Hand Meets Machine
After drawing or painting on a still life arrangement, students mark the objects with a system of measurements to explore the computational aspects of drawing.
For the 70 first-year graduate and undergraduate students required to take the fall 2012 course Architectural Projection, the first assignment couldn’t have been more straightforward. Draw a still life from a fixed point of view, using any medium – charcoal, pencil, paint.
What came next, explains Professor Christopher Bardt BArch 83, was a far less obvious assignment, but one that gets at the essence of architectural practice: moving visual information between the page and the object in a systematic, measurable way.
“They started with something familiar – the still life – and that was a moment of great confidence for most students,” says Bardt, coordinator of the experimental two-part course. “Then we said, ‘OK, now do something weird. This time, draw on your still life. Take the information you recorded in your drawing and project it back onto the surface of the arranged objects.
“As a form of logic it’s very basic, but now here they were, having a really hard time: ‘What do you mean? How can you do that?’” Bardt says. “It really messed with their heads, but that’s when the big breakthrough happened. And the breakthrough they’ve come to understand is that drawing is inherently computational.”
With both Architectural Projection and its companion spring semester course Architectural Analysis, Bardt and his colleagues have radically reimagined the department’s core curriculum. In doing so, they are staking out ambitious new ground in the way architecture is taught, designing a pedagogy that joins the authorship of hand-drawn design with the technology of computer-generated models.
“At RISD computing is not just a topic, it’s an act – an act that allows it to be fused with sensibility in drawing,” notes Professor and Department Head Kyna Leski, who developed the new curriculum in conjunction with Bardt. “Drawing is the language of architecture. We don’t make buildings; we make drawings to communicate to others who make buildings. Throughout history, each time the drawing convention shifts in architecture, the architecture has shifted. And we are currently at the bow of a new movement.”
In launching a new vision for its program, the Architecture department has designed courses that resonate deeply with students’ love of media and the critical approach to making that is at the heart of the RISD experience.
“At RISD we have students who come to architecture with tactile and manual skills that are very strong,” says Assistant Professor Pari Riahi, who is among four faculty members teaching the new courses. “This is a clear attempt to build on those strengths and find ways to marry two distinct realms – the digital and the manual – in a way that’s meaningful and establishes a real fluency and navigation between the two.”
The exercise of drawing freehand back onto objects turns out to be a powerful catalyst, as students begin to see their marks as lines and points that can be measured, mapped and entered into a software program as numerical data points.
“As students I think we often scratched our heads at the beginning, because what we were being asked to do didn’t seem to relate to architecture,” says Matthew Osborn MArch 15. “But more and more we’re seeing the work as extremely valuable and relevant. It’s asking us to think systematically about how to capture information, but also to think experimentally about how to find innovative approaches to problems.”
With the rise of computer-generated modeling in the last 20 years, architecture programs have responded by introducing more and more advanced coursework in digital representation, either entirely divorced from draughtsmanship or sometimes replacing it altogether.
That computational training is essential, Bardt says. But the dominance of computer software has led to an increasing anonymity and sameness in architecture – at a time when imagination and creativity are essential for architects seeking to address complex global problems.
“When students only learn digital means, they have no understanding of projection, and the connection between active drawing and imaginative making,” says Assistant Professor Carl Lostritto, who also teaches the new curriculum. “When they work only manually it seems difficult and slow and pointless, because they know they’re going to learn the software that can produce the same result in two minutes.”
It’s a dilemma all architecture programs face, and one that’s driving the current exploration at RISD. “How can we understand projection in a deep, compelling way that doesn’t feel arcane?” Bardt asks.
“What’s compelling to us, and what we want students to understand, is that authorship is important – that their engagement with the world in an ethical fashion requires authorship,” Bardt says. “The big-picture issues where architects have a role to play – sustainability, global inequality – those issues can’t be worked on unless there are authors willing to do it. And that’s the sensibility underlying these courses.” –Francie Latour