In keeping with tradition, the 38th annual Ken Roberts Memorial Delineation Competition (KRob) came to its usual conclusion on a cool November evening, but this time things were different. Broadcast online to its growing international audience for the first time from the Dallas Center for Architecture, the jury presented the winning entries to the public and shared its views about the current state of architectural drawing. Two of the world’s best-known figures in the contemporary scene of architectural visualization served as jurors: Jeff Mottle, founder of the popular CG Architect website, and Carlo Aiello, publisher of eVolo magazine. They were joined by Dallas architect Michael Malone, AIA, to answer questions such as where architectural delineation is headed and what role hand drawing plays in the new digital reality.
The discussion proved to be very fitting for an event that, at its core, highlights the countless ways architecture can be visually represented. Browsing the works submitted throughout the history of the Ken Roberts competition visibly magnifies the degree to which this fundamental discipline in the profession has evolved in the last few decades. Yet, looking at the group of winning hand-drawn entries selected by the jurors earlier that day, it appears the criteria used to judge the merit of an architectural drawing has not changed all that much. This is probably because the most important question when judging the works has not changed: What makes an architectural drawing successful?
Given the rapid pace of technological change that has influenced architectural delineation in recent decades, it may initially appear that the standards from which to judge an image today ought to be quite different from what they were a generation ago. However, soliciting the thoughts of individuals whose careers are deeply immersed in the visualization of design concepts (whether in the classroom or in the studio), a consistent agreement on what makes an architectural drawing great emerged instead. Their responses affirm that an effective architectural image fulfills a basic pair of characteristics that transcends the techniques and media and forms used.
Drawings that Embody Life
This companion image to Nathan Freise’s KRob-winning entry Fallen Silo from 2009 sets the standard in storytelling and the use of digital post-production techniques that lend it a human touch.
The first characteristic is that drawings need to embody life. James Richards, an associate professor of landscape architecture at UT Arlington and author of a book on freehand drawing for designers, believes that a drawing should have evidence of life. According to Richards: “A successful drawing goes beyond an accurate rendering to capture, as designer Milton Glaser said, ‘something of the energy of the subject and its maker.’ It has an authentic life and freshness that a viewer sees and relates to, whether consciously or not.” By embodying this authenticity, a drawing begins to speak to us, inviting us to engage with its ideas and absorb us into its own world.
Kevin Sloan, a former KRob juror whose landscape architecture firm sponsors the competition’s travel sketch category, succinctly describes what a drawing should do: “A good presentation drawing persuades. A good exploratory sketch converses with its author meaningfully. A good technical drawing constructs.” There is a profound conversation that takes place once a drawing establishes a liveliness that makes it instantly relatable. It should therefore not deceive the viewer, masking the architectural idea with sophisticated technique, now made easier with digital tools. If there is one way to lose a viewer’s ability to connect with a drawing, it is by relying too much on technical virtuosity and effects. Hand drawing, by contrast, lends a drawing an imitable authenticity since it is the most direct manifestation of the author’s mind. Sloan reminds us: “Michelangelo always asserted that the job of the artist [or architect] is to get the ‘hand to obey the mind.’” The author’s touch must be evident with the squiggle of a line or a brushstroke, endowing a drawing with a humanity that beckons the viewer to identify with it. Richards refers to one 20th century master who does this well: “Look at the concept sketches of Aalto, for example. You can almost feel his arm and shoulder movements expressed in the lines as he searches for form.”
Preserving the Human Touch
Preserving this human touch becomes quite a challenge the more one works with computers. Though computers allow for a broader range of techniques to express a concept, they cannot compensate for the immediacy of the hand drawing. Steven Quevedo, professor of architecture at UT Arlington and one of the competition’s most prolific winners, explains the shortcoming of relying too heavily on technology. “Technique is only one component of architectural skill,” Quevedo says. “So many renderings with digital technology advance only a pretense for drawing. They seem to be more and more about a specific function made possible with digital programs. Such drawings often lack poetry and spirituality. If a drawing is just about itself and technique, it can be engaging, but a great drawing has many layers that go beyond technical skill. The drawing is an artifact of the architectural design process, so it contains within it the spirit of the work of architecture it conveys.”
From my observations in watching KRob jurors deliberate in the past few years, it is clearly evident that they are drawn to the entries that seem to contain many layers of information, and this engages continued interest in subsequent rounds until those drawings are selected as winners. Recently, many submissions show evidence of post-production in which the author deliberately added hand-drawn line work and textures inspired by physical media over a pure digital rendering. This effectively humanizes the image. The best drawings work on multiple levels with the viewer, revealing layers of information and detail over time. The first layer quickly draws the viewer's attention. The next layer reveals detail to maintain that attention that begins to develop a more profound connection to the drawing. Additional layers of information build meanings that both complement and contradict a drawing's initial impression.
Lucy Richards, a founder of the graphic design firm StudioLR in Edinburgh, Scotland, observes this pattern among this year’s winners. “I notice with interest that all of the 2012 winners use a strong focal point that is successful in engaging the viewer. In many cases the detail fades out to nothing around the focal point. This is especially successful in creating impact and an emphasis of both form and concept.” It appears that the rules that govern Richards' award-winning environmental graphics apply to the best examples of architectural delineation. Quevedo's experience as a teacher confirms this view. He tells his students that “A great drawing must immediately capture your eye when you see it at a distance, attracting you to study its details. The detail and craft must create a sense of awe in that the viewer is amazed.”
Eventually the viewer’s focus shifts to the details, which can be achieved by the skillful mix of technique, tones, and forms. “From the drawing, we will gain an impression of the character of the place and we may feel quite a distinctly emotional response,” James Richards says. “Color, medium, intensity, and style all play a part in this.” How the idea relates to its sense of place forms the basis of a narrative, which becomes essential in augmenting an image's impact. Richards’ view on effective graphic design seems to have much in common with architectural delineation. “Graphic design describes visual communication, which often involves a narrative in the form of words or pictures. The more of a story or narrative that a drawing can communicate, the richer and more engaging the outcome,” he adds.
Into the Details
The skillful use of light, shade, and detail brought to Gary Schuberth, AIA, the KRob prize for best hand delineation by a professional.
If there is one phrase that KRob jurors most frequently use to describe almost all of the winning entries, it is that they tell a story. This is the second key characteristic common to all successful delineations. Indeed, many of the best submissions were part of a series of storyboards for film, depicting scenes with buildings as one of many elements, such as nature, people, and atmosphere. Works in recent years vividly represent time and place, and in this way they lead some viewers to wonder if they evoke the actual prevailing moods of the times.
Observing that “drawing has a surface structure,” Sloan says, “The narrative or story a drawing tells is the deep structure and this aspect has the capacity to draw the observer into the picture and get the head and heart involved. Although narration seems to be popular today, a picture has always been worth a thousand words.”
One trend particularly noticeable in the digital/hybrid media categories is the post-apocalyptic scene in which buildings are in a state of decay, and yet reconfigured to function differently through technology. This year, Ross Jordan's winning entry in the digital/hybrid media category shows a re-imagined future for London's Regents Row. Last year’s Best in Show entry by Kevin Scott masterfully uses cool colors and renders snow and ice to produce a dramatic effect, while the scene's richly detailed buildings provide a sobering yet moving glimpse of city life in the future. These examples share a deeply embedded structure that successfully engages us at a deep emotional level.
It is in the portrayal of a detailed and compelling narrative that we can glimpse the future trajectory of architectural delineation. Panelist Jeff Mottle observed that the up and coming generation of visualization artists has been increasingly transitioning into digital animation. A good example is Nathan Freise, a former architect and two-time winner of KRob's Best in Show prize who operates a digital animation studio, Freisebrothers. The impressions of his slick short films not only portray an architect's natural storytelling talents, but also an ability to wield sophisticated tools in service to a concept that was first drawn by hand.
Computers have expanded the means by which architects can develop their concepts, but only hand delineation can generate the concept’s most genuine expression. To get the most from the hand and the computer, they must therefore work symbiotically. Freehand proponent James Richards finds this ultimately liberating: “Computers don't eliminate the need for drawing, they free drawing to become a more creative mode of expression, to say things that can't be better said any other way.”
Julien Meyrat, AIA, is an associate at RTKL Associates Inc.