The “pencil as a brain extension” BS

Whenever I talk to a senior architect about BIM (senior being older than 40), the “pencil as a brain extension” argument crops up.

According to this theory, the architect designs using the pencil (and to a lesser extent the physical model) to draft solutions, and trough this line over line process, sometimes intentionally others by chance, the architectural solution emerges.

This method allows (allegedly) the creative subconscious to integrate all the problems data and, free from the rational side of the brain (left or right, I tend to forget which), creates ART.

This argument is used to point out the computer limitations, as a design tool, on account of it´s absolute precision, leaving no room for chance and subconscious.

Pardon me for putting it this way, but this sounds like bullshit.

That architects who defends this method thinks this is the only way THEY can be creative, this I accept. To each his own, and if someone thinks his creativeness depends on going barefoot, hearing to Bach or eating a tuna sandwich, thats his problem.

But to state, dogmatically, that designing with a pencil in your hand is The Best way to do it, demands evidence.

As far as I know, there is no proof in neurological or behaviour sciences pointing to a physical or procedural part of our brain with pencil using propensity.

Especially when creating tree dimensional spaces, therefore less apt to be represented bi dimensionally.

It is plain for me that a architectural idea is tridimensional, and it is processed by the brain (and not by the hand or the “hearth” or the “soul”). The pencil is used to give body and form to this idea, helping the designer to gradually focus his attention on each relevant section.

But this pencil, with all its limitations as an imprecise and two-dimensional vehicle, is not by far an adequate tool for expressing three-dimensional ideas.

It has been, for the last 500 years, lacking a better one.

I can even imagine that if it where as easy to do three-dimensional physical models as it is to draft with a pencil, models would be used from the first phase of a project, on account of being much closer to the ideas that develops in our brain.

For these reasons it seems obvious to me that the virtual model replaces the pencil with enormous advantages. It allows us to explore alternative designs in real time, it is accurate, it provides quantity (costs) and quality (perspectives), data that allow us to make better design decisions.

Evidently, if the architect is a dummy in the use of information technologies, then he has to use the pencil. But he can not state that he does it because it is the best way to design. If he is honest, he can only say that it is the best way for HIM to design, by inability or laziness.

This whole matter would be inconsequential if each architect was allowed to design his own way.

The analogical ones would do it with a pencil (and a battalion of drafters, of course), and the rest of us could integrate these new technologies into our design process.

But the problem is in architectural education. In most Portuguese universities architecture is taught as it was in the last century, spending thousands of hours drawing by hand.

This happens because architects teach the same method they where taught.

Thus university loose their natural investigation role, and reduce themselves to perpetuating out of date practices.

On a personal note: If the pencil is seen as a sword and CAD/BIM technologies as a automatic rifle, one can speculate that many “older” architects would prefer to fight with a sword, where they are highly proficient.

After all, sooner or later they will have to duel with their former students in the market, and the choice of arms will determine the outcome..


RobiNZ said...

I agree with your comments on the tradition many face within education but still see a role for the pencil/pen/brain interface. In fact I still see a role for the drawing board...

Not the type you & I learnt on but a larg'ish, a3 perhaps a2, Tablet PC (with workstation like graphics/processor power) running Sketch/Design/BIM software that enabled me to work with pen, mouse or keyboard would be about the nicest "Drawing Board" I can think of with todays technology.

Hook it up to a 3D printer and you can even consider it a pretty good modelling toolkit!

Miguel Krippahl said...

Of course the kind of interface you suggest is highly desirable, even technically achievable, with today's technology.

But what I am suggesting is that we should (and will) move away entirely from the pencil/paper paradigm.

This will take some time, because we (from the analogical school) only know how to design with the old medium, and that is why we seek to emulate it on a digital platform,with tablets, Sketchup, and such.

Unknown said...

But "should move away entirely" is a subject statement as well. I find doing a group of very quick sketches before I model anything to be much faster than going directly into the process of mass modeling.

I personally do 95% of my design process on the computer, yet in the very initial stages a couple napkin sketches will allow me to sit a quick series of ideas side by side to choose the best ones to develop.

Of course, if you are not like me with the tendency to have 5-6 initial design concepts crop up in the first 10 minutes of the design process then its likely that this way of work won't be needed. Personally, I find it easier to organize my ideas on something (sketchy and quick) first before stepping back and deciding on what project/ideas I wish to develop. True this could be digital, but it wouldn't be an immediate jump to a mass model state as this does take a bit longer to quickly develop and generically detail.

Miguel Krippahl said...


Your way of doing things (10 quick sketches at the beginning) is just that: Your way.
As it happens, it is also mine, and probably that of the majority of architects.
But that does not mean it is the best possible way. It only means it WAS the best possible way, at the time we learned to design.
But things are changing.
So, what I am trying to ascertain is if this new technology that is coming to age, will it change fundamentally the way we design?
My guess is yes, it will. Not for you, or me, or thousands of other architects, but for the newer generations, the guys who are coming out of schools now.