Trace and Architecture School

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Three days ago I posted on the Instagram a super artistic photo, which prompted a discussion with an old tutor (not by age, he just tutored me in my first year at uni). There was some banter in our to-and-fro, but two main comments stick out, which is the basis of this post. It’s wildly talked about that drawing in architecture school is an dying process, with many opting for computers. At this current stage in life, I have no real authority to talk about that, I don’t watch my classmates process with an eye of a hawk. I can however talk about my own process and how it has evolved since beginning my architecture studies.

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These days I usually start each project with a roll of trace and/or a sketchbook, and some pens, usually sharpies, and sometimes I use some Copic markers to help colour code. I would also have a couple printed sheets of the site at various scales so I can overlay my trace and start to think about laying out the program on site, while sketching some ideas or making notes in my sketchbook. During this stage I look at site layouts, plans in both bubble diagram form and more concise plans, elevations, sections and I sometimes try and draw a perspective.

During this initial stage where I’m testing ideas, sometimes I jump into SketchUp to do a quick massing model. Now before you jump down my throat about me using a computer early in the design process, hear me out. I’m currently working on Living Proof Studio, which for me is a community centre and social housing mixed with an urban spine. Naturally I am aiming to design the social housing to be as passive as possible, ensuring there is good northern sun to the private living and outdoor spaces. I had an idea about the rough shape of the housing complex, thinking it will be effective in ensuring good sun-access, and wanted to test the overshadowing. I opened up SketchUp, imported the site, quickly modeled the buildings (a very basic mass model) and ran the shadow tool over it. I was able to test various heights, adjust the rotation and overall see which areas would be cast in shadows at 3pm during the winter solstice.

Once I closed off SketchUp, I went back to my roll of trace and sharpies, having an understanding of shadows now. Right now, I have also used Revit in this studio, to produce a figure ground (which will be used in my mid-semester presentation) but that is the extent of using computer-aided-drawing. Besides a quick mass-model, I haven’t drawn plans, or sections, or more detailed models (except for our master plan presentation, but that is separate to this).

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“… That was more a question of tracing being something students don’t use nowadays #OldSchool

I haven’t always been a big user of trace or the sketchbook, in fact if I show you my sketchbooks you will see this (note to self, make a video or post about that). My first two studios at university I was quick to jump on the computer, using the excuse “Oh but least I know it will be drawn to the correct size” and other bull-shit like that. It wasn’t until the Artifex:Fabrica studio, where my tutor really pushed me to just keep sketching and using trace. I think I nearly went broke from buying a couple rolls of yellow trace but that studio really changed the way I look at how I approach a project.

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“… I just find that with those 25 sheets, you can track design thinking, thought, process. You can’t do that deleting and remodelling/cadding things on a a screen. Don’t even get me started on the lack of awareness for scales.”

Those 25 sheets he mentions, that’s how many sheets of trace I used in the stage leading up to writing my brief for my current studio. I started out just drawing blocks, and as I started to develop my brief, I would start to develop the blocks. I would lay another sheet of trace over and see what would happen if I angled a main wall in another direction, or if I was to rotate the housing in this direction. None of those drawings are in anyway an indication of the “shape” of the building, but more-so as a means to see how much area I have to work with. I don’t think I could have achieved the same level of understanding if I did this exercise on the computer, not to mention I wouldn’t have much of a record of it. If I would lay it in order, you could see the progress and my thinking, including the lovely wishful arrows.

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So is drawing dying in architecture school? It could be, but for me it is very much alive. Yes there will be a stage in the process where I will move to a computer to produce neat floor plans, sections, perspectives, etc etc for mid-sem review. However this is where a few students tend to think it’s time to put away the sketchbook and trace, and focus on their CAD model. For me, this is where the sketchbook and trace become even more important. You don’t want to get bogged down trying to resolve a problem in your plan, or section, or elevation treatment on the computer. I’ve tried this, it never works. What does work is printing off your current floor plan, rolling out some trace and draw. Then lay another piece of trace on top, and draw again. Just keep repeating this process until you get to a level of resolution, then go back to your CAD model and make the change.

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For me, the design process for the entire duration of does involve the use of the trace, a sketchbook, SketchUp, Revit and Photoshop and some model making. However it is never a start-stop-start, as in I don’t start with trace, stop, then start in Revit and never use trace again. I am constantly going back-and-fourth between the mediums, but one thing is certain, a good chunk of the early design work is done with a roll of baking paper, a sharpie and my sketchbook.

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