Médina Pathways

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.

Matters of Scale

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.

Have You Ever…?

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 Essential Emptiness

“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.

Seattle Art Museum


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.

Drawing as Speculation

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.


A quote from the Irish Literary Times: “Punctuation creates sense, clarity, and stress in sentences. It structures and organizes your writing.” I wonder if there is an equivalent element or principle in drawing that would also serve to create “sense, clarity, and stress” and organize the composition of a drawing.

Sense = Meaning; Clarity = Sharpness; Stress = Focus

The Principle of Contrast

Back in 2012, I had posted a few examples of how I used contrasting tonal values to define form and draw attention to a particular area in a sketch. In this post, I want to expand on the idea of contrast—the discernible distinctions in line weight, tonal values, textures, details, and even relative position on a page—that is essential to avoiding blandness and giving life to a drawing. Here are examples of the different kinds of contrast at our disposal. Note how the visual tension between the two contrasting elements or areas contribute to the composition of a drawing.

Amazon’s Spheres


An ad-hoc group of Seattle Urban Sketchers met this past Friday at the Via6 apartment and retail complex, right across the street from these spheres being erected at the heart of Amazon’s urban campus. It’s been almost a year since I first drew these steel-and-glass orbs under construction (see sketch below.)

Even though some may find curves to be difficult to capture, spheres are actually quite easy to draw in perspective because they are always seen as circles; they only vary in size, depending on their scale and distance from us. The drawing of circles themselves, however, can be daunting. I find that using a smooth, continuous, lightly drawn stroke works better than a series of short, jerky strokes. The difficult part of drawing these spheres, then, is how to suggest the surface pattern of the steel- and-glass panels, and to convey the overall roundness of the orbs.

Drawing these spheres a second time brought to mind a question. I wonder why the clients or designers chose to use an organic framing pattern rather than an established prefabricated structure, such as Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic system.