Kirby was a professor of architecture at The University of Arizona, and he made a huge impact on Tucson and many architects around the world and during his career. He was an internationally recognized architect, professor, artist and city planner, lecturing throughout the U.S., Canada, Great Britain and Mexico. However most of us (his former students - know him as an author and teacher on design communications – not just drawing, but how to communicate a design. His book, Drawing as a Means to Architecture, published by Reinhold in 1968 was a pivotal textbook for all architects and designers at a time before personal computers when all design students were trying to do perspectives accurately while designing. The premise of the book reflects an important principle that will always remain with me that “…drawing is an inseparable part of the design process, not an end in itself…”.
Although many of the drawings in the book are aesthetically stiff and precise, Kirby wanted us to know how to draw accurately so that when we did other types of drawings such as quick sketches, the fundamentals of communicating in three dimensions would be understood. His students would spend hours laying out perspectives and then work on having light and shadow touch the spaces in the drawings to understand how the spaces actually worked. His award winning church in Tucson, the Dove of Peace Lutheran Church is such an example. The building was designed as a container of spiritual light as seen in his drawing and in the resultant building.
Kirby could also do quick sketches and stressed the importance of doing doodles to explore design ideas. He knew that if you could do a precise drawing and understand how the perspective and light worked, then you could do a better sketch.
One of my favorite sketches that Kirby made for me was when we were working together on the campus planning for a new engineering complex at the University of Arizona. We were having some internal planning debates on whether the buildings should be placed tight to the busy Speedway Boulevard or set back to reflect a campus environment with a traditional landscaped lawn between the building and Speedway. Kirby knew the right answer, and he knew how to communicate it. He did a rough sketch on a piece of lined yellow paper to quickly show the importance of placing the building tight to Speedway so that an inner courtyard could be created that would be much more conducive to a “campus environment” than a traditional lawn on Speedway.
Since this was the age before computer simulations, Kirby also wanted the campus planners to understand how important it was to design all future buildings tight to Speedway, so that more tranquil courtyards could be created and buffered from the noisy Speedway by the placement of the academic buildings. Kirby believed the best way to communicate this would be to do an active video of buildings along Speedway; so he borrowed a video camera and enlisted some graduate students to take videos while riding with him as he drove his Mustang convertible up and down Speedway. Kirby was always the perfectionist and since he wanted to get just the right sequence and angles, these rides up and down Speedway eventually resulted in overheating his Mustang. However in spite of the damage to his car, Kirby made his argument, the campus planners and engineering faculty agreed with Kirby’s urban design concept – and the radiator replacement for his car never showed up as a reimbursable expense, for which I was eternally grateful. The architects for the eventual buildings won a design award, but whenever I see these buildings, I always think of Kirby’s initial planning sketch and then an old Mustang convertible full of graduate students driving up and down Speedway Boulevard with a video camera precariously balanced.
Kirby always seem to draw with a simple fountain pen and then he would add a bit of color (usually Prismacolor pencils) for emphasis. After he retired from the University, he had a chance to travel and do drawings for his own enjoyment. However, he always did his drawings carefully. I asked him once how long it took him to do some of these sketches of the Florence Duomo and Campanile. I was expecting him to say “15 minutes or so” since I’d seen him draw an idea very quickly, but I should have known that these were 1 hour drawings because he would take the time to do a proper layout to get the proportions right. He was always studying the perspective, the light, and resultant shadows.
Kirby passed away in 2007 at a time when students were doing less drawing and more computer work. But I don’t think Kirby cared too much about how design was communicated – just as long as the perspective was correct and the shadows placed accurately. Although many of us became a bit lazy in our sketching and drawing techniques, Kirby is still revered by students and architects from all over the world as an important mentor for how to effectively communicate ideas.
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