Man and Machine: Weighing the Pros and Cons of CAD

If architecture was to be represented as a Venn diagram, it would be quite a complex one, being one of those unique fields that is formed by an intersection of multiple worlds. But at its heart, architecture is pure art that demands the architect to be nothing less than a masterful artist who can build entire cities wielding just a pencil.

It’s hard to believe that everything from the towering pyramids in Egypt to the Eiffel Tower was built based on someone’s sketches on paper!

Guggenheim Museum perspective by Frank Lloyd Wright | Image Courtesy: Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

It is also hard to believe that there existed an era before CAD or BIM. Yet, until Patrick J. Hanratty created the PRONTO, followed closely by Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad, a building took shape entirely on a sheet of paper. The stereotype of an architect sitting with ink-stained hands in front of a drawing board for hours together in a cloud of cigarette smoke is not too much of an exaggeration.

Those hours were a testament to a striving for perfection. Not as a lofty goal but as a matter of avoiding mistakes that were excruciatingly painful to correct. Older architects can never forget the effort required to correct a single line drawn wrong. The phrase ‘back to the drawing board’, in fact, originated during the 1940s, signifying the process of redoing designs from scratch.

Ergo, the appearance of CAD elicited a collective sigh of relief from architects the world over. Over the years, as CAD evolved, drafting boards, rapidograph pens, T-squares and other cumbersome accoutrements gave way to just a single widescreen computer and intelligent software.

The Opera House in Sydney was one of the first to be designed with CAD and was soon followed by other distinctive buildings like the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the St Mary Axe or Gherkin in London.

Frank Gehry | Image courtesy: www.geminigel.com

In the 1990s, Frank Gehry seamlessly bridged the pre and post CAD worlds with his ingenious 2D paper models that began life as unintelligible squiggles on paper. Once built, his team would scan the models into CATIA for further refinements. The Guggenheim Bilbao is one of the most famous products of this approach.

A world with CAD

CAD slashed laborious manual labour and revolutionized methodology, allowing architects flexibility and freedom to improve designs. Now, vast amounts of data could be stored in one place for referral or editing, complex 3D sketches became possible, and specific modifications could be easily performed with a few clicks. Today, CAD is mostly how the world is built.

CAD is seductive. It endows the architect with more power to create than ever before boosting egos and erasing vulnerabilities. “You love your work. God help you, you love it! And that’s the curse,” Henry Cameron warns Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. CAD has that effect.

And a world without…

Granted, the magnetic allure of CAD is hard to resist. But what about the sheer pleasure of choosing the right pencil, getting the shading just right, and working with stencils? Like artists, architects too instinctively reach out for a piece of paper to draw out the germ of an idea forming in his head. It saves time and effort and allows for reflection. It is a slower process, requiring acute observation and thinking, and acts as a basic springboard allowing you to evaluate your ideas.

Norman Foster’s sketch of 30 St Mary Axe | Image courtesy: www.modlar.com

Drawing by hand is also, at times, more flexible and feels unshackled. The curves flow, the lines interconnect flawlessly. Software, for all its dexterity, can sometimes still feel boxy and restrained.

Multiple issues crop up with Revit, for instance, including missing objects, bizarre coordinations, and reference planes going awry. When an idea needs to take shape before it goes away these distortions can be detrimental. Drawing by hand also has an intimacy, a poetic, unrestrained flow that continues to stand the test of time and technology.

Clearly, there is no single winner when it comes to deciding which is the better of the two because ultimately it boils down to convenience and expression. Unbelievable as it may sound, there are brilliant architects who cannot draw and have no option but to use CAD right from ideation to execution.

While there are many who lean more heavily towards one of the two methods for personal reasons, there are many others who believe that it’s very easy for the two to coexist perfectly well. In a way, it’s reflective of the nature of architecture itself.

There are no separate worlds but overlapping ones. Like a Venn diagram.

One thought on “Man and Machine: Weighing the Pros and Cons of CAD

  1. In my opinion, cad, revit and others are excellent drafting tools. They cut down manual labour and give us more time to visualise, sketch and get deeper into the design process. They also leave more time for background study and research. The worry is that many architects and students are using these tools to design and starting to think and shape built environment with the restricted commands that the software has to offer, whilst the imagination of a mind is limitless and the fluidity and flexibility of a pencil to paper is tremendous. A healthy and concious balance between hand done drawings and models and computer generated ones is crucial. Or else we will end up designing limited, robotic and restricted expressions of buildings and cities

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