A Dinosaur in the Digital Age

CAD drawing of Overlook at The Yards Park
CAD drawing of overlook options for The Yards Park
image: M. Paul Friedberg

M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA has transitioned into the digital age and urges other older professionals to find the freedom he has discovered.

He has practiced landscape architecture for 54 years and has designed many memorable places such as Pershing Park in Washington, DC.  He has seen the tools of the profession transformed from hand drawings, watercolors and slide rules to the use of calculators and digitally produced drawings.  He started our conversation by stating “You’re talking to a dinosaur.”  He is an octogenarian landscape architect who is using CAD for his professional work.  Here are Paul’s viewpoints on his use of technology in practice based on two extended conversations with him.

Paul recalled how his attitude and interest in using computers in his offices evolved.  “Initially when the computer revolution began the [person] running my office resisted the computer and I supported him 100%.” Then Paul opened an office in Israel that had not only landscape architects on staff, but also CAD technicians  “I would make a sketch and then give it to someone who was facile with the computer.  They would take it and give it back to me— it would look nothing like what I had sketched.  I began to realize that I was no longer in control of my design. I realized that I had to skip the sketching and do the design myself on the computer in order to get the results I wanted.”

Getting Started with CAD

Paul started to acquaint himself with the digital drawing process by simply observing.  “Initially I sat next to somebody and said do this, do that, do this, do that and they would.  And little by little the design would grow and it was beautiful.  It had colors.”  Although he found it intriguing to watch the process, he was still put off.    “I said to myself this is not working.  Also, the guy I sat next to had body odor, so that was a good impetus for changing or getting away.”

So instead of giving voice commands, Paul decided to buy a computer.  He hired a landscape architect from Israel to “work as my right arm and she slowly showed me how to work the various aspects of the technology.  He describes his learning process as a “pick up” education— learning bits and pieces at a time.  “As I needed certain pieces of information, I would get it.  And that’s pretty much how I still work.”

The overlook as it exists today in The Yards Park, Southeast Federal Center, Washington DC
The overlook as it exists today in The Yards Park, Southeast Federal Center, Washington DC
image: M. Paul Friedberg

A Few Changes During the Past 54 Years

Paul recalls that the transition to digital drawing happened quickly. “This is the crux of everything that I’m talking about, all of a sudden without any preparation the methodology of producing drawings changed.”

He calls how “the old warhorses” grow up using big fat lead pencils.  Fondly recalling how his hands would be smudged and smeared with graphite “that was almost like a badge of involvement and creativity.”  “If you could come back all smudged up, then you were really designing.”  Then he remembers the introduction of felt tip pens and how they transformed drawing “you had fine points, thick points, wedge points— different colors for presentation styles instead of water colors.  But he also recalls the lack of precision when using these new tools. “There was yet another method of smearing.  What’s important is when you smear you aren’t precise.  So the ideas in your head when transmitted to the other person, as in art, are left to the viewer to interpret.”  What the designer may have intended to convey when he drew and sketched, was often perceived “slightly different because it was not precise.”


“Sketching is wonderful, but it doesn’t bring me to the point where I want to be– that is to take the drawing and translate it into a three-dimensional existence.  To make it a reality, and that’s what’s important. It’s not the drawing that’s important.  Everyone talks about the hand drawing, and yes that’s okay if you’re an artist or even if you’re a landscape architect.  There is something wonderful about being able to see the touch of the person who’s designing.  But on the other hand, it doesn’t bring you to what we are about which is the realization of landscape compositions.”

Design Process

Please don’t think Paul has abandoned the paper and pen. “To cut to the chase, I sometimes will take a piece of paper and a felt tip pen and block out something because it’s just a little quicker,  then I’ll go back to the computer to give it a reality.”  That last step of translating the drawing into the computer is where the drawing stops being an idea and starts to become a reality.  “The ability to be disciplined by exact dimensions, by a reality in terms of the result and not just the imagery is important.  You can’t fudge with a computer.  You begin to realize that you need to be much more precise and explicit in what you are drawing.  This technology changed the way the designer had to relate to the design process.”

Paul still finds himself handing over hand drawings to colleagues to finalize.  As anyone who has worked in a firm knows, this is an iterative process.  “It depends on who I’m working with.  I can give them a fairly definitive drawing where there are a lot of notes and so forth— when I get it back it’s usually fairly close to what I want.  If I’m working with someone I’ve worked with for a while the process is much quicker, but if it’s a younger person I have to be much more definitive.  If you were to look at this in the so called “traditional” way of working, it’s as if the computer is the sketch pad for the design and the notes and everything else I need to communicate [are the graphic smears and smudges].

image: M. Paul Friedberg
“I’ve always been involved in the design of furniture. I was the original designer of Timberform – a wood playground company and then went into site furniture. So the idea of designing furniture for my own project was something that I was familiar with.
The bench is a series of benches with the same vocabulary that go through the entire project. Landforms was the company that actually built the benches in collaboration with us.”
image: M. Paul Friedberg
image: M. Paul Friedberg
image: M. Paul Friedberg

The Magic of Digital Tools

He realizes that there are times for designing with pen and paper and times to design on the computer.  “The computer [has given] me incredible freedom, in a way much more so than the sketch pad and pencil, and I found myself slowly beginning to design with the computer.  My designs have always been architectonic with a strong geometric underpinning.  The computer allowed me to continue this traditional design expression without missing a beat.  If I was more organic in my designs then I might have more difficulty.  I would have to develop a greater facility with the computer to work in that form.”

 “For me [digital] tools are magical because not only do they allow me that freedom to communicate, but a freedom also that I find that I didn’t get with the pencil or the felt tip.  In the past I would replicate a drawing by putting tracing paper over it and redrawing until I got it to go where I wanted.  With the computer I can copy it, I can adjust it, and I can move it— giving me tremendous flexibility.  I can show the client 10 different ways of seeing the same thing.  Not just different views, but 10 different design approaches or 5 or 2 or 1.  Numbers don’t mean anything.   I can adjust things slightly without having to redraw and represent everything over again.  Let me say again, I am thrilled by technology, intrigued by it, I’m intimidated by it.  When something goes wrong, if the screen flickers I have a palpitation of the heart.   It’s still an intimidating machine because I don’t fully know it or understand it.  I’m familiar with it, but on an arm’s length basis.”

Problems with Technology

One problem with the computer is that it is seductive.  “In India I’ve observed that the younger people overuse the ability to copy and you can’t read the drawing after a while.  They place so much irrelevant information, thinking it makes the drawing look important.  Because you’re able to do it, you do it.  Discretion is one of the great disciplines that you have to learn in using this technology.”

Office Layout

The actual layout of the office is dramatically different today.  “We used to have every station have a 6’ long board by 3’ on one side with another board on the opposite side for opening up rolls of drawings.  Every station had to be 9’ by 6’.  Now I’m in a little booth that is 5’ wide. I’ve got a board in front of me with a computer and a big screen.  Behind me I’ve got a printer, a scanner, a fax— and if I was smart I would have all of those things in one.  The actual space required has contracted by half of what I had, yet I have everything at my fingertips.  I can draw, fax, scan, copy, phone …everything but a cup of coffee.  It may come.”

Keeping Fresh

“And that’s the other thing about using the computer.  If you don’t use it on a daily basis, you forget how to work the machine and you lose information – not the information you put into the machine, but how to use the software.”  He realizes that he has to continuously dabble with the software to maintain his skills.  “It is the means for me to free myself up in this new world.  It’s almost like the guy who was riding the horse and then the car came and the horse was no longer the primary vehicle because it changed his sense of time and distance.  The same is true with the computer; it overcomes issues with time and distance.  I work all over the world in real time.”

What does he want to add next to his digital repertoire?  “I’m still dying to learn how to do SketchUp, so that I can construct proposed designs and see in 3D what I’m doing.  It’s a matter of time.  I’ve been talking to the office about sitting down with some kid who’s going to teach this 80 year old man how to do it.”

Advice for Older Practitioners Not Using CAD:  Freedom

“There is no question that if you really want freedom, and that’s really what this is about— the freedom to operate in the world you live in.  You really have to understand the tools of that world.  And you have to be able to function with those tools.”  He recommends that people in mid-career or anyone with a small firm who doesn’t know how to work with the digital drawing software should learn the technology.  “You can have the independence that I have, even though I don’t use the computer to its full extent.”

He would have loved to have started with digital technology when he was younger so that it wasn’t such an imposing obstacle to overcome.  “I’ve been using CAD for over 15 years and am still fascinated by the little things I can do to explore design ideas.”

Paul estimates that he’s using CAD at 25% efficiency.  “I could do a working drawing, but I could never do it as fast or complete as someone else in the office.  But then again, that’s the last thing in the world I want to do.  I want to develop the detail and design, but then let someone else delineate it.”

He loves the freedom that technology gives him.  He can sit in his studio in his East Hampton summer home and look out over Accabonac Bay and the wetlands.  “I’ll get a call from India and send them a drawing.  I can be anywhere in the world and be working.  It gives me another kind of freedom which is to live my life the way I want to.  I’m not tethered to an office.”

 by: Mark Lindhult, FASLA, chair of the Digital Technolgy PPN


3 thoughts on “A Dinosaur in the Digital Age

  1. Lisa L. Jenkins August 16, 2012 / 2:33 pm

    Thank you Mr. Friedburg for your insight, and thank you Mr. Lindhult for writing this piece. At 50, I consider myself mid-career and look forward to continued work as a landscape architect–with and without a computer.

    Lisa L. Jenkins
    Dallas, TX

  2. Robert T. Akroyd September 14, 2012 / 4:47 pm

    Excellent article. Guess its time to roll up my sleeves and become proficient in CAD.

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