Is Drawing Dead? Yale Searches for an Answer

Is Drawing Dead? Yale Searches for an Answer

Eero Saarinen used lined composition paper for this sketch of Yale’s Ingalls Rink, 1953. (Courtesy Yale)
Panelists Greg Lynn, Preston Scott Cohen, and Marion Weiss. (Erik Herrmann)

Is drawing dead? That was the burning question (and title) of last weekend’s symposium at the Yale School of Architecture, which assessed the contemporary state of drawing through three days of lectures and panels, with pen-and-paper proponents from across the architectural spectrum. This convergence of many great drawers past and present coincided with the recently opened exhibition Massimo Scolari: The Representation of Architecture, a largely drawing-based show on view through May 4 in the School of Architecture Gallery.

Eero Saarinen's sketch of Yale’s Ingalls Rink, 1953. (Courtesy Yale)

To the central question, the answer came quickly, and it is “no.” Many other fascinating and important questions were raised along the way: What is drawing’s role in an increasingly computerized design culture, with the rise of BIM technology, computational design, and digital modeling? What is the relationship between the quick, loose sketch and the rigorous, precise computer model? How can drawing, in any medium, inform the process and ultimately, the final building? How do we mediate between real and imagined, and how has that changed?

The Friday night keynote came from Sir Peter Cook of Archigram fame, who identified, through countless examples, the moment when drawings are at their most interesting and their most creative. Somewhere between rough sketch and final rendering, a drawing will show the right amount of information, while remaining visceral and tactile. Contemporary computer renderings, Cook joked seriously, often have suspiciously well-mowed grass and suspiciously happy children. He is interested in the slightly less polished version, where the building remains fictional in an honest way.

Keynote speaker Sir Peter Cook (left) and Yale's Stanislaus von Moos. (Susan Surface)

Saturday morning, Julie Dorsey of Yale’s Department of Computer Science showed off her new drawing software, The Mental Canvas, which allows users to create 3-D hand sketches on a computer, using an assemblage of floating, transparent “canvases” which can be rotated, moved, and scaled. Next, Andrew Witt of Gehry Technologies worked back from new drawing technology in “A Reverse History of Mechanized Drawing 2012–1900.” It was one of the more lively talks and displayed the history of drawing technologies from early digitally triangulated meshes, kinetic models, and stereoscopic drawings to the 18th-century Italian drawing machines and the projective geometries necessary for the beautiful curves of Neo-Classical staircases. There were some fantastic retro-digital environments form the ‘70s, which oddly seem more “real” now than they probably ever did.

Marion Weiss of Weiss/Manfredi illustrated how the uncertainty of hand sketching and charcoal drawing informed the final forms and textures of the firm’s Barnard College Diana Center. She also described their Brooklyn Botanical Garden Visitor Center as a series of sections dissolving into the earth, thus mitigating the transition from urban condition to nature. On the other hand, Greg Lynn of Greg Lynn FORM office took the stage and claimed territory for those who sketch on the computer. He exalted that “The rest of you proudly hold up your pens and pencils, but I would hold up my mouse.”

All in all, the weekend offered a lively and provocative series of talks, filled with rich examples that served to inspire and inform. Despite the fact that a few of the presentations struggled to make a clear point about the role of drawing today, ultimately, the symposium showed that drawing is far from dead. In typically ironic Yale fashion, the best evidence of representation’s continuing importance may be the struggle to talk coherently about it. Now excuse me while I go find my pencils.