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  • A Response to William Mitchell on "The Death of Drawing"
  • Helen Levin

One can speculate whether or not MIT's Architecture Department Chairman, William J. Mitchell, has caught any flak for "The Death of Drawing" in the 12 years since its publication. This article caught my attention via a bibliography on display for Mitchell, then the newly appointed chair. I was teaching a course for the January 1994 Independent Activities Period at MIT, "Drawing and Visualization for the Design Process." Mitchell's article was not much more than a series of encomiums to computer-assisted design (CAD), calling into question the usefulness of drawing as a discipline in architectural education. At that time, I already had the impression that MIT regarded the arts as "soft information" compared to the sciences. Mitchell's piece stated that we just have to listen to the "fat lady singing. Fidelity to the pencil is a thing of the past" [1].

Mitchell claimed there to be a clear separation of creative works into the categories of "autographic" and "allographic," acknowledging his reliance on the ideas of philosopher Nelson Goodman [2]. Accordingly, painting is autographic, while musical notation and architectural drawings are allographic, since the latter two are merely blueprints for performances or buildings. Architects were now "free from the . . . static picture plane," he rejoiced, and "lines are no longer . . . embedded in a matrix of paper fibres; we can set them dancing!" While it is still true now, as it was in 1989, that computers play a dominant role in architectural design, CAD has changed. There is a new reliance on digital styli, such as the Wacom pen, attesting to the resurgence of gestural mark-making in the process of architectural design. For instance, architectural works such as Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, are just as indebted to the pencil-and-paper quick sketch as to Computer Aided Three Dimensional Interactive Applications (CATIA). In short, freehand drawing is still germane to the process, and this point applies even for those architects who spend the bulk of their time on chores other than actual design. There is just too much at stake in the drawing-designing aspect of the field.

Mitchell continued his dirge as follows: "We hear a growing chorus of instructors and studio masters defending traditional drawing . . . complaining about deficiencies [of CAD] . . . and accusing those who give up hand drawing . . . of being no genuine friends of architecture."

At this point, the author reveals his own attitude about the pencil to be contradictory, since he refers to himself as "privileged to be one of the last of those traditionally trained architects" who will "miss [his] old friend the pencil." Might it have been the humble pencil that allowed Mitchell to understand that architecture really is a branch of the arts, connected with humanistic traditions and values? Did he not observe that it was drawing that had attuned him to noticing details and developing a sense of proportion and had afforded him the chance to fine-tune his creative ideas in a direct and immediate way?

The fact that Mitchell was willing to abjure these values in adulation of the new technology is partly the result of his capture in a semantic trap created by the English language: Mitchell sees "design" and "drawing" as two entities. In contrast, French uses dessiner to mean both "design" and "drawing." Since creative design is embedded in the concept of drawing, a translation of [End Page 117] Mitchell's title as "La Mort de la Discipline 'Dessiner'" would be both confusing and unconvincing. Mitchell tries to equate those who remain attached to architectural drawing by hand with the Benedictine abbot John Trithemius (1462-1516), who decried the printing press in defense of the dying occupation of the scribe. But if Trithemius mourned the end of the copying of sacred Biblical texts, how can Mitchell equate such work with the creative drawings of the architect?

Mitchell's contention stands in contrast with the thought of some important architects and designers of the past and present. The educational program followed by participants in Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesen East School (1931) [3] included painting, sculpture, music, drama and dance. The...


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