Sunday Sketch – Meet Some Twin Cities Urban Sketching Architects

Sketching isn’t just for professional artists. Sketching is a great way for people from all walks of life to practice staying rooted in one spot while observing and documenting the world in front of them. Naturally, I’d expect some of the folks who create the built environment around us to take an interest in sketching and sure ’nuff, a bunch of dedicated, active architect/sketchers” live and work right here in the Twin Cities.

American architects, particularly in the Beaux Arts era share an affinity with visual artists and some of them were pretty good sketch artists themselves. Architects did not entirely lose interest in drawing as brutalism, suburban sprawl, futurist schlock and the vacuity of AutoCAD  dominated American architecture in the last half of the last century. Minnesota architect Ralph Rapson kept the tradition alive with a modernist twist. There is an excellent book featuring Rapson’s drawings and sketches of buildings here in Minneosta and around the world. Michael Plutz was another architect/sketcher and there’s an exhibit of his artwork at the Architecture and Landscape Architecture Library at the University of Minnesota ending May 6th. Other, notable, present-day architect/sketchers at the University of Minnesota are Ozayr Saloojee,  a U of M architecture professor who leads architecture sketching study abroad in Istanbul. Eric Amel is another sketching architect at the U of M.

Last Sunday, the Metro Sketchers and Twin Cities Urban Sketchers  joined up for a sketch-out at the Union Depot in Saint Paul’s Lowertown. It was a fun gathering and you can see some of the great sketches produced at the MetroSketcher Facebook page and the TC Urban Sketchers blog. I also got to meet and talk a little with some Urban Sketcher architects in attendence. Here’s a photo I took of them holding their awesome sketches:


From left to right: Claire Gillis – Designer, RSP Architects, Jodi Masanz Larson – Designer Krech, O’Brian, Mueller & Associates, Amber Sausen, Designer & Sustainablilty Advocate, Architectural Alliance, James Nutt – Architect, New Studio Architecture and in front, Daniel Green, Architect, MIller Dunwiddie Architecture.

Jodi Masanz Larson has an amazing bunch of journal sketches on Flickr and her blog. Jodie shared some of her thoughts about sketching from life and how drawing learning architecture is a combination of seeing and hands-on experience:

Much of studying architecture is learning by observation and learning by doing. We typically learn to sketch as undergraduate students as not only a means of studying existing buildings, but also as a way to communicate ideas quickly and effectively. Now out of school and practicing I tend to view sketching as a way to record what inspires me about a place. Sketching allows me to pick and choose these things in a way that a camera can’t, plus it’s like keeping your own personal record and memories of the places you go.  Sometimes I find myself attracted to the light and shadows created by openings, sometimes it is the use and detailing of materials in a building, and sometimes it’s the people! I get a lot of inspiration from nature as well.  In this case, often it is the ideas from nature, for example the pattern of a leaf or the beauty of a birch tree that get used as inspiration in architectural design.

James Nutt says he was sketching in 1999 while in architecture school, “I was doing Urban Sketching without knowing that I was Urban Sketching!” James Nutt recently entered and was accepted in a drawing competition on why drawing is still relevant to design and architecture see them here. James Nutt also shared some of his thoughts about his combined interest in art and architecture:

I was the kid who always drew in class. It always drove my teachers crazy.  I am an architect because I wanted to draw for a living. Now I get a lot of satisfaction for getting paid to do what they always told me to stop doing.

Proportion is very very important to me in design work and my art. When I sketch I ALWAYS start with proportion. Once you get the big moves proportionally close you can find the middle proportional moves in relation to the whole.  Once those two are in place the small detail is happy accident.  I don’t tend to exaggerate drawings very much, but when I do it is put things in a better proportion than they may have started.

I believe all architects should draw.  There is a lot of value in sketching the urban environment while trying to figure out and re-express how the architects, planners, and time effect a place and the people. Music is similar where one musician studies other musicians phrasing to deepen their own musicality. Really looking at, studying, and absorbing how the built world and the people who interact with it is a wonderful exercise for anyone.

James Nutt has a fun blog devoted to architecture, design and travel called “Nutt Draws”.

Amber Sausen is a designer and Urban Sketcher TwinCities correspondent. Amber trained as an architect, so she sketches as part of her profession and for fun. Amber is an active Urban Sketcher with an awesome collection of sketches on Flicker. Amber Sausen has been to a bunch of international Urban Sketcher symposiums  and arranged to fly Urban Sketcher guru Gabi Campanario to Minnesota give a talk at Wet Paint in Saint Paul and inspire architects to sketch at an AIA retreat up in Duluth (see Gabi’s sketches of Duluth here). Amber Sausen says sketching, along with model building and digital model creation is part  of her process of designing:

I sketch to learn about the world around me in a tactile way rather than just a visual or intellectual way. Tactile in the sense that my pen and hand are tracing the edges, surfaces, and light of what my eye sees. A (modified) blind contour is a great way to do this. It’s also my favorite stealth sketching style when capturing people on the bus. It’s a nice counterpoint to the sketching that happens in my work life.

Sketching to understand and sketching to solve problems. The spatial challenges of architecture don’t limit themselves to a sheet of two dimensional paper, but the way we communicate them typically does. So sketching around a building condition that we want to understand in plan, elevation, section, and axonometric views allows us to communicate and see on paper the design in our heads.

Sketching has taken my intellectual knowledge of buildings, memorized in school, and given it real world context through application by capturing parts, pieces, and the whole in a drawing.

Memory and sketching — open one of my sketchbooks and I will be able to tell you so many things beyond what you’ll see on the page. As an act that happens through time, sketching captures the weather, smells, sounds, and happenings of a place in addition to the image. Compared with a photograph, which is taken in a heartbeat, the sketch becomes an experienced memory rather than an object (or signifier) of memory. These memories and experiences are important reference points for my design work and how I create spaces.

Daniel Green is another dedicated urban sketcher and architect, see his amazing sketches on Flickr and Twitter. Daniel Green says Architects are “visual communicators” and he thinks it’s an advantage to be a sort of visual polyglot thinking and creating in two as well as three dimensions. Daniel Green also approaches sketching as a mental exercise:

Sketching for an architect is like working out for an athlete.  Staying in shape means our mind and hands are prepared to communicate in whatever media the information requires.

When we consider a building or an urban location through sketching, we come to understand both the building and also the space between buildings and how it is used.   This contextual analysis informs my work as an architect by reminding me to consider how buildings are perceived as a part of the larger city.

I met Claire Gillis for the first time at the Union Depot sketch-out. Claire was also at the MetroSketcher Saint Paul Conservatory sketch-out over a month ago and she did some nice sketching there.

I think it’s good thing to have all these architect/sketchers in  the Twin Cities and I hope other architects join them as they take time to observe and document our urban landscape.

Now, if we can only get traffic engineers to become Urban Sketchers.


Ken Avidor

About Ken Avidor

Ken Avidor is an illustrator, cartoonist and occasional courtroom sketch artist. Ken Avidor is an active urban sketcher and maintains a daily, illustrated journal. Ken is married to urban cartographer and talented sketch artist Roberta Avidor in the Union Depot in Lowertown, Saint Paul. Follow Ken and Roberta's sketching/bicycling adventures on their travel blog.