Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand
By J. Michael Welton
Routledge, 236 pp.

Historically, drawing has been the lingua franca of architects, but today, software reigns. 3D modeling has displaced hand-drawing and photorealist renderings are the standardthe only way to meet client expectations, gain commissions and win competitions. Thinking with one’s hands risks becoming a precious artisanal aspect of the practice, confined to private ideation sessions among colleagues and clients, as it fades from the public conception of building design. In fact, many innovative new projects are effectively impossible to draw by hand.

Wake Forest-based architecture journalist J. Michael Welton, editor of the new book Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand, aims to restore the heritage of drawing to the authentic architectural vision it represents. Welton talked to 26 high-profile firms, several of them based in North Carolina, about the importance of drawing to their practice. The conversations prove that at its root, architecture is still an artistic discipline.

“Our biggest deliverable is a drawing,” says Erin Sterling Lewis of in situ studio. The work of this bright young Raleigh firm, led by Lewis and Matthew Henning Griffith, is represented in the book by the energy-efficient, light-infused Chasen Residence on East Hargett Street. The firm’s latest project is a local, modern apartment building, The Ten at South Person.

Lewis’ participation at the book launch, which took place May 19 at the AIA NC Center for Architecture and Design, was particularly refreshing. She talked about the joy of drawing at client and firm meetings, where there is always a box of pens and pencils on the table for collectively working on a design. The resulting drawings may be indecipherable to an outsider, but they’re essential to the next, more precise, stages of concept development. At in situ, drawings help to contextualize site-scaping, topography and adjacenciesand they foster the client’s engagement. A visit to the firm’s office is comparable to an exhibition where works-in-progress are tacked to a wall that stretches the entire length of the studio.

Other local architects in the book expound on their intention to use drawing as a principal means of communication: Ellen Cassilly of Chapel Hill art studio and gallery Cassilhaus; Raleigh’s Frank Harmon; Boone’s Chad Everhart; and Phil Freelon of Perkins+Will in Durham, one of the biggest names here.

Best known as one of the designers behind the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Freelon’s name has been floating on the unofficial shortlist to build President Obama’s presidential library (the President already appointed Freelon to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts). He is also responsible for the notable cyclone-shaped parking structure at RDU International Airport. At the launch, he cited Paul Rudolph’s parking decks as an influencean estimable reference for a design category that is too often overlooked by serious architects.

Reclaiming drawing is an honorable charge, but the real takeaway from Drawing From Practice is that despite the currency of medium-specific trends, designers should feel liberated to use any and all available tools to deliver a compelling solution. Laurinda Spear of Miami-based Arquitectonica hired a full-time writer to craft proposals, editorials, brochures and miscellaneous text. Witold Rybczynski quit architecture altogether to become a successful writer and critic, authoring books on everything from Palladio to shopping malls. But even as this toolkit expands, Drawing From Practice holds the line for the architect’s most basic driveto physically make a markin its oldest, most essential form.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Holding the Line.”