I made my first digital drawing in Microsoft Paint on my dad’s computer when I was in primary school. It was so exciting then to be able to draw without a pencil, and paint with shades unconstrained by my color sets. Although the drawing tools were very primitive, I was enthusiastic about creating simple images on a monitor. Since university, where most assignments were done on computers, my pencils and paints have been collecting dust on the shelf.
Computer-produced images have become the accepted standard in the landscape architecture profession. Perhaps the convenience for quick production and ability to edit quickly were the primary attractions in the first place; being able to demonstrate design ideas in seemingly photorealistic images is certainly one of the key motivations for digital graphics. However, I sometimes wonder, whether the advancement of digital graphic tools makes us overemphasize the picturesque quality of a built environment, rather that the fundamentals of public space, such as people, function and management.
I resumed my passion for drawing during a trip to Istanbul in 2009, when my camera broke. Hesitating to buy a new camera, I began sketching interesting scenes (the Hagia Sophia) in a notebook. Although they were as simple as black- and-white cartoons, the details related to their production are still vividly alive in my mind: buildings, streets, shop windows, the brightness of the sky, the temperature of the wind, the people coming around to chat, and so on. Since then, I have not traveled without my sketchbook, and I remain captivated by what drawing has brought to my life.
Drawing is like a lens that magnifies the details of everyday objects at different scales. Our fast-paced lives mean that we typically see things at one scale, while drawing offers me a chance to slow down and devote time to the things often unnoticed: the shades and textures on the two sides of a single leaf, the woven patterns on a couch cover, the glints on a glass bottle, reflections in a coffee mug, the variety of stones embedded in a concrete path, the composition of displaced chairs in a park, the social interactions between pigeons and sparrows near a little bin…Drawing these things feels like capturing glimpses of a hidden world, which offers abondant inspiration for design.
Early this year, I worked with three colleagues on ideas for a 30-km-long waterfront design competition in Guicheng, 30 minutes drive from Guangzhou, China. Surrounded by rivers and teeming with canals, the city is traditionally famous for small- scale manufacturing. During recent decades, the local economy has become more diverse, many factories were upgraded, and more emphasis has been given to the quality of civic life.
We proposed a destination park at an old port site for shipping containers, at the confluence of two main rivers. We believe that the landscape should somehow evoke the memory of the city’s shipping industry, which enables a thriving chain of manufacturing-related businesses.
My sketchbook lent me the inspiration. Once I was sketching a boat moored in a lake in China, whenever I was trying to draw the outlines, the breeze on the lake nudged the boat, moving it from side to side. Although I was frustrated about not being able to pin down the frame, it was mesmerizing to watch the gentle and rhythmic motions of the boat. In the end, rather than creating a single frame, I made the drawing as a sequence of snapshots.
This is where the design concept of the headland park came from, a series of overlapping snapshots of a moving ship. The key landscape elements, including display gardens, lookouts over the river, seating terraces, and gathering spaces, were tied into a series of frameworks generated by the motion snapshots. Apparently the client likes the concept as much as we do!
I think drawing is very much alive in design because it is a process of conscious observation that involves capturing transient feelings, making connections between different things, and distilling ideas down to the essentials—a process from which many design ideas arise. From the moment light reaches the retina to the completion of a drawing, there is a whole sequence of analyses of what we see and choices to be made concerning compositions, shapes, colors and textures. This makes drawing a highly personalized tool for individual expression. A good speaker needs to find his or her own voice—not just the vocal sound, but the ability to speak through one’s innate thought process; similarly, drawing can operate as a “voice” for designers.
Lei Zhang is a designer in the Houston studio.