Why do so many architects still sketch when they travel? There are occasions when our ability to make a quick sketch is convenient - for example, when we find ourselves in environments where photography is forbidden - but our continuing love affair with sketching seems to address desires that are not satisfied by the portable cameras, tablets and smart phones lurking in our pockets and handbags. We sketch on watercolour blocks and in simple sketchbooks, on napkins in bars and on tablecloths in restaurants; we sketch on airsickness bags retrieved from the seat pocket in front of us, on the inside of empty cigarette packs, on the backs of envelopes and business cards, and we even sketch on our smart phones and tablets. We keep journals that document our travels with thoughtful reflections and crisp pencil drawings and we fill notebooks where train schedules and e-mail addresses share the pages with gestural pen and ink sketches of urban squares and inspiring interiors.
Making these kinds of drawings takes time; some are completed in five minutes, others take longer. Short or long, the act of making the drawing defines a relationship with the place that is usually not possible with mechanical forms of documentation – like tablets and most cameras - that literally come between the observer and the subject. The rituals associated with sketching provide an intellectual and physical framework for our encounters with environments that interest us. The drawings that we produce record not only what we saw but also what we were thinking and what we know. They are not just postcard views of architectural monuments; they are evidence of our curiosity and our attempts to understand the ideas that shape our world.
This kind of sketching is for architects a fundamental skill but it is acquired with practice, so at the end of every summer almost half of the student body of the McGill School of Architecture and two faculty members disappear for a little over one week to Sketching School, a field exercise that supports two separate courses, Architectural Sketching ARCH 325 and Field Sketching ARCH 680. Students usually complete ARCH 325 in the summer following second year, and ARCH 680 in the summer preceding the first semester of the professional M.Arch. program.
The location of Sketching School moves every year but the criteria used in its selection have not changed significantly since 1921, when the course was offered for the first time. The site is usually a small to medium-sized town, large enough to accommodate the class in hotels, motels, inns, dormitories, guest houses and campgrounds, but not so large that the group itself is absorbed. It is within a day's travel from Montreal by road or rail and is located on the shore of a navigable body of water - the sea, a river, a major lake. Most importantly, the place selected is architecturally rich and visually memorable. Quebec City and Kingston, sites of the first two Sketching Schools, are still popular locations. Since then, the course has travelled to five provinces and three states, visiting sites such as: Port Hope and Gananoque, Ontario; Baie St-Paul and La Malbaie, Quebec; Halifax and Lunenburg, Nova Scotia; and Charlottetown, PEI. In 1991, the course was held for the first time in the USA, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and in 1993, in Bar Harbor, Maine. Last year, the course travelled to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and this summer it will return to Lunenburg.
During the course, students are expected to explore the place - townscape and landscape - and to make sketches that describe what they find. Final evaluation is based on a portfolio of at least twenty pieces, the majority of which must be substantially worked. The emphasis is on field sketching as opposed to studio work, so students draw outside every day, working individually and in small groups, and in a variety of media, but not to the extent that they become distracted from the subject. On rainy days, those determined to remain outside find shelter under an assortment of overhangs, gazebos, balconies and canopies, while those retreating indoors find inspiration in markets, taverns, churches, boat sheds and other previously undiscovered interiors.
Every second evening, we meet in a gymnasium, hotel meeting room, community centre or some other place large enough for the class to assemble comfortably and with enough wall space for two day's worth of sketches. These sessions last two hours and provide a forum not only for a review of the work but also for informal discussions on the intentions of the course and on the process by which images and memories are formed.
By the end of the course, the place is thoroughly and eloquently documented in the fifteen hundred images generated by the group over the eight day period. The volume of production is impressive, as a body of work and as the result of a process intended to develop in architecture students not only a love of drawing but also an appreciation for its power as a mechanism for understanding the world.
For more information about the 2014 Sketching School, please click HERE.
Previous Sketching School Sites
|1959||Quebec (Ile d'Orléans)|
|1963||Baie St. Paul|
|1988||Saint John, NB|
|1993||Bar Harbor, Maine|
|1998||Saint John, NB|
|2003||Saint John, NB|
|2004||Bar Harbor, Maine|
|2005||Baie St-Paul, Quebec|
|2006||Lunenburg, Nova Scotia|
|2008||Saint John, NB|
|2009||Baie St-Paul, Quebec|
|2010||Lunenburg, Nova Scotia|
|2012||Saint John, NB|
|2013||Portsmouth, New Hampshire|
|2014||Lunenburg, Nova Scotia|