I had been mulling the building of a wood storage shelter for a while. At first, I would occasionally visualize the basic structure in my head and imagine how it could be assembled and what types of connections were needed. Thinking in this way, I could picture the structure both as a whole as well as up close to look at details and revise it over time.
As the time to actually build approached, it was time to put the ideas down on paper to verify my preliminary thoughts. Thinking on a sheet of grid paper with a simple pencil, I resorted to a convention that is now somewhat outmoded but still useful to work out spatial relationships in three dimensions—multiview drawings. I moved back and forth between related plan, section, and elevation views to resolve and lay out the sizes, lengths, and spacings of the wood members.
The intent of these simple sketches was not to produce a finished set of working drawings but rather to figure out the basic set of relationships that could guide construction and also to produce a basic bill of materials.
The Seattle Tower is a 27-story high-rise located at 1218 Third Avenue. Originally known as the Northern Life Tower when it was completed in 1929, the Art-Deco building was designed by Abraham H. Albertson in association with Joseph W. Wilson and Paul D. Richardson. Although not as tall as the Smith Tower, it rose one floor above “the tallest building west of the Mississippi” because it is situated at a higher elevation. A subtle design feature are the 33 shades of brick that progressively lighten as the structure rises from its base on Third Avenue.
The Seattle Tower is now dwarfed by newer, taller skyscrapers but it retains its elegant and distinctive Art-Deco roots. It is City of Seattle Landmark number 137 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
This last view if of the main elevator lobby, looking toward the entrance doors.
The Seattle Urban Sketchers group met at the Lenin stature in the Fremont neighborhood this past Sunday morning. Despite the, for Seattle, hot sun and extremely warm temperature, I managed to find a shady spot from which to draw this view along the alley between North 35th and North 36th Streets.
Alleys are interesting places. In addition to serving as conduits for goods and services, they provide more intimate views of the back sides of buildings and other structures, which we mostly see from their more public fronts.
If you look closely, you will notice the stray lines that indicate my several attempts to get the building forms in proper proportion, relative to the width of the view. It’s important to realize that it is extremely difficult to execute a drawing without any of these stray lines unless one draws first in pencil before inking over and erasing the pencil lines. I prefer using only ink and letting the process of building a drawing show through.
The Médina of Fès is one of the largest car-free urban zones in the world and through its pathways people and goods flow like the blood coursing through our arteries and veins. Because of their narrowness, it seems awkward to call these pathways “streets” although that is how they function. In addition to serving as paths for people and conduits for goods carried by handcart or donkey, these “streets” serve as informal social spaces and as extensions of small commercial establishments.
There are generally three scales, ranging from main streets as seen in the first image above, to side streets, and finally to back streets as narrow as a meter wide as seen in the images below.
This post is not about drawing. Rather, it concerns the issue of scale—the relative sizes of things and how we perceive this comparison—which is relevant to both drawing and design.
The historic core of the Médina of Fès, Fes el Bali, was founded in the late 9th century as the capital of the Idrisid Dynasty. The médina is full of souks and artisans working in leather, copper, brass, wood, textiles, and ceramics, and is home to historic mosques, mausoleums, and madrasas, as well as Al-Karaouine, founded in 859 and considered to be the oldest continuously operating university in the world. Markets line its car-free streets and sell all manner of herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, the Médina of Fès remains to this day a medieval town in layout and scale, with a dense, low-rise building fabric, and narrow streets.
Returning home to Seattle from Fès, I find it difficult to convey the differences in scale and density of the two urban environments. Above, I overlaid (I hope accurately) the plan of the Médina of Fès atop a map of a portion of Seattle to indicate their relative sizes. What cannot be seen, however, are the relative population densities of the two urban areas. That of Seattle is around 6,800/square mile while that of the Médina is roughy 70,000/square mile. Even if my calculations are off by a little, that is a significant difference in scale that is difficult to understand without actually experiencing it.
Whenever we do a drawing or sketch, we typically intend to do our very best, even if the results do not always match our expectations. Like a conversation, the drawing process can sometimes lead in a direction we could not foresee when we started. As it evolves on paper, a sketch can take on a life of its own and we should be open to the possibilities the emerging image suggests. This is part of the thrill of drawing—to work with the image on a journey of discovery.
So a strange thought came to mind—is it possible, in a conscious, deliberate manner, to do a “bad” drawing? Have you ever considered doing a “bad” drawing from the outset? I personally think this would be a very difficult thing to do.
The heart of sumi-e style paintings is their negative spaces, which viewers can fill in according to their imagination. Here are a few sketches attempting to make use of the same principle.
“We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing
that the utility of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing
that the utility of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
and it is on these spaces where there is nothing
that the utility of the house depends.
Therefore, just as we take advantage of what is,
we should recognize the utility of what is not.”
Tao Te Ching
6th century BC
A related Japanese aesthetic concept is MA, the essential emptiness that surrounds all things. Think of the spaces necessary to form words from a sequence of letters, or the silences that make the music from a sequence of notes.
This is the original lobby of the Seattle Art Museum, designed by Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates in 1991, before the museum was expanded in 2006 in a design by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture. A grand staircase traverses the rise from First to Second Avenues, mirrored on the outside with a similar set of stairs.
For comparison, below is the same view from 6 years ago, showing how I struggled with the issues of proportion and scale.
Taking a break from drawing on location, I am sharing two pages from Drawing: A Creative Process, a book I wrote and illustrated in 1990. I am referencing here drawing as a means of making thoughts and ideas visible, which is pertinent to the use of hand drawing in the design process. The discussion is not so much about technique as it is about the attitude with which one draws.