Todd Richards

B.Arch. 1988
Montreal, QC
Interview by Harry Mayerovitch

Well, Todd, as you know, the school is celebrating its centennial, and since you don’t seem to be one of the earlier graduates, I understand you graduated in nineteen eighty [odd]?

’88. Eighty [even].

…that you would have some insights, not so much into the history, where we were, but you have some ideas as to where we are going. Among other things, I am told that you have some experience with the computer so far as it affects architectural thinking and drafting.

This is true.

Well, if it’s true, more reason for us to hear about it.

Shall I elaborate?

If you don’t mind. Not for your own, you know… for the benefit of posterity.

Alright then. Well, I think the interesting thing for someone who graduated in the late eighties is that we are in the cusp between the old and the new as far as architectural presentation goes. What we learned in school was to draw, and I think we learned it very well. And when we moved over into practice, when I moved over into practice from school, I then had to learn how to draft. And at the time, both of these things were done by hand and it all meshed together, the two went hand in hand. But not long after I graduated, it soon became obvious that I was going to have to learn how to use the computer. And I must say that I had been introduced to it in school. There was an AutoCAD course as far back as 1986, I guess, or even before then it was started, I think I took it in 1987. But at the time, I should say that the AutoCAD course is the only course at McGill that I ever dropped. And the problem then, which I think maybe ties into the problem with it now, is that it took far too much of time that I felt should be better devoted to learning about architecture. There was too much time spent, or that could be spent, learning about the inner machinations of this box, this computer, and it was taking time away from the core design course.


Are you suggesting that [undecipherable] while the computer may be a valuable drawing instrument, that in the manner of thinking about architecture, that it may not yet be as valuable a tool?

I wouldn’t necessarily say that, but I would say that as far as architectural education goes, that I think time is precious. And I think that you can hand a student a pencil and a board of wood and get them banging away on ideas and they are going to start learning about architecture. If you put them in front of a computer screen and expect them now to become computer scientists so that they can understand how to make that line that they could have just made with the pencil in the first place, I think maybe that’s not the most effective use of a student’s time.


So it may be for the moment a misplaced use in terms of an architectural education at least.

Well, I don’t think it’s misplaced, because when they graduate, they will be expected to know how to use the computer. So I think it’s a bit of a quandary. And I guess, as with anything else, it’s a fine line that has to be walked between introducing them to something, but perhaps not turning out professional computer draftsman.


One of the notions I think you have expressed is that one of the characteristics of student designs is a tendency to veer toward ambiguity as a quality. Do you think that the introduction of the computer would be sort of a counter-action to that tendency or do you think they are both compatible?

Well, I think that students will be able to figure out lots of ways to use the computer to create ambiguous images! But if we were then to look on the other side at the working world, the practice of architecture, I would say that in some ways, the computer poses a problem to design in that it does tend to cut off ambiguities because the lines – it’s very difficult to take a computer and to do a very soft hint of a line or to do a very bold, gestural line without spending so much time thinking about it, that you’ve forgotten what the gesture was supposed to be in the first place.


It becomes very precise in requirements.

Well, exactly. It all goes back to freehand drawing. Gerry Tondino told us that we had to draw with our shoulder, not with our wrist. You draw the big gesture with your shoulder and once you’ve made that gesture, well then maybe you want to move in and hatch it in with your wrist but you have to start with the shoulder. And I think the computer poses a problem to design in that it’s not just the wrist you are using; you are just using the tips of your fingers.


Now do you think that to think, as many of us try to, from the general to the particular, is a difficult thing for the computer to do?

It can be a trap, because the computer sucks you in. Obviously, I’m only speaking from my own personal point of view and maybe I’m just exorcising my own design demons here, but the tendency is definitely to become lost in the complexities. With the computer you can simply keep zooming in, and zoom in forever. You can go - potentially you can keep going to an infinitely small scale. Whereas when you are drawing on a plan, once you start getting smaller than the point of your pencil, you know that you have probably gone as far as you need to go as far as detail for that given drawing.


Well, in a general way, Todd, do you feel that the schools of Architecture today are managing to keep up with what seem to be changing requirements in the architectural profession?

Hmm… that’s a very good question. I’m not sure but I don’t see what else they could do, if you know what I mean. The profession is definitely changing. And, you know, as they say, the schools are there to teach students to think. And I think the more tools you can give them to think with, the better you are going to prepare them to go out and be practitioners. And my experience is, that as far as schools go, I think McGill did a good job of covering the bases and trying, at least trying to keep the students’ feet on the ground whether or not they wanted them to be kept there or not.


So you think the prospects for the next hundred years look kind of good.

For the school?

For the school.

… Or for the practice of architecture?

Maybe that’s not a question you are prepared to answer!

Well, I think that it’s a changing world out there and I think that the pace of the change is accelerating. And it’s certainly an exciting time. But I wouldn’t want to guess what the future holds but I think we should all be optimistic.


Yes well, would you have any more thoughts about the future?

Well, it’s something that I’ve been thinking about, particularly with the question of architectural drawing, architectural education and where I’ve seen the industry headed. And I’ve mentioned that I find that one of the problems with drawing with computer-aided design is the tendency for the design phase to be tightened up much too quickly. The gesture tends to be lost very quickly. Because the computer is such a precise tool, that we have the tendency to want to make our designs precise immediately. And there is a tendency to lose the forest for the trees because you’ve gotten into looking at the exact size of any given room or space or object instead of thinking about the relative size of that object. And when I think about what the future holds, I see the profession, or the teaching of drawing in the schools probably going more and more towards a direct link to the computer. I think that probably the profession will demand this.


Well do you think that - the general tendency in drawing, as I understand it, is to start from the general, to make the major statement, and then fill in the details. It’s a process of thinking which I think applies to other aspects of one’s life and activities. Do you think there is some danger that this procedure may be distorted, perhaps?

Compressed. I would say definitely compressed because another problem with computer drawing is that you have a tendency to not want to waste any lines. Once you’ve drawn a line, you can use it. You can modify it, you can stretch it, change it. So there is a tendency to not want to waste your time drawing on paper, when you can put the drawing into the computer and then change it on the computer, it would be much more effective. But I find that the problem is, that it’s very easy to lose sight of the big picture. Now, it brings me back to what we learned in Freehand Drawing. And I have the feeling that Freehand Drawing is going to become more and more crucial to architectural education as the computer drawing also has more emphasis in the classrooms. The first thing that Gerry Tondino taught us was to draw the gesture. A model would be presented to the class and we would start with the gesture. And we would draw with the shoulder and draw the gesture. The next most important thing that he would teach us, or that he taught us, was proportion. So once you had captured the essence of the model’s gesture, you would then make sure that you were presenting what you saw proportionally. And he had lots of techniques for us to use in order to make sure that the head was the right size with relation to the body. And indirectly, he was teaching us design. Once the proportion was established, we would then move on and work on the structure of the model, the skeleton, if you will, the masses. And only once we had established the gesture, proportion and basic structure of the model would we then start to flesh her out, now Gerry always chose the freehand models, of course, so I can say her. We would then flesh out the model and only then would we be allowed to start drawing with the wrist as opposed to with the shoulder. We would start adding those tones and textures and I think a lot of the feeling for the lines with the pencil was able to be transferred back to our architectural drawing, not to mention all of the previous rules that we learned. Now with the Sketching Schools, there was a similar process, where you were expected to compose a scene and only once you had established a good composition and a good design for your piece of work that you were doing would you be allowed to then move in and start getting into the particularities of the subject.


Well, what seems to interest me at this moment is that this seems to bring rise to the concept of the importance of the relation of the parts to the whole. And when we consider that in Renaissance times, of course that was the centre of the architectural thinking, which led to the development of abstract precedents like the golden proportion and so forth. So do you think there has been perhaps a danger that that kind of thinking might be, I would say, disappearing, might be becoming less important in terms of developing overall principles?

Well, I would almost go so far as to say that it’s not a question of thinking, but it’s a question of drawing, because for me, the drawing was a physical act, and that’s going back to the shoulder, to the wrist, to the fingertips. It’s a physical act and by drawing do you design and the thoughts flow from your mind out through your arm to your hand. And I think, maybe it’ s as simple as that. It’s simply a question of the fact that when we work on a computer, we’re no longer able to draw with our body. We are drawing just with the little tips of our fingers. And the only advice at that point that you can go back to is to remember to step away from the work. Gerry would always tell us: “Step away from the work and see what you are doing. Look at the gesture”. And with a computer, it’s just too easy to zoom in.


You get too far away from the base point.

Too close in to the base point.

Well, it depends what you consider the base: the starting point or the end!

The base is the – in any case, how do you step away from the work with a computer? I think that in many cases, it’s called printing your work, so you see what it’s doing, and then walking away from it. Now maybe that’s a primitive stage, and in the future, the whole interface will become so much more subtle or complex that maybe what I’m saying now will just seem primitive in another five or ten years.

I’m afraid we’re going to get too far out into outer space architecturally.

Well, once again, I’m afraid we’ll get too far into inner space too!

You see, there we have a contradiction in our way of thinking. One of us that is standing on his head and I don’t know which one!


This whole question of virtual reality, where people are tempted to even live their lives within a constructed universe… We haven’t seen much of it in the actual working profession, although it’s definitely coming. And perhaps here in Montreal things percolate down a little bit more slowly than they do in New York City, for example. But I think, that again is going to change the way students look at what they are doing and the way people see the world, just in the same way that television did before that and even photographs did before that.


Could you be more precise for someone who is not up to that yet? What is virtual reality as is understood in the computer age?

Well, currently, I guess, virtual reality would be- you know what a rendering looks like…


…it’s a scene. Well, imagine the situation where you were able to put on a headset, and you had sensors connected to your body and you were able to start walking through that rendering and walking through a building. Now we’ ve started getting closer to that with what they call fly-throughs where you are able to move through a building and it changes the scene almost as a movie. But imagine the situation where you weren’t just following a movie but you were controlling your motions, you were choosing which corridors you wished to walked down and which spaces you wanted to explore. It’s something probably where the university is on the cutting edge of the research being done and it’s something that I would be very interested to see what’s going on with it. I think it’s a whole other area that, again, we haven’t seen it much in the working world yet, but I think it’s something whose time will come. And we’ll probably be faced with a whole other set of big questions that we need to answer about whether it’s a good thing.


Well, is it a matter then of sort of replacing what we consider to be reality as one which you can – for which you can substitute a kind of make-believe reality or one more suitable to your particular momentary needs or whims?

Well, I think that’s the question that society is going to have to answer about virtual reality and it goes far beyond the practice of architecture or architectural education. What happens when people prefer to spend time hooked up to their VR gear than they spend living their real lives? I think we’ve maybe seen a little bit of this already with children that are babysat by the television set and tend to tune out of the real world. They tend to lose their conversational skills or they don’t actually even gain them as they normally would. When you take it into another dimension, where you’ve got three dimensions of reality, or artificial reality, I think the problem will become that much more severe and that questions will have to be asked as to whether this is good or not.


So do you think this could lead to a kind of mass schizophrenia?

I don’t know exactly – I’m not sure what the clinical definition of schizophrenia is at this point.

I think, if I understand it, it has to do with living in two separate worlds.

Well, if you picture a world in which people are all plugged into their life support systems and lying in catacombs living their lives through their virtual reality gear, I’d say they’ve gone beyond living in two separate worlds, they are living in one world but it’s an artificial one and has no actual physical reality to it.

Well Todd, thank you very much and I hope that by the time the McGill School of Architecture bicentennial comes around we will have solved that contradiction.

I think we will have to solve it one way or the other whether we want to or not!

Very good!