Does the architectural sketch still have a place in contemporary urban design?

Martin M

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In a world dominated by fast-moving technology and digital innovation, does the humble architectural sketch still have a place in urban design? Here, we asked Martin McCauley, Senior Architect in our London studio, to make the case for holding onto your pens and tracing paper.

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Have you always used sketching in your work as an architect?

I have always sketched and started drawing from an early age. I particularly loved imagining how cities worked and was always sketching out ideas onto countless sheets of paper. The first architect whose work I really appreciated was called Liam McCormick. He was the preeminent church architect in my home county in Northern Ireland, and was well-known locally for designing the Church of St Aengus in Burt, Co. Donegal a place I found inspiring as a child and which was voted Irish building of the Millennium in 2000. I found his style fascinating and undertook a sketch study of all his famous churches in 2000 prior to my entry into Queens University Belfast to pursue my architecture degree. 

More recently, I discovered a large drawing of Singapore done by artist Stephen Wiltshire MBE. This is a great example of how a simple architectural sketch can inspire a real sense of wonder

'How can a building or space have any soul or interest if the expressive power of pen to paper is removed from the design process?'

P 50 Legibility adn identification of space

So much of architectural drafting is done digitally these days, does sketching still have a role to play in architectural design/​projects?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the most important skills an architect should possess, and for me, the ability to sketch out a creative idea must be one of them.

During a recent stint working in the Middle East, I was told repeatedly that clients in that part of the world didn’t want to see sketches as part of the final design submissions or in presentations. The preference was for 3d renders to be done often by third party render teams. Personally I found this quite disheartening as the main reason I studied architecture in the first place was to develop my sketching skills. It often feels like there’s a relentless pressure to discard key architect skills such as sketching and replace them with digital expertise in areas such as 3d visualization or scripting software. Both these skillsets are extremely useful of course, but I question how easily fundamental skills are being abandoned. How can a building or space have any soul or interest if the expressive power of pen to paper is removed from the design process? Perhaps the answer is about meeting somewhere in the middle – today’s digital tablets are surprisingly good for free sketching whilst at the same time allowing for more digital connectivity. I hope that this, combined with a continued regard for the importance of the architectural sketch, will mean there’s still room for the pen, pencil and the tracing paper in the design process. 

How does sketching help you as a designer?

For me as an architect, sketching is still one of the easiest ways to solve a design problem. Fundamentally, it allows you to introduce a unique character to a building or a masterplan. If you’re working on a large project, sketching can help you bring a human, more intuitive touch. For me, sketching a strong line with a pen or pencil can often provide a starting point for a masterplan, helping to set the creative vision. 

Martin sketching
View From Beneath Ped Bridge sml

Any tips for other designers not so confident in their drawing skills?

Whilst everyone’s confidence and ability in this area will be different, I would strongly encourage anyone to have a go and to keep practicing. If you’re worried about structuring your composition, you can always use grid paper or other aids, but saying that, I’d always just say to people to go for it and not worry about creating something perfect. 

I recall looking at Alvaro Sizas concept sketches for some of his early projects in an Architectural Exhibition in Berlin in 2001 and I have to say they were hardly recognizable as an identifiable sketch. The important thing to note is that it formed the main them in that project and was the vital first move to creating stunning architectural masterpieces. 

I’d add that you don’t need masses of artist’s kit such as pencils, pens and paper to get into sketching either – these days you can do so much just on a decent digital tablet. Don’t be intimidated, just get started and be proud of whatever you can do!

P 50 Legibility adn identification of space
Martin sketching
View From Beneath Ped Bridge sml