Why Architects Still Draw

by Paolo Belardi and Zachary Nowak

Author Paolo Belardi and Zachary Nowak Isbn 9780262525480 File size 3 3 MB Year 2014 Pages 136 Language English File format PDF Category Architecture Why would an architect reach for a pencil when drawing software and AutoCAD are a click away Use a ruler when 3D scanners and GPS devices are close at hand In Why Architects Still Draw Paolo Belardi offers an elegant and ardent defense of drawing by hand as a way of thinking Belardi is no Luddite he doesn t urge architects to give up digital

Publisher :

Author : Paolo Belardi and Zachary Nowak

ISBN : 9780262525480

Year : 2014

Language: English

File Size : 3.3 MB

Category : Architecture

Why Architects Still Draw

Why Architects Still Draw

Two Lectures
on Architectural

Paolo Belardi
translated by Zachary Nowak


© 2014 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
These essays were originally published in Italian by Casa Editrice Librìa (Melfi),
as two separate volumes: Brouillons d’Architects: una lezione sul disegno
inventivo (2004) and Nulla dies sine linea: una lezione sul disegno
conoscitivo (2012).

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Belardi, Paolo, author.
[Essays. Selections. English]
Why architects still draw / by Paolo Belardi ; translated by Zachary Nowak.
  p. cm.
Essays in English, translated from the Italian.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-262-52548-0 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Architectural drawing. 2. Architectural design. 3. Drawing—Philosophy.
4. Architecture—Philosophy. I. Nowak, Zachary, translator. II. Belardi, Paolo.
Brouillons d’architects. English. III. Belardi, Paolo. Nulla dies sine linea. English.
IV. Title. V. Title: Thinking by hand. VI. Title: No day without a line.
NA2700.B428  2014

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

A Federica e Angelica


Translator’s Note: Why Disegno and Rilievo in Italian
Mean Something More than “Drawing” and “Survey”
in English

Introduction: Why Architects Still Draw



Thinking by Hand: A Lecture on
Inventive Drawing



Praising the Pencil


Writing Is Just Drawing


Find First, Seek Later


Ideas Are in the Air


The Mind Rules over the Hand; Hand Rules
over Mind


Sketches Are the dna of an Idea


“Draw, Antonio, Draw …”


No Day Without a Line: A Lecture on
Informed Drawing

1  The “Augmented” Sensitivity of the

Architectural Surveyor
2  The Eyes Are Blind to the Unexpected
3  X_width/exploration
4  Y_height/stratification
5  Z_depth/interpretation
6  Does a Forest Give Up Its Secret if You

Measure the Height of the Trees?




Translator’s Note: Why Disegno and Rilievo in
Italian Mean Something More than “Drawing”
and “Survey” in English
As often happens in shifting between two languages, the words
that seem the easiest to translate are often the hardest ones
to find an adequate translation for. In this book architectpoet Paolo Belardi makes a passionate case for why architects
should continue to draw and make surveys. The book takes
the form of two imaginary lectures to architecture students.
The first lecture is about drawings, the second about surveys.
Though both words are only seven letters long in Italian, they
were exceedingly difficult to translate, and a word about both
is necessary.
In the first lecture, “Thinking by Hand,” Belardi discusses
what he calls disegno. This word would make anyone who
doesn’t know Italian think “design,” which is unfortunately
wrong. It’s an example of what translators call “false friends,”
foreign words that look like English words but mean something else. Disegno in Italian means a drawing or a sketch, not
“design.” Despite this linguistic fact, Belardi argues that the two
words should indeed be considered cousins, if not fraternal
twins. The drawing, argues Belardi, recalls the paradox of the
acorn. An acorn gives us just the barest outlines of the tree
our grandchildren might see. We can imagine the shape of its
leaves and the color of its bark, but all the other possibilities of
that future oak tree—how fast it grows, how its branches spread,
how long it lives—are to be determined. And yet that little nut

T r a n s l ato r ’ s N ot e


holds, inside of its shell, the whole tree already: the mature,
magnificent, hundred-foot-tall oak is already “planned” within
the acorn’s DNA.
So too with a drawing. Even a sketch done on the back of
a matchbox (to give a preview of one of Belardi’s examples) can
contain what will become the complete set of blueprints of the
finished building. Despite its size (a matchbox in this case), the
imprecision of its strokes (given the awkward surface), and its
impermanence (most sketches are considered preparatory by
their authors, and not saved), the sketch is like an acorn. The
roughest drawing is inchoate (in the sense that it is not finished
but still in evolution) and forgiving of future changes—and yet
at the same time it is also, paradoxically, the entire final design.
Belardi’s first lecture, then, is about the magic of drawing. The
author gives us examples not only from architecture but also
from literature, chemistry, music, archaeology, art, and several
other disciplines to show how drawing is not simply a passive
act but rather a moment of invention, pregnant with creative
The second lecture, “No Day Without a Line,” is about
what in Italian is called a rilievo architettonico. The most obvious translation for the first word is “survey,” and any English
speaker can then shift “architettonico” before the noun, leaving her with “architectural survey.” At one time or another, all
of us have likely seen what architects work with every day, the
three canonic architectural views of some building made of
white stone: plan, section, and elevation. These representations, apparently the output of an enormous slice-and-draw

T r a n s l ato r ’ s N ot e

machine, give us measurements in the x, y, and z axes. Belardi
argues that it’s important—especially in today’s world—to add
a fourth dimension, time, and even a fifth one, culture.
A rilievo architettonico is the architectural equivalent
of what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called a “thick description,” an ethnographic approach in which the resulting text
describes a group’s ceremonies not only as they would understand them, but as even those unfamiliar with the group could
understand them. Belardi, in “No Day Without a Line,” shows
how surveying a piazza cannot simply mean measuring the
space and committing its width, height, and depth to paper or
to an AutoCAD file. To truly know the piazza, the architectural
surveyor must make an informed survey, must bring knowledge with him. How are the entrances to the open space the
result of traffic patterns from centuries past? How can changing
demographics and concern for environmental impacts shape
the future of the piazza? What does Italian culture need from
the piazza? A survey then becomes a document that relates
historical details and communal needs, not just meters or feet,
stone or steel.
As much as the architectural survey of the Italian tradition
draws on the past, and as much as Belardi pleads the case of
the pencil’s relevance in “the era of the 3D scanner and the GPS
device,” this is not a Luddite tract. Belardi does not want us
to give up high tech for watercolors or a measuring tape, and
he’s cognizant of the fact that any such plea would be in vain.
Instead—continuing a tradition started with the “guerrilla surveyors” who so infuriated the architectural establishment in

T r a n s l ato r ’ s N ot e



the 1970s when they “surveyed” Las Vegas’s Strip with cameras and microphones—he warns us that we cannot be stuck
in the past. We have to be sure that technology is the vehicle
of architectural progress toward the future, and that we are the
drivers. The power and precision of modern instruments push
us to reduce a survey to taking precise measurements, when in
fact (and Belardi surprises the reader with his eminently logical
examples) metric precision is not the most important variable
in a survey.
In addition, this book calls architects to task for their
perennial obsession with canonical monuments of the past
and with the same few signature glass-and-steel buildings that
appear over and over in the pages of glossy magazines. Belardi
argues that architectural surveys can no longer be concerned
only with National Theaters, Capitol Buildings, and other Monumental Places when the real problems to be solved are not the
millionth elevation of the Coliseum but rather the banlieues
in Paris or Rome’s borgate—the decaying outlying areas of the
world’s metropolises. The fourth and fifth dimensions (history
and culture) that Italian architectural surveys have always
included are not only relevant to today’s architecture; they
are necessary.
This book is about two words and what they mean—not
in the sense of what their translations are, but rather what larger
ideas they signify. Paolo Belardi patiently lays out his arguments
that disegno (drawing) means more than tracing lines on a
piece of paper, and that rilievo (surveying) means more than
cross-sections and elevations. Disegno (drawing) means being

T r a n s l ato r ’ s N ot e

open to all the possibilities that a pencil has concentrated
in its tip, thousands of brainstorms calmed and distilled into
a fraction of an ounce of graphite. Rilievo (surveying), on the
other hand, means an informed architecture that draws on the
traditions of centuries ago and the cultural realities of the present, to move architecture out of coffee table books and into the
lives of those who live and work in unautographed buildings
every day. That is what these two words have meant in the past,
and what they still mean in the present. Belardi argues that
only thinking by hand with disegno and using all five dimensions of the rilievo can make the word “architecture” mean
something in the future.
For illustrations of the buildings and places discussed in this book, please
visit http://pinterest.com/whyarchitects/.

T r a n s l ato r ’ s N ot e


Introduction: Why Architects Still Draw
In his “Life of Paolo Uccello,” written in 1550, Giorgio Vasari
tells us that the artist would stay in his study until late at night
“seeking to solve the problems of perspective.” Even when his
wife would call him to come to bed, he would continue to draw,
whispering in ecstasy, “Oh, what a sweet thing is this perspective!” Whether it’s actually true or not, this anecdote has taken
its place in the annals of history because of Vasari’s approval of
Uccello’s late-night practice: he ends his biography of Uccello
saying that it was thanks to the artist’s sleepless nights that the
art of prospective became “dear and useful to those who exercised themselves therein after his time,” from Piero della Francesca to Leonardo da Vinci, thus permanently linking the study
and practice of drawing with the idea of devotion. Perhaps it’s
precisely to demonstrate this connection that, after thirty years
of teaching and research, I’m now developing a network of
trusted collaborators with whom to share and exchange views
on the future of drawing, though without the presumption of
having the last word.
With my colleagues and students in mind, I’ve written
two imaginary lectures which in reality I’ve never delivered
(though they draw on courses I have taught at the University of
Perugia). Why do architects still draw? These lectures are a sort
of didactic canvas on which I’ve spread both my passion and
knowledge to try to answer this question in a meaningful way.
The first lecture is for students of an imagined course called
“Automatic Drawing,” and it poses questions about the fate of

W h y A r c h i t e c t s S t i l l D r aw


drawing by hand in the age of electronic media, and especially
about the role of sketching as an interface between thought
and work in the initial phase of a project. The second lecture is
for students in another made-up course, “Architectural Survey.”
There I’ve explored the meaning of measurement in the era of
the 3D scanner and the GPS device, trying to show the sterility
of techniques that privilege metric exactitude over cultural
I don’t know whether the references I’ve used here are
pertinent or the rhetorical organization is orthodox. I do know,
however, that my aim in both lectures is not in vain: that, even in
the digital age, drawing will maintain its role as a cornerstone
of architecture, reaching an even more privileged position as a
way of thinking in both the creative and the informed act.
It is not by chance that this text—while peppered with
quotes and iconographic allusions—doesn’t have many footnotes or, more importantly, any images. This strategy was chosen
deliberately to emulate the evocative tone of those old cliffhangers that relied on the reader’s imagination to conjure up
vivid pictures of the characters and to embellish the narratives.
I care about the fate of drawing-as-thought, and I’m disturbed
by writing in which the futility of expression drives readers to
immediately seek solace in something besides the text. As time
passes, and I see more and more writing of this kind, I am
reminded of William Wordsworth’s admonition:
Avaunt this vile abuse of pictured page!
Must eyes be all in all, the tongue and ear
Nothing? Heaven keep us from a lower stage!


Thinking by Hand: A Lecture on
Inventive Drawing

Praising the Pencil
I would be lying if I said that all these poems were written with a pencil.
But I dare and love to think that nobody will want to see this title
for my poems [“Poems Written with a Pencil”] as bizarre and useless.
They really deserved to be and to stay written in pencil: if nothing
else, the gray of the thin pencil would have given them a color and
an expression.
Marino Moretti1

Paging through the notebooks kept by Tomaso Buzzi to direct
the workers at the construction site of Buzzinda (the mysterious
postmodern city erected inside the Franciscan convent of
Scarzuola, halfway between Rome and Florence) is like tracing
the inventive act in the process of being born. These notebooks
contain page after page of the most bizarre figures taking shape:
first drafted, then reworked, and in the end sketched in a final
notebook, but still provisional. The Sketches and Doodles (as
Buzzi affectionately called his notebooks) are sometimes dark,
sometimes hard to comprehend, almost magical: much like
Cinderella’s magic pumpkin, these sketches become real, live
blueprints destined for translation into structure.
This has been and remains the power of inventive drawing: to condense in a few square inches (or even less) a lot of
information—and infinite possibilities. “With what words, O
Writer, will you describe with like perfection the entire configuration which the drawing here does?” asks Leonardo da Vinci
tendentiously, accentuating the rivalry between pen and pencil.

1.  Marino Moretti, Poesie scritte col lapis (Naples: Ricciardi, 2010), 1.

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