The Pen is Mightier

By Yi Huang

Oftentimes in our office, we talk about the degree in which our clients and consultants understand our drawings.  We have clients/consultants that have extensive experience in building/architecture and read drawings as well as the architects who produce them.  We also work with people that will mistake our annotation symbols as unusual casework or muntin pattern.  As architects, our job is twofold – to design a beautiful structure that is the culmination of our client’s and our vision and produce drawings that corral that idea into something more tangible on paper.

An architect’s office in the 1930’s. Unsurprisingly filled with drafting desks and men

IKB offices, present day

The key here is paper.  What used to be the ideal of the stereotypical “architect”, a professional that carries around a roll of drawings to the jobsite, is no longer as common.  In fact, other than freshly printed drawing sets headed towards a final destination, most of our work is stored safely within the confines of our computers - able to be accessed at a moment’s notice through the cloud.  To further push past the drafting desk, most offices now employ some type of 3D software, such as BIM (Building Information Modeling) or Sketchup, allowing the architect to build the structure as a realized 3D structure.  Back in the day, to understand how a building came together, one would draw a section.  Pulling lines from elevations and plans, the process to draw a detailed section would take a good day’s work.  With BIM technology, there are infinite sections already drawn – a few clicks of the mouse is all it takes to see if that troublesome staircase works.  We build the building before it’s built – try saying that five time fast.

A beautiful hand drafted building section from the École des Beaux-Arts


Sample drawings produced by a BIM program

With progress comes sacrifice, and it feels like the other half of what makes us architects is slowly becoming irrelevant.  There is no doubt that an old set drawn by hand carries with it a certain beauty.  While lacking the precise pixel nature of computer lines, the lines produced by lead holders had gotten the job done for centuries.  The technology of yesteryear, CAD, or Computer Aided Design, can achieve a similar look with numerous pen settings and layers.  While the result is not quite the same as hand drawing, it can come very close.  With BIM, you lose much of your control over how to represent your design.  From a pure aesthetic point of view, the drawings look raw and shy away from any of the artistic flair found in its predecessors.  The visual beauty of its drawing sets is not a priority, BIM is far more concerned with producing a comprehensive building model.

My work from the ND School of Architecture 

Hand drawing is not entirely dead.  There are still architecture schools that teach the art of hand drawing. To shamelessly plug my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture is one of these accredited programs that puts most of their focus on a strong foundation in hand drafting.  In fact, there are no computer classes to sign up for until the 4th year.  At IKB, our very own Joel Barkley and Alex Eng are also masters of drawing by hand.  In fact, the IKB entry gallery is filled with the watercolor presentations of Joel Barkley.

IKB New York office’s entry hall & gallery

The merits of hand drawing vs computer aided drawing can be debated endlessly – with no real winner in sight.  Technology is always progressing, and some day BIM will also seem antiquated compared to the exciting new programs that utilize virtual reality or augmented reality that are on the horizon.  With that said, it sure would be a shame to have to have the old adage “Putting pen to paper” no longer mean anything to the new crop of bright eyed and bushy tailed architects.