Monday, December 5, 2016


The sensual feel of a soft pencil gliding across clean vellum
has been replaced by a lot of clinical tapping.
Architecture, that most hidebound of professions, was long ago won over by the computer. CAD (Computer Aided Design), once the exclusive domain of huge architecture firms, is now virtually the rule in one person offices as well. 

In the main, CAD has been a blessing to the architectural profession. Having begun my practice in pre-computer days, I can testify that CAD has taken much of the now medieval-seeming drudgery out of architecture. By replacing paper and pencil with a computer screen, architects are no longer smudged with graphite by day’s end. Likewise, the hours of messy erasure once required to revise drawings is now a neat and simple matter of point and click. Powerful capabilities such as virtual reality are soon to come. 
Would architecture such as that of
William R. Yelland ever have
arisen on CAD....?
(Normandy Village,
Berkeley, California, begun 1926)

However, there's no denying that CAD has taken some of the romance out of architecture as well.   The sensual feel of a soft pencil gliding across clean vellum, leaving a crisp and charismatic hand-drawn line, has been replaced by the clinical tapping of keys and mouse buttons.               

Neither can the computer compensate for a lack of creativity. An architect who’s incompetent on paper is just as dangerous on a computer—his lines are straighter, that’s all. In fact, by concealing sloppy thinking in a tidy-looking presentation, computer drafting sometimes legitimizes a caliber of work that would otherwise not be passable. 

CAD contains booby traps even for accomplished architects. Too many are seduced by the easy flashiness of computer drawings, sometimes to the point where the process supersedes the product. For one thing, the tempting ability to copy and paste details with a computer can make an architect lazy, and it shows in some CAD-produced work. Details, and sometimes whole sections of buildings, become repetitive and rigid. 
...or Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamps (1954)?

Operations that are difficult on a computer can influence designs as well. For example, drawing complex curves is quick and natural with a pencil, but relatively cumbersome with CAD. Hence, an architect may relent—consciously or not—to the simpler option of using straight lines instead. The idiom of the computer begins to dictate the idiom of the architect.  

In fact, it’s inconceivable that the fantastical, free-form Hansel-and-Gretel cottages of an architect like William R. Yelland—or even the sinuous carved details of Bernard Maybeck—could ever have arisen on CAD. The process is just too rational. Ditto for highly sculptural masterpieces like LeCorbusier’s soaring chapel at Ronchamps, which has scarcely a straight line or simple curve in it. This very shortcoming is, ironically, why an architect such as Frank Gehry requires a whole army of drafters using massive computing power to even approach the freedom of a hand-drawn design.
Ironically, it now takes a whole army of CAD technicians
to create a building that aims to look hand-drawn.
(Frank Gehry, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 2003)

Progress always brings tradeoffs, however. And as CAD programs continue to become more intuitive, designing on a computer may one day one day become almost as natural as drawing with a pencil.  

At the same time, though, we should recognize that architecture is closer to social science than rocket science. Architects must satisfy human beings, not just sets of numerical parameters. While computers can can help us sort out the cold-blooded logistics of door sizes and floor heights, they’re less useful in the creation of passionate architecture. They can never equal the power of a pencil in a sympathetic hand.


  1. Hi Arrol,
    In April 2007 we read an short article written by you entitled "Hey Blockhead". Can you post that article again, we would like cite it in a book we're writing about concrete block.
    Thank you!
    Barbara & Ron Marshall

  2. Barbara and Ron,
    It took a little digging, but I did find that article (under another name, naturally), and I'll post it next Monday. Thanks for your interest, and good luck with your book.