In the olden days….

I've spent most of my life running my own architectural practice, but changes in office technology such as computer generated drawings, different methods of procuring buildings and the ways architects are organised today make any suggestions in those areas by people of my age of doubtful value. 

I was reminded of the span of changes that have happened within my working lifetime by a recent notice that the State Library of Victoria has started to digitise some thousands of architectural drawings of public, residential and commercial buildings in Victoria; they were donated by the University of Melbourne and will soon be available online. 

 Archi Drawing

We thought it was old fashioned and unnecessary to colour drawings as shown above; red for brickwork, yellow for carpentry in cross-section, and pale blue for metal in elevation, and so on.

By the early Eighties computers started to be used for drafting, and they quickly took over.  It was the death knell of the whole craft of pen and pencil architectural drawings on paper or linen, which were then printed and painted with water colours like this drawing to show the different materials, . 

Drawing on a computer is similar to drawing with a pencil on paper, lines of a specific length are drawn, wall thicknesses are added, and doorways and window are inserted; the drawing is built up in exactly the same way as is done by hand only with a cursor on a screen rather than on paper or linen with a pencil or pen.

The advantages of computers are enormous particularly when changes have to be made to the drawings, as inevitably happens.  There are different sorts of drawings of course: those developed at the initial stage to explain the design, elaborate presentation drawings to sell the final agreed design (current perspectives are often so real you have to look hard to see whether it's a photograph or not), and finally the detailed working drawings used for construction.  The computer has the facility of developing one lot of drawings from the other and the slight fudging that could go on in hand drafted drawings isn't possible as computers always gets things like wall thicknesses and junctions right. 

There are only sentimental memories left of the older way of drafting, you could for instance always tell who had drawn a drawing as it had their own drafting style, like a signature on it.  Computer generated drawings have a sameness about them, and whether they were drawn by one or more persons is never clear.  The advantages are such that no architect today would consider abandoning the use of computers.  And as with writing it is possible to cut and paste, so one apartment can be made into a block of five apartments in a flash; and it's this very press-a-button ease of course, that makes for so much unthinking design today. 
As Renzo Piano said, 'Making stupid shapes by pressing stupid buttons!'

When I am asked to admire a beautiful computer generated drawing my first reaction is always to ask, 'But is it better architecture?'  The computer is just a tool and the quality of the more important design has nothing to do with the way it's drawn.

It's in the initial design area that there is still some ambivalence in the use of computers, and their use is often deferred until the designer has let the pencil almost assume an identity of it's own as it wanders and reiterates on a piece of yellow trace until some sense of a design concept evolves that can be transferred to the computer. 

There was something about the slowness of drawing fifty years ago that little refinements and improvements were transferred to the drawing almost without thinking, 'I'll just move that door over a bit ….'  You had more time to think about it, which, like so much of the modern world, is why computers are more efficient and save money.  I accept all these changes as long as the design is also improved at the same time!

In the stratification of architectural offices the person doing the design is often not the person preparing the computer generated drawings, and they often have different skills and attitudes.  Giving the designer a set of prints to check is a different sort of process to that of all the quiet improvements the designer made when she was also the draftsperson.   But there's no going back; it's a question of reconciling leaps of the imagination with computer exactitude, hopefully without compromise to either.

Design complexity that might once have been avoided, as too hard to draw so it could be easily built, is now welcomed as more readily solved by computers; not that more complex buildings are always an improvement of course!  And some software now draws in three dimensions so that a spatial dimension is available when designing.  As long as we remember they are only tools to assist the imagination. 

Some big projects now have a dedicated computer terminal in the site office connected to the architect's office in lieu of paper drawings, so any problems can be quickly solved on-line.  But most building technology is still a pretty crude process, slopping wet concrete into formwork, and we have a long way to go in the construction industry to catch up with some shipbuilding, where the computer directly drives the tools to cut and shape steel panels without the intermediary of drawings.   

Don Gazzard LFAIA
Mid-November 2015