in the uses of computer technology in architecture, he advocates combining a variety of innovative and traditional tools to preserve the architect’s ability to creatively address cultural and social issues while participating in technology-enabled project delivery processes. He explores these ideas in design projects, writing and lectures. You can read more at his site,

Categories: Architecture & Design

2 replies »

  1. I’ve been eagerly observing a commentary in actual wood and metal on this question, outside my window in the rapidly a-building Brickyard neighborhood. Ten days ago, heavy machinery began to unload dozens of prefabricated trusses next to the curing concrete foundations meant to support them. Then the builders began to wander among those piles of wood, tapes and clipboards in hand, measuring stack after stack of glue-lams and girders, some tapered, some rectangular.

    Eventually I figured out what was happening. They were trying to find the RIGHT truss to go between floors on the APPROPRIATE section of the building. Sometimes they succeed, though the first member to go up took longer than the latest dozen together, because they kept measuring and fussing over it. I am not making anything up when I say they eventually started trimming these elaborately-reinforced assemblies to fit, with the inevitable result, beloved to mathematicians everywhere, seen in matching socks of nearly the same color: they all look like pairs until you get to the last pair, which consists of one white and one black sock.

    So is this the failure of the Alberti Division, in which the designer doesn’t know how to build and the builder can’t truly read the plans? Or is this the failure of the computer age to provide an adequate way of turning bazillions of computations into a stack of identifiable components? Or could it be that all the while the intellectuals (defined by architects and builders alike as “The guys who roll their sleeves DOWN to go to work . . . “) have been waving their arms around and theorizing, something entirely beyond their ken has been happening on the site?

    I’m happy, either way, that my good friend Red Mike isn’t doing what he appears, which would be to announce the actual end of drawing. Humans have drawn since they ceased to be pure apes, and I see no way to stop them, or reason why they should. Drawing is bigger than ever (sometimes literally–see Brian Kershisnik, among others) and, as we get closer and closer to a time when computers will do all the really sophisticated stuff — design buildings, drive cars, identify terrorists — better and quicker than we do, it’s good to know we will always have the joys of drawing (a computer can draw a square but can’t see or identify one) and language and jokes as our very own.

  2. Geoff…three years after your post come I across it, and think: “Geoff is so clever. Oh that I were so.”

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