Sketching requires engagement between your subject and your mind, and again between your mind and your hand. Sketching requires time, and it requires effort. It forces decisions: what is important to capture in your sketch? What fades to obscurity, and what is completely omitted? As a transplant to Boston, I have used sketching as a tool to familiarize myself with the city and improve my understanding of its mood and energy.
Three years ago, I began participating in Boston’s fledgling Urban Sketchers group. The purpose of this group is simple: draw on location from direct observation and show the world one drawing at a time. The group has sketched all around Boston: centrally at Beacon Hill, the North End, and the Seaport district, as well as farther afield in Somerville, Revere, and Salem, to name a few. The group has grown from a few passionate sketchers to planning regular weekend events with an active core membership.
Sketching Boston with this group engages in surprising ways. What vibrancy and livelihood can we find in the dead of winter? The cafés and libraries of Cambridge supply good subject matter. In spring and summer, a dense schedule of festivals and events inspire sideline sketching from dragon boat races to farmer’s markets. The passage of time is recorded as sketchbooks from three years ago compared to last month attest to Seaport’s frenzied growth. Some structures keep bringing us back, such as Saarinen’s MIT Chapel, or Corbusier’s Carpenter Center. Other buildings are captured as abstract background to the activity of the Esplanade or on the Commons.
My familiarity with the city is actively growing through sketching. From Post Office Square, I am more aware of the textures and scale of buildings and public space in the Financial District – and how quiet it is on the weekends! From sketching in Somerville, I have become familiar with the triple-decker grain that characterizes much of the region. From sketching in the North End, I’ve encountered the prominence of patina and brick, a tradition Boston is in no hurry to forget.
This sketching and engagement is an important building block to designing relevantly. It is an extended site visit that helps me to understand where we are coming from when we propose a new building in the city. Designing requires time, and it requires effort. It forces decisions: what is important to capture in your building? The simple answer is often space, units, square footage. By understanding the existing fabric, I hope we can move beyond the quantitative, and capture a sense of this place.