Historic New England, At the Drawing Board:
Reflecting on old-school architectural skills
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Drawings are an indispensable tool in designing buildings. For historians or for anyone interested in architecture, architects’ drawings offer insights into the design process and into the evolution of architectural thought, as well as provide records of buildings that may no longer exist. The Library and Archives of Historic New England contains a treasure trove of drawings of New England buildings and collections of drawings by New England architects from the eighteenth century to the present.
We were thrilled when Historic New England accepted our offer of the archives of our firm Albert, Righter & Tittmann Architects. Included are thousands of drawings, along with other documents. We have so far given documents for 180 projects, built and unbuilt, covering the period from 1969 (when the firm began in New Haven, Connecticut, as James Volney Righter Architects) to slightly beyond 1980, when the office moved to Boston. Another group of projects from the 1980s is soon to follow. We plan to continue transferring materials from the 1990s, when we assumed our current partnership, Albert, Righter & Tittmann Architects, and onward.
Architectural drawings fall into several categories and serve different purposes. The earliest drawings in a project are rough diagrams with which we try out relationships of rooms to each other and to the site. Next, still in rough sketch form, the diagram takes shape as a building, in three dimensions. At this stage many aspects of the design—the experience of arriving at and moving through the building, how daylight is admitted, and what the flavor and materials of the building may be—are in our heads but not necessarily intelligible to others. Subsequent drawings allow us to get these ideas down on paper and show our clients. We later move from sketch form to drafted drawings, showing at each step more detail, for presentation to regulatory bodies, for pricing by contractors, and finally for construction. We often revert to freehand sketches, even during the construction process, to work out details that need further consideration.
Each type of drawing has its own interest. However, as we look back over drawings we’ve done we’re most strongly attracted to the early sketches, which reveal the germ of an idea. Even in our more developed presentation drawings, such as John Tittmann’s watercolor interior perspective, we try to capture the spontaneity and unselfconsciousness of the early sketches to convey the mood of the building.
Our archives, beginning with work from the mid-1990s, also contain untold megabytes of computer drawings, which are what we spend by far the most time on today. Nonetheless, we still start designing every project by hand. As partner JB Clancy says, the hand is an extension of the brain. The computer seems to put the drawing at a farther remove from the brain. Those of us schooled in hand drawing feel that this is a loss, though a younger generation may find new opportunities in computers.