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Thinking through drawing

Why drawing is a fundamental element that should always be part of the design process

When an artist draws from life, he draws what he sees and interprets it in his own way – the observer perceives the subject through the artist’s eyes. However, when an architect is designing, he draws what he is thinking and the drawings are part of the creative process. The artist’s work is an end in itself, while the architect’s sketch is perhaps just the start of a great building.

The creative process in architecture is complex and hard to define, but when ideas are generated, the simplest way of communicating them is by drawing. As Le Corbusier is reputed to have said, ‘I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster and leaves less room for lies.’



King’s Cross Gasholders: the development process can been seen from the very early conceptual sketches at competition stage, through to an explanation of the ‘watchmaker’ narrative, to general arrangement drawings and cladding details. It is an extremely complex project in which 145 luxury apartments are constructed within the refurbished Victorian cast-iron frames. Each of the gasholder frames has a different diameter and the radial geometry complicates the layout and construction. The project, which is now close to completion, was started in 2002 and has successfully maintained the original concept. This may, in part, be due to the number of sketches that occur in several different sketchbooks over the duration of the project which work alongside more than 1,000 CAD and Revit drawings

For me, the design process starts with getting to know the brief and analysing the site context. This is followed by a series of sketches in which I explore ideas as they come through. These early drawings may lead somewhere, or just trigger a thought process for discussion with other members of the design team.

Of course, they only form part of the process, which includes parametric modelling and form finding as a vitally important part of the design. My concern is that many architects are missing out on the drawing stage and moving straight from first thoughts into believable and seductive imagery in a very short time.



Maggie’s Centre at Oxford: the early sketches explore the concept of a ‘tree house’. These progress with CAD drawings, CGIs and an exploded axonometric projection that shows the fully worked-out concept of the building. Its complex geometry of slipped triangular planes, constructed out of cross-ply laminated timber, is intended to conjure up a sense of drama and mystery in what is effectively a single-storey building. The design uses the sloping site to bring visitors up among the trees with the belief that contact with nature is helpful for people when they are ill or suffering from stress. Photographs of the completed building show the results of the design process that started with a sketch

There are dangers arising from this approach, where the scheme looks finished before it has been properly resolved. It is always difficult to backtrack and the client may believe that everything works properly, when it doesn’t. A freehand sketch can often convey the concept and the design intent, while still leaving scope for design development.

I also believe that the act of drawing helps to stimulate ideas. Although a blank piece of paper can be intimidating, it helps to start by drawing what you know and allowing ideas to flow, which then have to be tested before being developed to the next stages.



Mary Rose Museum: in a very different project, early sketches show the conceptual ideas for the layout which works from the inside-out, with the Mary Rose in the centre of the dry dock that becomes the ‘shiphall’ in the completed building. The building takes its toroidal geometry from the shape of the ship’s hull and is designed to fit into its unusual context alongside Admiral Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory and the Admiralty buildings in Portsmouth’s historic dockyard. A sensitively illustrated CAD plan and section show the developed design in a realistic but painterly way, marking the turning point from concept to believable form

Whether for a commission or competition, architects are increasingly under pressure to produce quick design solutions and it is important to have a process that you can rely on. Working through options is common practice but surely it must be more efficient to work through ideas at sketch stage before deciding how to proceed?

Four projects by Wilkinson Eyre are featured in the Thinking through Drawing exhibition, which focuses on the design process from early sketches to CAD, CGIs, working drawings and construction photographs. On show at the British School at Rome, the exhibition continues some of the thinking behind last year’s show at the Royal Academy in London with the same name but, by concentrating on only four projects, it is able to illustrate how the early sketches influence the design, and ultimately the built form.



Dyson Campus at Malmesbury: developed over 20 years in collaboration with the design and manufacturing company of Sir James Dyson, early sketches in my 1994 sketchbook show the concept of the wavy roof which floats over the trees on the edge of the historic Wiltshire city of Malmesbury, together with sketch details of the entrance pavilions worked out in a design session with the engineer, Tony Hunt. A later sketchbook shows the masterplan for an extended site and concept sketch for the recently completed D9 Design, Research and Development Building, clad in huge mirror glass cladding panels, measuring 5m x 3m each. The sketch has a note saying ‘keep it simple’ and the photographs show a minimalist glazed facade with no decoration except for the delicate tubular steel escape stairs, which serve each corner of the building. The reflections of these stairs, together with the surrounding landscape, successfully enliven the glazed facades. Alongside D9 is the Lightning Café, serving 1,000 meals a day, as well as snacks and coffee. It is also home to one of James Dyson’s treasures, a beautifully preserved English Electric Lightning supersonic jet from the 1960s which hangs majestically in the lofty space, giving it a distinctive atmosphere to inspire the creative workforce. With this project, perhaps more than most, the sketches formed an important part of the collaborative dialogue with the client – Dyson was personally involved through the process

I am concerned that fewer architects are using freehand drawing as part of the design process and are relying more and more on computers. For me and for generations of architects before me, drawing has been an essential part of life. I believe there is something about the eye-brain-hand coordination that seems to stimulate ideas, just as it serves to communicate them. It can also be said that although rendering conveys a design in a superbly accurate way, a freehand sketch can often express the emotions and thinking behind the concept, which can be more successful.

I hope drawing will always remain part of the architectural process.