The Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University

Sketching School 2016, Saint John, NB

Professors Ricardo Castro, David Covo and Robert Mellin

This exhibition presents a selection of the work of the McGill University School of Architecture Sketching School, which took place in Saint John between August 27 and September 1, 2016.

Architects sketch when they travel, in all kinds of media, on fine watercolour paper and in simple sketchbooks, on napkins in bars and place mats in restaurants, on the backs of envelopes and even on stretched canvas.  Some keep journals that document journeys with ruled margins and crisp pencil drawings and others fill notebooks where train schedules and e-mail addresses share the page with watercolours of the Acropolis. For most, these sketches are more than just images; they are evidence of curiosity and the result of attempts to understand the world by observing and drawing what is seen and experienced. They record information and knowledge and reveal a process of inquiry and searching in which architectural ideas are explored and a deeper understanding of the environment developed.

This kind of sketching is for architects a fundamental skill but it is acquired with practice, so at the end of every summer 75-85 students from the McGill School of Architecture and two or three faculty members disappear for a little over one week to Sketching School, a course that the University Calendar, with characteristic understatement, defines as “an eight-day supervised field trip in the late summer to sketch places or things having specific visual characteristics”. Most students attend two Sketching Schools before graduating with the professional M. Arch. degree.

The location of Sketching School moves every year but the criteria used in its selection have not changed significantly since 1921, when the course was offered for the first time.  The site must be large enough to accommodate the class in hotels, motels, inns, dormitories, guest houses and campgrounds, but not so large that the group itself is absorbed. It should be within a day’s travel from Montreal by road or rail and be located on the shore of a navigable body of water – the sea, a river, a major lake. Most importantly, the place selected should be architecturally rich and visually memorable.  Quebec City and Kingston, sites of the first two Sketching Schools, are still popular destinations. Over time, the course has travelled to five provinces and two US states, and in recent years, the course has tended to rotate between sites like Baie-St-Paul, QC, Lunenburg, NS, Gloucester, Massachusetts, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Saint John, NB.

During the course, students explore the place – townscape and landscape – and make sketches that describe what they find.  Final evaluation is based on a portfolio of at least twenty pieces, the majority of which must be substantially worked. The emphasis is on field, or plein air, sketching, as opposed to studio work, so they draw outside every day, working individually and in small groups, and in a variety of media. On rainy days, those who are determined to remain outside will usually find shelter under an assortment of overhangs, gazebos, balconies and canopies, while those retreating indoors find inspiration in markets, taverns, churches, boat sheds and other previously undiscovered interiors.

Every second evening, the entire group meets for a critical discussion of the work in progress in a gymnasium, hotel meeting room, community centre or some other place large enough for the class to assemble comfortably and with enough wall space for two days of sketches. In our last several visits to Saint John (2008, 2012, 2016), we have been extremely fortunate to have been able to use the Saint John Arts Centre, a perfect venue for these meetings.

By the end of the course, the place is thoroughly and eloquently documented in the fifteen hundred images generated by the group over the week.  The volume of production is impressive, as a body of work and as the result of a process intended to develop in architecture students not only a love of drawing but also an appreciation for its power as a mechanism for understanding the world.

In August, 2016, when the School of Architecture brought over 80 students to Saint John, NB, ACRE Architects invited the class to their legendary Morning Mess (a monthly event for the public hosted in their office) and used the work in progress – the students’ images and evolving impressions of Saint John – to animate a conversation about the city with the mayor and members of the local community. The session, only 90 long, was lively and insightful. For the students, it was an opportunity to celebrate what they had learned about Saint John, and for the mayor and his fellow citizens, the sketches and watercolours revealed glimpses of a city that they recognized but seemed to be ‘seeing’ for the first time. For both groups, it was a convincing illustration of the power of drawing to both explore and express ideas about a place. 

On behalf of the three of us who teach this course and the students who participated, I would like to thank Andrew Kierstead and the SJAC for this opportunity to show some of the work, as well as Monica Adair of ACRE Architects who first suggested that we put together the students’ work and organize the exhibition to coincide with the RAIC Festival in Saint John.

David Covo – 4 May 2018