The Death of Drawing
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The Death of Drawing

Architecture in the Age of Simulation

David Ross Scheer

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eBook - ePub

The Death of Drawing

Architecture in the Age of Simulation

David Ross Scheer

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About This Book

The Death of Drawing explores the causes and effects of the epochal shift from drawing to computation as the chief design and communication medium in architecture. Drawing both framed the thinking of architects and organized the design and construction process to place architects at its center. Its displacement by building information modeling (BIM) and computational design recasts both the terms in which architects think and their role in building production. Author David Ross Scheer explains that, whereas drawing allowed architects to represent ideas in form, BIM and computational design simulate experience, making building behavior or performance the primary object of design.

The author explores many ways in which this displacement is affecting architecture: the dominance of performance criteria in the evaluation of design decisions; the blurring of the separation of design and construction; the undermining of architects' authority over their projects by automated information sharing; the elimination of the human body as the common foundation of design and experience; the transformation of the meaning of geometry when it is performed by computers; the changing nature of design when it requires computation or is done by a digitally-enabled collaboration. Throughout the book, Scheer examines both the theoretical bases and the practical consequences of these changes. The Death of Drawing is a clear-eyed account of the reasons for and consequences of the displacement of drawing by computational media in architecture. Its aim is to give architects the ability to assess the impact of digital media on their own work and to see both the challenges and opportunities of this historic moment in the history of their discipline.

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One day several years ago, a discussion was taking place in an architecture seminar I was teaching. The topic was how drawings communicate. After some time talking about architectural drafting, I steered the conversation towards drawing in general and how the choices of media, technique, frame, and so on, contribute to producing meaning in a drawing. It wasn’t going well—the students were a bit lost—so I asked them what the differences might be between a drawn portrait of a friend and a photograph of him or her. I expected that this question would get them thinking about the different kinds of choices one makes in photography and drawing and how and why they are different. But to my surprise, their answer was simply that the photograph would be more realistic than the drawing. I asked each one in turn to see if anyone had a different idea, but they were unanimous. I was amazed. How could advanced architecture students—presumably sophisticated about things visual—judge an image solely on its realism? Did they not realize that a drawing involves countless choices about such things as media, emphasis, exclusion and manner that are central to the artist’s expression? Did they not experience such choices when they drew? I thought about it for a few days and then it hit me: they didn’t think in terms of representation. The only purpose they understood for a drawing—or any other visual artifact—was to reproduce reality as accurately and completely as possible. In other words, they thought in terms of simulation. It made sense: their social life consisted largely of electronically mediated relationships; their media world was almost entirely composed of simulations; in the studio, they designed using simulation software. Not only was the way I’d been trained and practiced architecture disappearing, but the very basis of all art as I understood it was missing. I suddenly felt very tired.
This was my epiphany about the extent to which simulation has displaced representation in architecture and society at large. It was also the beginning of an inquiry that culminated in this book. My central argument is that the relationship between design and reality is undergoing a shift from representation to simulation and that this shift has many profound implications for architecture. Both words have many common uses, but have very specific meanings in this book which this chapter will explain. It is very important for the reader to bear these specific meanings in mind in this and the following chapters.


Representation, as the term is used in this book, arises from the question of how human perception relates to reality. This question has occupied the minds of philosophers seemingly forever. Their answers have ranged widely, but there has been general agreement that we cannot know external reality directly because we have only the evidence of our senses, which are limited and unreliable. Therefore, reality must be represented in our minds in some fashion. Research in many fields (including philosophy, linguistics, art criticism and, more recently, neuroscience and artificial intelligence) has attempted to shed light on how our experience relates to external reality and how our ideas about the world arise from our experience of it. Representations condition our understanding of the world, setting its terms and limits.
A good place to start is the account given by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason that has been enormously influential and is an important source of the idea of representation as used here. Kant accepted the notion that “true” external reality is unknowable by us. He believed that we create representations of reality based on our sensory experience, shaped by innate “intuitions,” principally space and time, and mental “categories,” such as causality and substance.1 (Kant’s ideas of intuitions and categories, as integral parts of the human mind, resonate today with research in neuroscience that gives evidence, for example, of brain structures that are hard-wired for language acquisition.2) Kant’s theory implies that there is an inevitable gap between our thought and external reality. This doctrine establishes what is called the reality principle—that there is an external reality that exists independently of us and our perceptions (even though we cannot know it).
The question arises: if ultimate reality is unknowable, how can we become aware of the incompleteness of our representations? Kant’s answer is that we have what might be called raw experience with which to compare our conscious thoughts. Experience is shaped by intuitions and categories but is (to use a modern term) preconscious. For experience to rise to consciousness, we must somehow represent it, but we are aware of it and of the distance between it and any particular representation. The common feeling that something “cannot be put into words” is a reflection of this. Thus, our knowledge of reality is always partial, in the sense of being both incomplete and biased. Our knowledge is biased in the sense that we often ignore the fact that it is incomplete and mistake our understanding for reality itself. The nature of a particular representation opens some aspects of reality to us and blinds us to others. The details of the construction of a representation are therefore of capital importance.
Kant was speaking about human knowledge in general. A specific representation can be understood as a set of signs that refer to reality, together with rules governing their use, as a language comprises both words (semantics) and syntax. A sign consists of two parts: a signifier, which is a physical thing, and a signified, which is a mental image.3 In general there is an arbitrary (or “unmotivated”) relationship between the signifier and the signified. Their association is a convention understood by a certain group of people. For example, speakers of English refer to a certain mammal that chews its cud by the signifier “cow.” French speakers use the signifier “vache” to refer to the same animal, and so on for other languages. None of these signifiers has any connection to the animal outside the context of a particular language. However, there is a special category of signs (called natural or motivated) that have an innate relationship to the things they refer to, for example, the cross as it represents Christianity.
Many representational systems mix natural and ordinary signs. Architectural drawing is an example of this. Most of the graphical part of a drawing consists of natural signs, since the form of the drawing is a scaled-down version of aspects of the form of a building. Other parts of a drawing are arbitrary, such as the convention of representing a balcony above a floor level as a dashed line in plan. The words and numbers included in drawings are ordinary (conventional) signs as well.
Since we cannot know reality directly (only our representations of it), signifieds can only be mental images. The foregoing description of representation accounts for only part of the process of representation: how a representational system associates a mental image or idea with a physical object, such as a word (as a sound or a mark). The question remains as to how signification takes place, i.e. how we create meaning from this process. Mental images are themselves representations of reality; signifiers are thus two levels of representation removed from reality. Nevertheless, it is the signifiers we must use to describe reality, for others and largely for ourselves as well. How they are used (the grammar of language, the conventions of drawing) cannot but affect our mental images. Even the choice of one word rather than another to describe something matters a great deal to the image we form of it. If I refer to my dog as my pet, the image you form of it is very different than if I call it my service animal. In both cases you are thinking about a dog, but in very different terms. This also illustrates the fact that the meanings of both signifiers and signifieds are in large part the result of an implicit comparison among related images and signifiers (called value by Saussure). Choosing one signifier rather than another highlights particular aspects of the signified (more precisely, evokes a different but closely related signified), bringing it into a different network of related images and altering its meaning.4
This mental image conjured by a particular signifier is highly contingent on context and individual experience—not only will the mental images evoked by a signifier vary from person to person, but each individual’s response is colored by his/her experience and the specifics of the situation: who is speaking, the context of the conversation, etc. Representation thus always involves a high degree of ambiguity. In any particular representation, some aspects of the object are emphasized and others suppressed or eliminated. In no case can the object be represented in its totality (otherwise we have the object itself which is impossible, as Kant showed). Ambiguity results from the disparities between the object itself, the mental image it evokes in the receiving individual and the limitations of the chosen representational system. Such ambiguity can make us aware of the disparities that inevitably exist between our mental images of an object or idea and aspects of our experience of it that elude our thought.
The inherent ambiguity of representation provides rich opportunities for creative expression. These occur when we become aware of some significant disparity between our experience and the available means of representing it. Exposing how a representation somehow omits, conceals or disfigures some aspect of our experience; asking a question about reality left unanswered by our representations of it; finding a new way of representing something that yields a new understanding of it—these are the kinds of strategies employed by creative minds (Figure 1.1). By exploring the ambiguity of representation we discover ways of representing aspects of our experience we have not been able to express before. That these representations are themselves often obscure and ambiguous is a token of the inability of any representation to fully describe our experience. Plumbing the depths of our experience and trying to come closer to expressing it in its fullness is what I take to be the production of mean...

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