Sketching the Housing Crisis

A pandemic sketchbook becomes a prompt to design activism.

Text and images by Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA

Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA, sketching outdoors. He calls urban sketching a public act, one of vulnerability and frustration balanced with unique opportunities for dialogue, discovery, and fulfillment. In these conditions, the scene, weather, and stamina are always shifting. Focus, adaptation, fortitude, and luck become some of the best assets.

In The Thinking Hand, the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa describes how sketching is a multilayered process of interpretation, one that requires rapid decisions and adjustments. For example, the darkening of one form affects our understanding of those around it, or when we notice the foreground object is a certain size, we understand that a distant object must be half the size, and so on. Through this continuing dialogue a memory is imprinted.

Observation and contemplation of the phenomena and nuances of a scene are critical skills honed specifically through field sketching. The father of neurobiology, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, required his medical students to enroll in drawing and watercolor classes because he believed the act of depiction strengthened attention and obliged us “to cover the whole of the phenomenon studied and preventing, therefore, details from escaping our attention which are frequently unnoticed in ordinary observation.”

Sketching as a form of activism, the documentation of societal injustices through the pen, has a long and rich history. Until the introduction of the camera, field sketches were etched into copper plates or carved into wood blocks, printed, and distributed to a wider audience. The artist Honoré Daumier created sharp critiques of 19th-century French social and political life and was imprisoned for his satirical renderings of French kings and the bourgeoisie, only to pick up his pen to continue his activist dissent upon his release. Despite the dominance of photography, sketches have elicited a deep resonance among viewers since Daumier created his controversial drawings. For example, Mark Loughney has sketched pencil portraits of more than 600 fellow inmates since being incarcerated in 2012. His visual studies of mass incarceration humanize the individual, providing a respectfully rendered counterpoint to the demonizing and stereotyping often portrayed in the media. His quick drawings are tender, nuanced, and dignified. As Loughney reflected in an interview with the Marshall Project, these are quick field sketches that are later fully rendered, as he had only 20 minutes per sitting to focus “amidst the chaos of prison.”

The surrounding context of a monumental church, modest bungalows, and new town houses signify the continuing gentrification that contrasts with the wild median grasslands of the off-ramp. The scene crystallizes the growing inequities that define the city.

Many landscape architects excel at sketching, as the sketch crawls at ASLA conferences confirm, but few seem to use it to document the social conditions of their time. One notable exception is Breath on the Mirror: Seattle’s Skid Road Community, a book by Laurie Olin, FASLA, that is a powerful anthropological depiction of Seattle’s Pioneer Square in the early 1970s. More often, landscape architects use sketching to explore means of communication, observation, and sense of place. Chip Sullivan, FASLA, practices and teaches sketching using a graphic novel and cartooning approach. Richard Alomar, ASLA; Caroline Lavoie; and Kenneth Helphand, FASLA, use sketching to document places they live in or travel to. Many landscape architecture programs have field sketching courses and use field drawing to record their study abroad experiences.

I began drawing around the age of eight and never stopped. Maybe as a less-than-stellar student serving time in “remedial” classes, I discovered early that mainstream, academic America was not a possibility and saw drawing as a sanctuary. Drawing gave back in a way that only a few of my teachers did. As each line or mark was applied, the page became enriched, the scene more resolved, the gesture more emphatic. I was attracted to drawing as an act of magic, one that didn’t judge but rather rewarded me. I tagged behind my dad to sketch his string quartet practices and eventually, after dropping out of college, undertook a three-year apprenticeship with an artist and later got a bachelor of fine arts degree.

The endurance of this site is admirable. Tucked between the trees and well camouflaged, it blends into the surroundings. Many students, faculty, and joggers pass the site, but few stop to talk or admire the fastidiousness and cleanliness of the camp.

Last year, isolated in lockdown and teaching studio classes on Zoom, I started wandering to alleviate the restlessness, invigorate my body, and escape the confines of four walls. The pandemic has forced many to ask fundamental, soul-searching questions. What I saw were deserted streets, businesses closing overnight, and a dramatic increase of homeless encampments. They were carved into freeway median strips, tucked under bridges, infilling parks, abutting or blocking sidewalks, occupying parking spaces, or sanctioned in parking lots. Seattle resembled the Hoovervilles of the 1930s. After a long hiatus from wandering with my sketchbook, I found myself undertaking an extensive documentation. I became adept at finding encampments and inventorying locations. I came to realize how temporal these spaces can be, in some cases returning only to find a site removed by the authorities, destroyed by fire, or the inhabitant(s) having relocated, died, or been arrested as reported by those still living on-site. I began with quick six-by-eight-inch sketches done while perched on walls. Later, as the intentionality grew, I carried a lightweight stool and bigger sketchbooks. At home, I started to refine the pencil and pen and ink, adding lines and shading with 005/01 Pigma Micron pens.

Pallasmaa noted the difference between photographing a place versus sketching the same scene and the power of the sketch to elicit a lasting memory, a process he found lacking in simply taking a snapshot, a process that is now dominant in our culture with the preponderance of cell phones. These vivid memories accrue, serving as visual and emotional inventories and informing the designers’ approach, perspective, and narrative. As Pallasmaa notes, they are both inventory and critical skill development. “Every act of sketching and drawing produces three different sets of images: the drawing that appears on the paper, the visual image recorded in my cerebral memory, and a muscular memory of the act of drawing itself. All three images are not mere momentary snapshots, as they are recordings of a temporal process of successive perception, measuring, evaluation, correction and re-evaluation. A drawing is an image that compresses an entire process, fusing a distinct duration into that image.”

Tears in the urban fabric are more common as access to less visible residual spaces becomes necessary for people experiencing homelessness. This camp sits on an island created by on-ramps. The roadway, notably less scenic than a water body, plays a similar role as a moat in the creation of defensible space.

While wandering for scenes of interest, I consciously make choices. Is there a striking contrast or absence of light? Are there specific details, or is it a documentation of a larger landscape or tent encampment? Next, I search for the proper angle to frame the composition. This is an important decision because the following process of rendering cannot salvage a poor composition. I consider whether the scene should be centered or asymmetrical, what will bring out the dynamic qualities that tell the story and represent my interpretation. Once the composition is lightly marked, I place the primary directional lines, scale the elements within the composition, and quickly render what is seen. As the rendering takes shape, I start to add shadow patterns, harden or fatten lines for emphasis, infill details—leaves, litter, fabric folds, plants, etc.—and then balance the toning across the whole composition. In pen and ink I generally use parallel lines to create density or crosshatch to achieve a darker tone. Once the shading and line weights are set, I darken any areas that need to pop out and adjust hue and tone to achieve spatial depth. I sometimes apply watercolor atop the waterproof ink.

Above and below: A pair of drawings of the charred skeleton of a motor home approached through different applications of color. Winterbottom relays a conversation with residents: “It was Slipper’s place, and they barely got her out alive. She’s an alchemist, makes concoctions, and it just blew up on Christmas Eve.” The speaker leaned in face-to-face, a rugged handsomeness surrounding soft azure eyes, tattoos visible along his knuckles. “What’s your name?” I asked. “Nick, but I go by the name of Detour.”

So what is the role of sketching in landscape architecture? The focused observation that sketching requires expands and deepens our understanding of the world and its ecology, and affects how cultural imprints are rendered and absorbed. Analysis and articulation of spatial relationships, textures, and patterns help us to develop a greater literacy around the natural and built environment. This in turn informs and expands our design decisions. Rendering techniques become intuitive and applicable to both hand and digital expression, to conceptual and illustrative drawings. Through our wanderings our curiosity increases. We become more comfortable exploring places we previously would have ignored or avoided. We study the effects of natural light, observe plant habits and their characteristics. Maybe most important, we continue the essential process of learning to activate, awaken, and testify.

Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA, is a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington and the founder of Winterbottom Design Inc. in Seattle.

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