Driven to Distraction: Drawing Dimensions in the Digital Age / by Johnson Favaro

 
MUSEUM OF REDLANDS Site plan

MUSEUM OF REDLANDS Site plan

One day in the second grade at Saint Basil’s Elementary School, Mrs. Desmond taught us how to draw a clock. She drew a circle on the black board then she wrote a 12 at the top a 6 at the bottom a 3 in the middle of the right side and a 9 in the middle of the left side, then she filled in the 1,2,4,5,7,8,10 and 11. Our teacher was demonstrating how easy it was to draw the clock when first you divided in half, then divided the two halves into half and then each quarter into thirds.

THE EASY WAY TO DRAW A CLOCK. First divide in half, then each half in half again then each quarter into thirds.

THE EASY WAY TO DRAW A CLOCK. First divide in half, then each half in half again then each quarter into thirds.

The clock is a geometric representation (and simplification) of the hours of a day and it enjoys tremendous symmetry—bilateral, trilateral and quadrilateral. Mrs. Desmond’s technique works so elegantly because the clock’s numbers can be arranged in geometric proportion (3:6 as 6:12) – by first beginning with these relationships you are more likely to succeed in drawing the clock then if you were to simply start at 12 and move on to 1,2,3 etc.

THE HARD WAY TO DRAW A CLOCK. Start at the 12 then fill in 1, 2, 3 and so on until you get back to 12.

THE HARD WAY TO DRAW A CLOCK. Start at the 12 then fill in 1, 2, 3 and so on until you get back to 12.

Architects refer to “reading” a floor plan or a site plan. It’s a map (how most people read it),  a section that reveals a buildings innards (like a slice through a grapefruit), a diagram of dimensional relationships, a pattern, sometimes with its own internal logic, a picture (a snap shot that conveys the big picture of how a building works) and even a symbol (sometimes the shape of the plan means something, perhaps the most well-known being the cruciform shape of a Catholic church). 

THE PLAN AS A MAP Real estate advertisements show pictures of houses and their floor plans. Most people look at this kind of a plan as a map of the house, imagining themselves living in it.

THE PLAN AS A MAP Real estate advertisements show pictures of houses and their floor plans. Most people look at this kind of a plan as a map of the house, imagining themselves living in it.

To master the drawing of a plan we learn to:  1) imagine three dimensions when only two are present and 2) size its components, make relationships among them, create a composition.  In crafting the latter we will start with some givens—such as the site and the building program—which provide constraints and invariants like the presence of a property line or the required size of a room.  While this information is necessary, it is rarely enough.  There are always variables at play.  How do we manage the variables?  Where do we start?

THE PLAN AS A SECTION The studies on the left by various 16th century architects for the rebuilding of St Peters in Rome and the ground floor plan of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao on the right are similar in that the drawing is mostly employed as a horizontal slice through the building. The plan was not the primary tool in composing the building so much as three dimensional models were.

THE PLAN AS A SECTION The studies on the left by various 16th century architects for the rebuilding of St Peters in Rome and the ground floor plan of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao on the right are similar in that the drawing is mostly employed as a horizontal slice through the building. The plan was not the primary tool in composing the building so much as three dimensional models were.

THE PLAN AS A SYMBOL The plan of the Romanesque cathedral on the left takes the shape of a cross. The plan on the right drawn by 18th century architect Nicolas Ledoux is an irreverent and rhetorical imagining of a bordello.

THE PLAN AS A SYMBOL The plan of the Romanesque cathedral on the left takes the shape of a cross. The plan on the right drawn by 18th century architect Nicolas Ledoux is an irreverent and rhetorical imagining of a bordello.

In architecture school we were offered lessons (somewhat half-heartedly)  on rules of composition, all the kinds of symmetry and systems of proportion that architects employed over the years to assist in sizing things: how the master builders in the middle ages decided how wide and how tall to make a cathedral nave, how 16th century Italian architects sized rooms in a villa or a palace.  We learned that they used different systems of proportion that were not only practical but also derived from a coherent and all-encompassing view-- characteristic of their era-- of the physical and metaphysical ordering of the world and the universe. Various eras employed different systems and they all believed theirs was right.

SYSTEMS OF PROPORTION Medieval builders engaged in mostly incommensurable geometric systems of proportion while Renaissance architects (such as Andrea Palladio on the right) employed commensurable numerical systems of proportion.

SYSTEMS OF PROPORTION Medieval builders engaged in mostly incommensurable geometric systems of proportion while Renaissance architects (such as Andrea Palladio on the right) employed commensurable numerical systems of proportion.

Then we endured lessons on so-called “dynamic symmetry” based on the incommensurable “golden ratio” theory of composition that became popular in the early 20th century (it was considered more natural than old-school static systems). Art historians and theoreticians promoted it and some modern artists and architects adopted it.  Supposedly it explained why ancient masterpieces such as the Parthenon were beautiful.  We spent hours imposing geometric scaffolding over pictures of buildings or their floor plans to demonstrate how systems of proportion ruled their composition.  We didn’t really buy it.

DYNAMIC SYMMETRY Early 20th century theorists became enamored with the incommensurable proportional system known as “golden ratio”. Studies were made, books written that retrospectively claimed it was at the root of all that was beautiful, especially in the art and architecture of the ancient world.

DYNAMIC SYMMETRY Early 20th century theorists became enamored with the incommensurable proportional system known as “golden ratio”. Studies were made, books written that retrospectively claimed it was at the root of all that was beautiful, especially in the art and architecture of the ancient world.

By the time modernism took hold in the no-nonsense mid-century era, certainly by the time we were in school, the metaphysical content had dissipated and we were left with only the supposed pragmatic benefits – easy to use and systematic ways to take measure of and relate the sizes of things.  But if we never really believed the after-the-fact theorizing we certainly didn’t adopt it as a drawing technique. No architect I know employs a coherent system of proportion to arrive at the dimensions of things.

TAKING MEASURE We are ourselves the origin of all systems of measurement. Prior to the 20th century such systems had cosmological meaning in addition to pragmatic functions. The last such system, the Modular by 20th century architect Charles Jeanneret, stripped the cosmology (although it still carried a veneer of mysticism) and focused on the pragmatic. Pragmatism cannot endure on its own.

TAKING MEASURE We are ourselves the origin of all systems of measurement. Prior to the 20th century such systems had cosmological meaning in addition to pragmatic functions. The last such system, the Modular by 20th century architect Charles Jeanneret, stripped the cosmology (although it still carried a veneer of mysticism) and focused on the pragmatic. Pragmatism cannot endure on its own.

Was it always interesting only in an academic way? We all certainly do still think of buildings and rooms as “well proportioned” when we see good ones (not to mention people and all sorts of things natural and man-made). But in practice architects today arrive at good proportions mostly via intuition and feeling, not math.  I wonder though if there isn’t math behind the intuition. Conversely, I wonder if when we make drawings by typing commands into a computer as we have now for the last quarter of a century whether that math has gotten in the way of our intuition.

DRAWING MACHINE Just managing the machine takes so much head space that it distracts from the real task at hand: drawing.

DRAWING MACHINE Just managing the machine takes so much head space that it distracts from the real task at hand: drawing.

When faced with the void of the computer screen and the empty space contained within it or drawing a wall by first composing how its built, typing instructions and moving a cursor there is less of an impetus to first “take measure” to understand how big something is relative to something else.  It’s too easy to start with the details, to start in one corner and make your way across the screen without ever stopping to assess the relationships among the parts.  This has practical consequences: we must still lay out all aspects of a building with some degree of order if for no reason other than convenience, efficiency and constructability: structural framing grids, mullions in a glass wall, lighting in a ceiling, tiles on a floor and so on.  The more each of these aspects or “systems” of a building relate to one another within a coherent geometric network, the more integrity in the design—which we do see and feel in experiencing the building.

COSTA MESA LIBRARY Site plan

COSTA MESA LIBRARY Site plan

What, then, was Mrs. Desmond teaching us? Was it how to draw a clock or how to think, how to order the world around us, understand our place in it? We learned that the easiest way to draw a clock was to compose it, to appeal to our sense of proportion-- halving, then halving again. It is this feeling for the relative sizes of things, where to start and stop a composition of parts that I believe drawing by hand empowers and typing on a computer only minimally allows. Even as we embrace digital technology for all the huge benefits it has yielded, we still do look forward to its continued advancement. Artificial intelligence may be the answer; maybe it will deliver a drawing machine that more closely replicates and enables how we actually think when we draw a building.

LOS ANGELES AREA SCHOOL Site plan

LOS ANGELES AREA SCHOOL Site plan