Architects and designers today are at odds over the value of hand-made drawings versus computer-aided design that makes use of cutting edge software.

While great architects from Mies Van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright to Zaha Hadid rose to prominence in the days before computers became commonplace, only later incorporating them into their work, the new generation has been using computers since they started out and many would be hard-pressed to design without modern technology.

Computers are certainly transforming the ways in which architects work, and even think, from the moment they sketch their first impressions of an idea through to the creation of complex construction documents for contractors.

Modern design software is a very powerful tool and many magnificent modern buildings, skyscrapers and engineering pieces would not be possible without them. While computers break down some limits, it is important to use them only as a tool to complement and develop ideas rather than letting computers manipulate the way architects think and design.

Architectural drawing can transmit concepts better than words and the priorities of a company are evident just by looking at the quality of their drawings, from whether they use colours to the font styles they choose, the size of the images, what they want to show and what they do not based on how detailed their construction drawings are, and much more.

Computers have no personality of their own, so architects have to find the way to incorporate their personal style into drawings and designs instead of just using predetermined styles. When looking at hand-drawn construction drawings, it is easy to tell who has drawn which sheets and what details. It is important to achieve the same result with digital drawings by making custom graphic keys and personalizing settings.

“Architecture cannot divorce itself from drawing, no matter how impressive the technology gets. Drawings are not just end products: they are part of the thought process of architectural design,” American architect and designer Michael Graves, one of the principal figures in the postmodernist movement, wrote recently in the New York Times.

Hand-made drawings force architects and designers to use their brains, eyes and hands together in a way that improves their creativity much more than using a computer design software.

New York Guggenheim Museum

Handmade drawing of the New York Guggenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright.

In recent years, original architecture drawings have become as valuable as art in some cases. Like many other architects, Graves has held several exhibitions in galleries and museums. His drawings are part of the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt, in New York.

He said, however, that drawings should not be just “a collector’s artifact or a pretty picture” and should maintain their real purpose as an important tool to study and develop an idea along the design process of each architecture project.

Farnsworth House

Handmade floor plan drawing of Farnsworth House by Mies Van der Rohe.

Every design process includes a first stage in which the idea is initially conceived – a first referential sketch, sometimes consisting of just a few lines, expressing a very strong idea. That stage may go missing if a computer is brought into the design process from the get-go.

According to the generation that learned to draw with a pencil, something is lost when new generations draw only on the computer. Moreover, most professionals would argue that hand drawing is a valuable skill every architect must have.