An Analytical Craft

I walked by the Ford Foundation last weekend. The building was designed by architects Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, and for 4 years in the 60’s, Lebbeus Woods worked in their offices on that project.

Lebbeus Woods passed away on October 30th of 2012. I wouldn’t be presumptuous enough to say that I ‘knew’ Lebbeus, but I did have the honor of taking a special seminar he taught at the University of Oklahoma, I acted as his guide and guy Friday the week he was there, and benefitted from the time and advice that he graciously gave to me when I moved to New York City.

During one of my visits, he described his experiences of working on the Ford Foundation. This was his “PhD. in architecture”. The advice he gave to me was to work in a design firm that actually built something. Through drawing, coordination with engineers and being in the field, you begin to fully understand the problems and conditions that need to be addressed and resolved to create something of beauty and craft.

I’ve always appreciated this advice, and loved that is has remained consistent throughout his body of work. I’ve kept this section of writing pasted to the inside of one of my sketch books (Lebbeus actually has more to say here). Before anything gets built, it begins with an analytical act of crafting a solution:

Once upon a time, before computers came to be the pre-eminent architectural design tool, architects made drawings by hand. Instead of leaving it up to the computer’s software to make and assemble the lines defining contours and edges of forms, architects would draw line by line, gradually building up the drawing. Somewhere in the backs of their minds, perhaps, the Italian term disegno, which means both ‘drawing’ and ‘design,’ worked to convince them that the two concepts were synonymous: to draw was to design, and to design was to draw. In the same way, the ideas of ‘analysis’ and ‘synthesis’ came together in the act, and the artifact, of drawing. To build up a drawing line by line is an analytical act – one chooses exactly where to place the line, based on an understanding of the problem or conditions to be addressed, and, at the same time, of the need for the sum of lines to create a greater whole, a coherent, cohering and integrated form…