Tuesday, February 25, 2014

CAD: The Good and the Bad

Not so long ago, a well-equipped architect might have had the following items on his drawing board: A tee square or parallel rule; a couple of plastic drafting triangles; some templates for drawing circles, door swings, and the like; and a container bristling with an array of mechanical pencils. A really up-to-the-minute fellow might even boast an electric erasing machine, to help fix all the errors that inevitably cropped up as hand-drawn plans wound their way to completion. 

Today, of course, every one of these items is utterly obsolete, right down to the pencils--all swept away by the advent of computer-aided drafting, or CAD.  CAD produces invariably flawless lines, along with perfect lettering in any font or size. As for erasing, it’s now done quickly and spotlessly by tapping the Delete key. Hence, the drafting skills so diligently practiced by architects of my generation now rank roughly on par with the making of stovepipe hats. 

If you’re expecting a lament over the loss of the good old days, however, you won’t find it here. Computers have been an indisputable advance over the tedium of hand drafting, speeding the work and improving its quality by making changes and ccorrections so much easier. In the past, even minor revisions to a set of hand-drawn plans could involve hours of painstaking erasing and redrafting. With CAD, they may take only minutes. So dramatic is this shift from hand drafting to CAD that my own recollections of toiling at the drafting board--hands, arms, and elbows smudged in graphite and clothes dusted in eraser crumbs--now seem downright Dickensian.

Yet while CAD has revolutionized the production end of architectural practice, it has done surprisingly little to further the architect’s creativity. Instead, the computer has introduced a subtle yet unmistakable pressure on architects to design within its own parameters. CAD programs excel at drawing orthogonally and at copying and pasting, making it a cinch to churn out rigid designs with lots of repetition. However--heroic Frank Gehry-type exercises notwithstanding--most CAD programs remain clumsy and exasperating when asked to produce the sort of freeform work an architect of yore could conjure in seconds with pencil and paper.

Nonetheless, we architects seem to feel compelled to use the vast computing power at our disposal, and we often find ourselves spending dozens and sometimes hundreds of hours creating complex digital views of projects that might have been just as well conveyed by a quick pencil sketch.

As surely as CAD has liberated architects at the production end of the business, there’s little doubt that, consciously or not, many of us have also been constrained by its steely precision. It would be a rare CAD practitioner, for example, who could elicit the sort of lyrically patinated Spanish Revival work of an Addison Mizner, or the serpentine, near-caricature Storybook compositions of a William R. Yelland. Revisiting such pre-CAD masters quickly makes clear that in the most fundamental realm of architecture, the free exercise of the imagination, CAD still provides more encumbrance than encouragement. 

Monday, February 17, 2014


The other day I was eating breakfast at a cozy little diner called Sam’s Log Cabin, not far from where I live. The place is pretty much what its name suggests--a rustic little box of a building with log siding and a hipped roof. The inside is just as spartan as the outside: there’s no proper ceiling, and the roof rafters are plainly exposed to view. 

I was savoring my pancakes and bacon, idly regarding the unusual construction, when my eyes came upon a curious thing. Apparently the person who’d framed the roof made a whopping mistake and ended it in the wrong location. You could see where the angled hip rafters were framed in, as if the carpenter thought he’d reached the end of the building, and where additional rafters had been appended to continue the roof another eight feet or so. It was clear that this had happened at one time, because the next stage of the work--the boards covering the roof--plainly continued onto the patched-on part.

The intriguing thing wasn’t the error itself--in construction, mistakes happen all the time. Rather, it was that the evidence was still right there in front of everybody, frozen in time, so vivid and immediate that you could practically still hear the expletives bouncing off the rafters.

Compelling architecture, whether magnificent or mundane, seems to have a common property--an ability to record and reflect the traces of human presence. In a great Gothic cathedral, for instance, the original builders may speak to us through a skillful piece of joinery, a beautiful carving, a radiant expanse of stained glass. What’s more, we sense the presence of all those who’ve entered--the generations whose passage has worn a stairstep smooth, or whose grip has polished a bronze handle to a brilliant patina. 

But magnificent buildings aren’t the only ones with this property. Humble ones--a barracks, a barn, or a quirky little restaurant--can have it as well. And sometimes, the thing that engages us is nothing more remarkable than a plain old mistake.

That, after all, is what lured me from my pancakes into a reverie about what happened on the day that nameless carpenter framed the roof of Sam’s Log Cabin. Did he have something else on his mind--a sick child at home, an argument with a friend, an overdue rent payment? Or did he just down a few too many for lunch? 

We’ll never know for sure, but in any case, the exact hows and whys don’t matter. What matters is the momentary kinship with that person-- perhaps long gone--who was probably not so very different from us, and who has reached across time to give us a metaphorical nod of recognition. Sometimes that person touches us with beauty, and sometimes, as in this case, through a personal foible of the kind we’ve all experienced. Either way, the inert matter of architecture has briefly assumed the power to remind us of what it means to be human. Two pancakes, two eggs, two strips of bacon, and a quick lesson in humanity--not bad for $6.95. 

Monday, February 10, 2014


While much of the verbiage architects have churned out over the years has deservedly been forgotten, a number of phrases have managed to encapsulate, if not outright inspire, entire architectural movements. 

Among the best known yet least understood of these is Louis Sullivan’s “form follows function” (though to be precise, his actual words were “form ever follows function,” and he borrowed the phrase from the American sculptor Horatio  Greenough). Sullivan’s point was that, in architecture, practical need invariably trumps aesthetics  Yet subsequent generations of modernists often took these words to mean that anything nonfunctional--more specifically, ornament--had no place in architecture, period. Ironically, Sullivan, whose exquisite and highly personal style of ornament remains unmatched by any American architect before or since, would have been loathe to have his words inspire countless blank-walled buildings.

In 1908, the Viennese architect Adolf Loos penned an essay famously titled “Ornament and Crime,” whose English translation of 1913 opined: “The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects.” As extreme as this statement sounds today, it’s wise to remember it was made in the wake of a wearying half-century of bombastic Victorian architecture. No wonder Loos’s words struck home with rebellious young architect of the World War I era, inspiring a generation of architectural works both brilliant and barbarous.

Le Corbusier, another architect with a penchant for sweeping pronouncements, is widely credited with this humdinger: “Architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light.” It’s an especially curious inspiration for architects, since it manages to completely overlook architecture’s fundamental purpose--that of enclosing volume.

“Less is more,” Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s immortal entry into the architectural lexicon was, like Sullivan’s, often used by lesser talents to justify an architecture of nothingness and boredom. Oddly enough, another of Mies’s better-known phrases, “God is in the details,” would seem to state just the opposite of “less is more”--but perhaps what Mies really meant was that what little remained after being made “less” had better be awfully good. 

A generation later, Robert Venturi, among the first architects to declare Modernism an emperor with no clothes, ably countered Mies with “Less is a bore.” The Postmodern movement he spawned took these words to heart as fervently as had Mies’s followers the original--sometimes to good effect, sometimes not.

Of course, no A-list of architectural quotes would be complete without a few entries by Frank Lloyd Wright. At his most thoughtful, alas, Wright tended toward flowery, nineteenth century-style prose bereft of sound bites--one reason his terse insults seem better known than his architectural philosophy. However, one quote Wright made late in life not only proved good counsel to architects everywhere, but quickly entered the vernacular. In 1953, he told New York Times Magazine, “The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.” 

And on that note, a Wrightian comment to inspire architects and columnists alike: 
“I'm all in favor of keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of fools. Let's start with typewriters.”

Monday, February 3, 2014


Some years ago I was walking through an old Victorian house that was being renovated. In one room where the original wall framing was exposed, I found a curious bit of workmanship. One of the two-by-four studs had been carefully notched about halfway up, and a small hardwood wedge had been driven in. After a moment’s study, the reason became clear: the two-by-four had been badly bowed, and rather than cutting it up for some lesser purpose, the Victorian carpenter had used an age-old but effective trick to make it straight again. Then he’d installed the mended stud in the wall along with the rest.

Why all this effort to save a single stick of lumber? The answer demands some historical context. In Victorian times, labor was cheap, but building materials were not. Hence, a carpenter would think twice before tossing out a crooked two-by-four if a few minutes work could make it useable. The carpenter’s time, after all, was a trifling expense compared to the cost of that two-by-four.

Today, the situation is exactly reversed. Lumber and many other building materials are relative bargains compared to the cost of labor, which typically consumes at least two-thirds of the building budget. Hence, a modern-day carpenter wouldn’t bother fixing a crooked stud because, given his hourly wage, the time he spent would easily exceed the value of the lumber he was saving.

There’s no doubt that this situation often leads to unnecessary waste, because it’s ultimately cheaper to use extra material if it speeds up the work. For instance, a hefty 4-by-12  header is typically installed over windows and doors even when it’s structurally unnecessary, simply because it takes less time to install than numerous smaller pieces of lumber. 

On the bright side, though, escalating labor costs have actually forced the construction industry to become faster and more efficient. Among the earliest labor-savers were fully pre assembled windows, which arrived in the 1930s (previously, windows were built on site, either from stock parts or entirely from scratch). 

The construction exigencies of World War II spurred another great labor saver--gypsum wallboard. So-called “drywall” did away with the tedious process of wet plastering, which entailed nailing up thousands of feet of wooden lath, applying three separate coats of plaster, and waiting for days while each coat dried. 

After these developments came pre-hung doors, manufactured roof trusses, modular cabinets, and all the other prefabricated components so important to reducing onsite labor. There’s no doubt that mass-producing components in a purpose-built factory, immune from weather, dirt, and damage, is more efficient than building them onsite. The only downside is a subtle but unmistakable aesthetic change: As houses increasingly trend toward being mere assemblies of manufactured items, most of what meets the eye--windows, doors, cabinets--has the unvarying consistency you’d expect from mass-produced products. 

Hence, there’s less and less distinction among houses, and fewer and fewer traces of the individual prerogative that was a hallmark of hand craftsmanship. This, I suppose, is the price we pay--for the prices we’re paying.