The prim is mightier than the pen: The emergence of living sketchbooks

aprim

I had a professor in architecture school who taught a ‘Drawing in Architecture’ class, and talked a lot about the importance of sketching.  The basis of his argument was that the process of sketching an architectural form results in the shortest possible conduit from what the eye sees, through the brain, into your hand, onto the paper and back.  The argument follows that this connection is especially important while designing, given that your ideas can be transferred directly to paper without any abstraction impeding its flow.

I’m sure this concept of hand/eye connection has been around for centuries, but it was an especially hot topic during my college years, which happened to land directly in the middle of the tension zone between hand-drafting and the newly emerging world of CAD.  When I was a freshman at SARUP, there were maybe 6 macs in a makeshift lab, used mainly by urban planning students who got to play ‘Sim City’ as part of their curriculum (slackers! ;-)).  By the time I graduated, there were three large dedicated computer labs with hundreds of computers (and 2 new plotters that only the PhD students could figure out how to use…).   I remember some pretty rowdy debates around this time, where professors and students alike battled over the merits of CAD drafting versus hand-drawing.

Here’s my point.  The debate settled around a middle ground; CAD was acceptable for generating final presentations, and for drafting blueprints, but should never be used for design.  The reason being, the interface was too much of an abstraction, and the hand/eye connection was too disjointed.  You had to build in abstract 2D views, and then change viewports, create a camera, and take a look at how that idea turned out.  CAD design resulted in an added barrier between your hand and your eye. For the most part, this hasn’t changed.  Even in professional design software, and even if you’re an expert user, it really isn’t as free-flowing as sketching.  Most architects I know still hand-sketch ideas first, then use computers for more refined design development, when dimensional accuracy becomes more important.  Those models then carry on into illustrations and blueprints.

I was chatting with KK Jewell (Kirsten Kiser) from arcspace.com, who recently opened a new gallery on Architect David Denton’s (DB Baily in SL) new ”Locus’ sim (more on DB’s project in a later post).  KK’s current exhibit, called ’4 Architects, 4 Artistic Thoughts’ juxtaposes the process of real life conceptual design by Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava with the same design phase Second Life by myself and Scope Cleaver (though I have argued that I’m nowhere near qualified to hold such a place in the exhibit!).  You have to see the exhibit for yourself (here’s a SLurl), but what I find most interesting is the implied comparison of where and when technology fits into the design process in each camp.  Even though the built work of both Gehry and Calatrava require highly complex and cutting edge use of technology (Gehry even started a company toward this end, Gehry Technologies), they themselves prefer to work with hand-drawn sketches to start with.  A quotation in the gallery from Christopher Knight, an Art Critic for the Los Angeles Times reads:

“Drawing is the medium most capable of closely recording the evolution of artistic thought – from brain to hand to pencil to paper and back to brain.”

A familiar and appropriate quote in this context, I think.

The other element of sketching is the social side of it.  A popular technique in architecture schools is to have students sketch ideas, then have everyone lay their sketchbooks open on a table in the center of the studio.  Students then walk slowly around the table reviewing and critiquing each other’s sketches.  As such, even programs like SketchUp that might enable a more ‘sketch-like’ modeling interface can’t really duplicate this social element of hand-drawn sketching.  SketchUp is lonely.

I was recently chatting with my friend JudyArx Scribe, who teaches architecture at the University of Auckland.  She is just getting started with some very exciting new uses of Second Life in her curriculum, and part of the way she introduces Second Life to her students is by describing it as a ‘living sketchbook.’  As students are sketching ideas, they can all be immersed in the same virtual space and can easily see the progress of the entire class at a glance.  They can wander around the emerging prim-sketches, providing their feedback, and soliciting input from others.  Instead of walking desk to desk looking over the shoulder of students busily sketching on trace or in sketchbooks, the entire class is all working together inside the same place.  Not only can the course instructor see everyone’s progress developing in realtime, but in theory, any professor or visiting critic from anywhere in the world could log in at any time to review their progress.

Then there are prims.  I used to sketch everything with pen or pencil and paper, but I now find myself logging into Second Life or my new Visibuild sim when I’m trying to translate a design idea from my imagination into ‘reality’.. (you might say it isn’t real, but is a sketch any more real?)   I know there are some who would claim they can just as easily sketch in 3DS or CAD, but if you watch that process, and watch how they work, you will see that the extra step between your brain and the 3D ‘sketch’ remains evident.  Look up any YouTube tutorial and see the process experts use to model in any of these apps, and you’ll see what I mean.

Primitive modeling keeps you in 3D throughout the design process, showing the results of your actions in realtime as you draw.  There is no more of a disconnect between holding a button down on my mouse and stretching a prim than there is holding my pencil to a paper and dragging it across the surface.  But there is added value with prims.  I can much more easily test textures and colors, and copy an idea to test a new direction – similar to using layers of trace paper, but without having to re-draw everything each time you trace.  That’s just the beginning.

I also place a lot of credence in the benefits of using avatars.  Walking through a space with an avatar gets so much closer to the way we actually experience architecture in real life.  There is a kind of spontaneity and magic to the experience that static illustration just can’t replicate.  It has always seemed strange to me when architects describe how they think people will flow through their buildings, and how they believe the space will be experienced.  They employ all manner of flowery and descriptive language, but why not actually let people walk through the space, and test how well that carefully crafted architectural choreography of yours will actually work?  Nothing can beat the experience of guiding a group of brutally honest avatars through a design idea you just built, and hearing what they think.  You might even test new ideas on the fly.  This wall is too tall?  Let me shorten it..  there, much better.  This space is too big?  Let me make it smaller.. nope too small… ok how about now.  Perfect.  This is simply a better way to learn architecture, and test ideas than any other method available.

We all know how important it is for architects and professional designers to be able to import their professionally-built models, and I’m sincerely glad realxtend and Visibuild have taken that bull by the horns.  But there is still something incredibly rich and important about modeling with primitive objects that I hope we never lose.  Of course, I’ll never stop sketching by hand, but its more recreational now, and much more about the nostalgia of the technique than anything else.   If I’m serious about designing something, and sharing it with others, I would sooner rez a prim than pick up a pencil.  The benefits outweigh the limitations 10 to 1.

Is your sketchbook alive?

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