Digital Drawing: A Response to Lebbeus Woods

29Jul11

I was inspired by a recent post on Lebbeus Woods’ fantastic blog to write a rather lengthy response on my understanding of the difference between manual and digital drawing. Since it is rare that I can get my thoughts together enough to post ideas on this blog in addition to images and techniques, I thought I would cross-post my reply here. This is really a central question for me, as a parametric practitioner of architecture who wants to find a working method that taps the capacities of computation without becoming a slave to algorithms and deterministic (often “optimized”) results.

Here is the quote from his blog:

I have no interest or intention of reopening old discussions of the pros and cons of hand versus computer drawings—they simply go nowhere. I’m willing to grant, for the sake of exploration, that one day a computer will be able to draw exactly like Masahiko Yendo. I repeat, exactly, with all the infinitely varied tonality and all the nuance of texture, shading, and illusion of light and darkness. For that to happen, of course, the pixels of the computer drawing would have to be infinitely small, creating the actual spatial continuity of the hand drawing. Assuming that this technological feat could be achieved, what difference would there be between the hand and the computer drawing?

Absolutely none—if we consider only the drawing itself, as a product, as an object, which—in our present society—is our habitual way of perceiving not only drawings, but also the buildings they describe.

I repeat: absolutely none. IF, however, we think of drawings—even the most seductively product-like ones shown here—as evidence of a process of thinking and making, the difference is vast. Indeed, there is no way to close the gap between them. In the hand-drawn image, every mark is a decision made by the architect, an act of analysis followed by an act of synthesis, as the marks are built up, one by one. In the computer-drawn image, every mark is likewise a decision, but one made by the software, the computer program—it happens in the machine, the computer, and does not involve the architect directly. In short, in the latter case, the architect remains only a witness to the results of a process the computer controls, learning only in terms of results. In the former case, the architect learns not only the method of making, but also the intimate connections between making and results, a knowledge that is essential to the conscious development of both.

LW

And here is my response:

Your last paragraph leaves an open question for me. Who designed this program? Who wrote the algorithms that “decide” where to make the marks? If the architect is the one who wrote it, can’t we read the end result as “evidence of a process of [his/her] thinking and making”?

At one extreme, we can imagine a program that reports back to the architect after every mark for a new set of instructions about how to produce a new mark. In this situation, the drawing, in my view, is basically equivalent to hand-drawing – every mark is the result of a decision by the architect, though executed by a machine. However, such a program is clearly impractical. Instead the program might engage in some, slightly more “automatic” operations, but continuing to rely on feedback from the architect. Here the question gets tricky – is there a real difference between the guided-but-partially-automatic drawing and one done entirely by hand?

I would respond to this not by defending the computer but by questioning the hand-drawing – is EVERY mark really the result of a considered decision, involving analysis and synthesis? Wouldn’t it be closer to the truth to characterize sets of marks (as results of sets of gestures) as the level at which decisions get made? When I draw by hand, I don’t say to myself “I am going to make this line here” so often as “I am going to shade this region here with a series of parallel hatches.” In this, isn’t the execution of that series of marks somewhat “automatic”? Aren’t I relying on an algorithm or a non-conscious process to really “decide” where each individual mark goes?

What I am trying to say is that your characterization of a computer program really represents only the far end of a wide spectrum, from “pure control” where every nuance of every step is decided by the architect, to “pure automation” where one time, an algorithm is written, executed, and the results collected. For me the fertile ground of digital practice and digital drawing lies in the middle, where aspects of the process are automatic, and aspects are guided by human decisions. Moreover I would argue that even hand drawing and other manual processes can be seen to fit this description. At some level, the act of drawing is ALWAYS relying on an “automatic” process – even if we say that every mark is considered, we can even break it down further: is every infinitesimal moment of the motion of the pencil (To make this curved line, I will move it here, then here, then here, then here…) a decision?

This may sound like an argument that computer drawing and hand drawing are one and the same. In fact, I do not believe this – but I think you’ve put the distinction on the wrong grounds. First, you said that they could be considered one and the same when evaluating the end result object of the process. Then you said that the distinction lies between an architect making the decisions as he draws, against an architect letting the computer make all the decisions. I am as opposed to this notion of a fully autonomous drawing machine that can “draw like Yendo” as you are, but I think this mischaracterizes the present and future of digital drawing practice.

Instead, I think the grounds for the distinction are one level deeper, and lie in the mechanism by which the “automatic” or “non-decided” portion of the drawing is executed. When I draw by hand, the execution of a sub-decision level task (e.g. moving the pencil 0.02 mm to the left) is guided by my intuition – which is the result of all kinds of unconscious (though intelligent) processes in the brain and body. When I draw “by computer” I am relying on an algorithm to execute the sub-decision level tasks, and given the same inputs it will always produce the same outputs. It is not in consciousness that the difference between digital and manual drawing lies – it is in the contribution of the sub- or un-conscious. Furthermore, in the digital mode there is still room for intuition and subconscious effects – just not at the level of the “sub-decision,” and only insofar as those things guide and influence conscious decisions.

In short, there is a difference between digital and manual drawing, even if the products are seen to be the same – but it is limited to the execution of the portions of the drawing that lie beneath the level of conscious execution. Digital drawing can be just as much the product of an architect’s decisions — just as much the evidence of a process of thinking and making — as a hand drawing can be.

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One Response to “Digital Drawing: A Response to Lebbeus Woods”


  1. 1 Recent Work – Part 2: Pre-thesis « Heumann Design/Tech

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