This summer, I spent a couple weeks with my family in the tiny, historic fishing village of Sandy Cove, Nova Scotia.
Although changes in the fishing industry have caused most of the population to move on, the town remains intact as the descendants of the original inhabitants continue to maintain their ancestral homes, returning every year to spend a few weeks. The houses and churches are, for the most part, in excellent condition, a testament to the efforts of their custodians but also to the inherent durability of their simple, but elegant, designs.
Picturesque, quiet, and isolated, it got me thinking about the professional significance of architectural drawing.
Sitting on a rock, drawing a ruined fisherman’s shed; it became clear that this contemplative activity forces one to carefully observe materials, light and shadow, and volumetric relationships. For architects in particular, it is a very efficient way to develop a comprehensive understanding of a place. Just sitting there, exposed to the elements, observing the structure of plants and trees, and watching people come and go, is still the only way to gain this understanding – there’s no app for that.
It also provides an opportunity to try to understand decisions made by the place’s makers. For example, the fishing shed I was drawing was similar to many seaside maritime structures in that it had a comical number of piles or columns supporting it.
The idea seems to have been ‘if one column is good, ten must be better.’ The columns are typically installed in a seemingly random manner, as if by a Swiss modernist on a psycho-pharmaceutical bender. While drawing this shed, which has long since been abandoned by its builders, it occurred to me why these structures were built this way. Set on a rocky shore, there was no opportunity to drive piles into the soil.
Therefore, columns could only rest on the smooth surface of the stone. In the event of a storm, when large waves would roll up onto the shore, the foundations of the buildings were vulnerable to being knocked away, carrying the building with it. The extreme structural redundancy, along with wedging the columns into the random fissures on the surface, meant that the building could stand even with a few columns missing. Indeed that was the case with this abandoned shed, illustrating both the effectiveness of this method and the resiliency of balloon-framed structures. Schooled only by experience, the builders of this shed found a simple and economical solution to a demanding environmental challenge.
I have no idea if this theory is correct, but the act of drawing the structure gave me the opportunity to reflect on the process of building it.
Like most firms today, mine makes extensive use of CAD, building information modeling, scheduling software, and even some more esoteric technologies like LiDAR scanning. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that being able to communicate spontaneously in drawing form, on paper, distinguishes architects from other professionals. Being able to work out a detail on the fly, describing a solution on the surface of some scrap material on a job site remains as important a part of the architect’s skill set as it was two thousand years ago. Similarly, the hand sketch provides a sense of assurance to clients, I believe, that an actual skilled professional is responsible for the design of their project, not an algorithm or a cut-and-paste operation.
We’re all familiar with the Slow Food movement, which celebrates local ingredients and traditional methods for their preparation. Perhaps we also need some Slow Architecture today. If so, it will begin with drawing, by hand, and on paper.
Allan Teramura, MRAIC is the Architecture Canada | RAIC regional director for Ontario North, East and Nunavut. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org