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. 

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