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The Medium Matters

When I was a child, my artist mother encouraged me to draw. I saw her drawings and watched her watercolor, loving how she could capture the way she saw the world in ways that I could understand and enjoy. Today, even in her 80’s, she still makes paintings that make me jealous, as I have never learned her favorite medium of watercolor. For Christmas this year she gave me one of her sketchbooks, and I cherish it like no other gift she has given me, because it reflects her greater gift that inspired me to be an artist too.

When I was studying architecture at Penn in 1972, our first course was initiated by a professor taking us to sit in the shadow of one of Lou Kahn’s most famous buildings at that time, and with only a pad of paper and a fountain pen full of India ink, told to start drawing what we saw. It was the hardest thing I had ever tried. There were no erasers, and the perspective was very difficult, because Lou Kahn’s building was so perfectly expressive of his complex idea.

Since then, I have spent my entire life learning how to really see things, and how to draw them accurately and expressively. I have used this skill to be able to create a great many buildings and places, first to create primitive plans, sections and elevations, then to make perspective sketches, and eventually to draw out complicated details on graph paper for others to draft and compile into construction drawings. Ten years ago, I thought I was really good enough at hand drawing that I had only to keep doing this to complete my career.

Then the Global Economic Crisis came and took away almost all my helpers, and I had to learn how to draw in a completely new way. I taught myself how to draw in three dimensional computer programs that were faster, and much more accurate and compelling at modeling the buildings and places I dreamt up. I could see them at different times of day, and try out different materials and textures. I could populate my new models with people and trees and streetscape elements that gave these dreams scale and shadows and animation. I fell in love with this new way of drawing, and was able to attract some very large clients with very large dreams by showing them these models. These clients also loved how the models could be edited to play “what if” in ways that my beautiful hand drawings could not.

But that was not the best part. I discovered something even more important about digital 3D models–that they allowed me to work with other designers in our office, by letting them edit the same models. Passing back and forth, letting others add ideas and depth and detail, these models became living things. Some programs even allow several of us to work on the same model at the same time!

This is why in the 21st Century medium matters so much. All processes–not just drawing–are now much more collaborative than ever before. The architect, owner, engineer, builder, and operator are all actively engaging in collaborative building design management, along with other specialists. Using a medium that cannot be edited and added to creatively just doesn’t make sense any more. It would be like using a chisel to try to make a space ship.

I have recently witnessed why the old medium of hand drawing and analog models just can’t compete with the 21st Century ways. An architect stood in front of his gorgeous hand drawings, and equally impressive scale model of a building, explaining that it couldn’t be changed to a critic that had proposed a dramatic improvement. The model was done. And yet I knew that if the more compelling medium were being used, that idea could have been tried, and studied and incorporated to enhance the proposed design with relative ease. When the medium stops good ideas from happening, it is time to make a change.

I still love to draw. I especially enjoy making impressionist pastel drawings of places I visit. These cannot be made by computers, and are very difficult to copy or reproduce. But when I want to convert building dreams into reality, I use a completely different and collaborative medium. The medium matters.

Patrick Shay, LEED AP, AIA President, Gunn Meyerhoff Shay Architects, PC


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