from section i
Chapter 2: The Unruly Sketch
In conversation we rely on language to convey our thoughts. Our visual imaginings are translated into words. However, these are often muddled and unrefined, and it becomes impossible to find effective words in a moment of creation.
When armed with the tools of drawing, pen and paper, a conversation has a chance to go a lot further. Thoughts can be transmitted as a series of lines, symbols, and unstructured words, that construct the narrative. As the elements take shape, you can add others until you think you see where it is all going. Then you can move a line, add a word, or delete an arrow. People will immediately see what you are thinking and what you are starting to formulate in your mind’s eye. Our visual minds are so much more powerful than the spoken and the written languages we use to communicate.
It is easier to explore and share your ideas with the help of images, signs, and symbols on the page. In conversation, one person’s ideas stack upon those of others, and it is the same when a sketch is drawn. If everyone can see and hear your ideas, it becomes easier for people to join in and contribute to them. I call this collaborative process Co-Creation. It is a process through which sketches become the synthesis of various people’s ideas recorded in time. It is when the sketch acts as a springboard to launch ideas from many individuals.
There is power in capturing a thought in the moment. Even when alone, you can translate your ideas into something tangible which lives on paper you will revisit. If an idea is not captured in the moment, you risk losing it—and with that, its capacity to be extended in the future.
A sketch captures thought. Once made visible, a thought can be shared, contemplated, changed, and built upon. You start a sketch the same way you start a sentence—you think there is something to say and you say it. You don’t know exactly what will spill out, or make its way onto the page, but, whether it is a conversation with yourself or with others, it is best to incorporate a sketch. My favourite time is when people join in and have a conversation around a single sketch; that’s when you know you are really sharing the creation of something. It is deeply satisfying to co-create a building, or even a piece, or small detail of a building.
Unlike the formal drawing, a sketch is expected to be thrown away because it is simply a step toward a greater creation. It is a tool for testing and sharing ideas, and its destination is the final form of a building.
Models, in addition to two-dimensional, drawn sketches, are valuable for communication. I was first introduced to structural engineering principles via the use of physical models, and they have had a profound impact on the way I think and feel as an engineer. Models can be made to show three-dimensional arrangements of structure in ways that even lay people can understand. They can also be made to perform in the same ways that the structure at full-scale will perform, exemplifying hardness or softness in all the right places. Models help us to think about how things could be made, and how the structure might be constructed on site. In addition to enabling communication and collaboration between architects, clients, and builders, models allow us to elucidate our ideas within our own minds.
When you can show and relate clearly why something should be a particular way, there is a good chance the design will be adapted. Although at first, in order for people to join in, you need to help them join the conversation.
I like models that can be made very quickly from materials at hand. Premeditated models take too long to create and don’t make immediate impact. If you are lucky during a meeting, you might even transform a sheet of paper, a piece of string, or a bowl on the table into a useful make-shift model. This allows you to add to the conversation very quickly. Exactly as a sketch would achieve an instantaneous capture of an idea or feeling. A model can help make a sketch more concrete, and it can clarify and share the engineering that underlies the sketch. Model making does not supersede the immediate, conversational sketch. A sketch occurs in the moment. And, in doing so, some of the rational appraisal that happens if you think too long can be avoided. Sketching is a way to communicate very quickly so that you can have an immediate conversation to evolve ideas with others. The ideal situation is when you can all take part in the process on the very same sketch. A bin full of scrunched up tracing paper, but with a few sheets left on the desk, shows it’s been a good session.
Chapter 3: Having Something to Say
I am a structural engineer. I contribute my innate sense of the physical world to built form. I understand how building materials transfer their weight and the burden of natural loads to the ground. The ideas are about form and flow of force. When I think about form and flow, I think about all the natural forms I have seen and known. The forms of our bodies, trees, rivers, natural landscapes, seashells, and spiders’ webs that we see all around, are a constant inspiration. Buildings that follow nature’s cues have an innate sense of being right. This is because nature has honed its design to optimise its need for material, placing it where it belongs most fittingly to its purpose. The structural engineer interprets ways of nature to best suit man-made situations.
When modelling tension structures I was seeing and sensing how nature wants things to be. As engineers and architects we could play at the edges, trying to make a structural surface do what we wanted. However, the models we made would always find their own natural shape by stretching until they were in equilibrium, and we had to learn to love it. Some people found it hard to accept the forces of nature as the designer, but I loved it!
The most profound education was learning to build models in ways that allowed me to feel what nature feels; the knowledge I gained extended far beyond that which I learned in theory at university. It is the sense of how nature responds—the flow of forces and stresses that are inevitable in a structure—that I am seeking to convey, first in my head, then through sketches. This is how the traits of nature become feelings within us. Our models showed how things would look in order to “feel right”. In time, this can become an instinctive response that does not rely on scientific analysis but becomes an inherent skill.
I find science and art equally absorbing, yet the profession I chose is based on scientific process. I am a pragmatic thinker. I thought I could make a living by applying science to art. As a student I was excited about the prospect of making an impact through civil engineering. I was also inspired by some of the great architecture I discovered on my trips to the Library. However, because I was not considered artistically talented by my school teachers, I was not deemed suitable to study architecture. In my profession I work with architects who are trained and selected for their artistic talent rather than for their scientific approach and this allows me to delight in the artistic as well as the scientific aspects of design.
Communication between engineers and architects requires tools. I learned early on that physical models were useful, but these could not spontaneously assist me during conversation. So I turned to something more immediate: the quick sketch. This gave me something that helped, and I adopted it without being fully conscious of its value. Making decisions as an engineer can be difficult. We are taught that our decisions must be based on evidence and quantities of analysis that prove, beyond doubt, that they are correct. And, to reflect their accuracy, these decisions are to be communicated with precision. So the sketches that I find essential to engineering are heresy because they go against taught expectations of the profession.
I have often asked myself, can such imprecise and unmeasured sketches be called engineering? Or, are these simply artworks because of their painterly qualities? In time I found that free-hand sketches can exemplify an engineer’s craft, using the mind, eyes, and hands to express ideas. They unlock and express ideas to allow them to be subject to engineering and scientific as well as aesthetic scrutiny.
Engineers and architects can build on each other’s different perspectives and sensibilities. There is a benefit in having both pragmatic and creative views equally present at the table. Having an easy way to communicate with different approaches is essential. This is what encouraged me to develop my technique of immediate sketching as a way to reach and mediate a shared viewpoint. A sketch can combine the thoughts of people around a table, and it can capture feelings as well as facts.