Most of the posts on this blog are articles previously published in national periodicals. Folks have been asking for these to be collected in one spot...and this is that spot. And, unless otherwise noted, illustrations are by David Gillett as well.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Coming soon: an article about David Gillett Design and my alma mater University of Toronto John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, in the most recent issue of.....

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why are (some) Buildings Ugly?

It may seem odd, but I'm happy to have one of my house designs featured on the cover of an architectural magazine whose theme for the month is "Why are (some) buildings ugly?"  Of course, I designed it to be ugly...but that's probably obvious. I had an email from a long-time client who said he actually likes it. But does he want to build it?

You can read the whole issue of Perspectives magazine(for whom I've done several illustrations) at

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Am I a Graphite Luddite?

Primal Attraction to a Low Tech Tool
(first published in the Globe and Mail  LIFE section ....July 11, 2012)

               I don’t think I’m supposed to be drawing with a pencil. But as the digital universe eats up the worlds of art and design, I’m drawn to this low-tech tool with some kind of primal attraction.

            Today, in this cafe window seat, it’s a Staedtler HB, an all-rounder, an elegant wooden cylinder that falls comfortably into my grasp. A single black line on a crisp white page.

            Call it my analog drawing instrument. Call me a graphite Luddite. Or maybe its just another badge of hipster culture (“free  retro pencil with every MacBook!”). But its a habit I can’t kick, with roots in architecture school. It was the mid-80’s and I was part of that lost civilization of architecture students pushing pencils, running T-squares, bent over drafting tables. One stroke equalled one part of an architrave, one curve of a receding street. Artfully pre-digital, we sensed the wave coming but we couldn’t quite see it.

The ubiquitous AutoCAD drawing was still just over the horizon, a fantasy of some Jetson future. But it came soon enough and we were all swept up in its shining promise. Today, it’s the world we inhabit, a digital culture of design and drawing, manipulation and file sharing, virtual cut-and-paste. Productivity has blossomed exponentially and drafting tables have become must-have antiques.

            My digital camera records in high-def clarity, and I can shoot with abandon. But distilling the shape of a park bench calls for deliberation and careful observation; a hand-eye-paper connection. The furrowed bark on an ancient Maple is flattened as it spews out of my ink-jet printer. No number of megapixels imprints that nubby texture on my mind the way drawing it can: one line at a time, feeling the bark as the graphite rubs off on paper.

            So I fall back on an un-plugged media, going acoustic in a canyon of electronica. Maybe it’s an age thing.

            But I pause. A guy at the next table (an architecture student?) with very large glasses and black stubble, is working on his knitting. Fleet Foxes harmonize on the cafe speakers, singing in a barn, crooning away about the noticeably non-digital Meadowlark, their music distinctly hand-made, if that’s possible. “By hand” isn’t just some hipster catch-phrase, it’s something we crave, a visceral tie to something we risk losing.

            In an hour or so, I’ll be rotating a steel and glass box in 3D, entering coordinates, doing sunlight studies in the virtual world of computer-aided design. But even that glass box started life as black lines on a sketch pad one crisp autumn day last year. I sat on a  granite boulder, October clouds scudding overhead. A pencil, a pad, a place, an idea: it was a pared-down moment and it worked. There was something in the directness of it al – lines on paper recording my first thoughts about the shape and position of an embryonic building.

            And there was emotional connection too; the excitement of creation coursing from brain to muscle to pencil, the complicating  layer of mouse, keyboard and software absent for that moment.

            The English sculptor Barbara Hepworth said: “I rarely draw what I see – I draw what I feel in my body.” A pencil allows for that; it doesn’t try to re-align, edit or elaborate. It doesn’t flash warnings or second guess instinct. Frank Gehry has harnessed the power of complicated 3D software to render his titanium architectural confections, but his free-flowing, emotion-charged  pencil sketches are where it all started. And they are the things that sell in the gallery shop.

            The guy at the next table has set his knitting aside for a moment and is updating his Facebook status on his iPad. He’s a perfect picture of the modern man as he does so, giving me some hope for the future of pencils and drawing: an urge to make things by hand while immersed in digital culture. The two can co-exist and flourish.

            My kids are much the same, travelling with sketchpads and ipods, fascinated by Medieval ruins as much as SimCity. The world is their multi-faceted oyster.

            I realize that while I’ve been musing, I’ve been doodling on my pad, each stroke an aid to concentration. I focus on the cup in front of me, trying again to capture its roundness and how the shadow falls across the cafe table. I could let 3D software do it for me: and the shading would be precise, the diameter exact. But I’d miss the immediacy, the aroma, the warmth of the ceramic.

            Sort of like how I’m sure I could text the knitting guy and he could send me photos of his finished project. But I think I’ll take the old analog approach and just ask him.

“What are you making?”  I hope he’ll tell me it’s a pencil case. That would be perfect.

But in a minute. Right now I’m running another line out across a new page, starting another drawing, working the muscles of another part of my brain.
-David Gillett
(with thanks to Globe Editor Jane Gadd and Art Director Cinders McLeod)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Sneak Preview...look for a new essay in The Globe & Mail, Wednesday, July 11th on the back cover of the LIFE essay that includes Fleet Foxes, Knitting and Luddites can't be all bad. A smidgen of the illo (design editor speak for illustration)  shown here.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Gathering Place for the Generations

                I had a toy farm when I was a child; a miniature homestead in enamelled sheet metal – barn and barnyard, chickens, cows  and a little red brick farmhouse.  On the barn’s tiny gable wall was the simple title that for generations has evoked vivid recollections:  “Grampa’s Farm”.

                To a farmboy like myself, it all made perfect sense:  this little play-world was the most natural of toy microcosms.  It wasn’t dreamy nostalgia; it was as real as the scene outside the windows of my childhood.

                But that was a generation ago, and the days of the family farm’s presence in the landscape – and in the memory – have faded.  In the process, we’ve been cut adrift from a tangible link to our past.  We’ve lost our ancestral homes and collect antiques to fill the void,  to give us some trace of heritage.  We read shelter  magazines that sell us carefully aged “heritage” by the roomful:  a reproduction past on every page.

                And yet the constant struggle to define a quiet place in the maelstrom of urban life throws us headlong into perplexity:  where to put the antiqued implements that will give our lives meaning?

                Grampa’s farm no longer cuts it because, for starters, Grampa was unlikely to have been a farmer.  And though many Canadians need only cast back two or three generations to identify their equivalent of the ancestral home, chances are the old place is now in strange hands, the solid farmhouse a ghostly ruin, the land subdivided beyond recognition.

                We are largely a nation of transplants, many with only the tenderest of green roots in this country.  We are also a predominantly urban people now, modern nomads following schooling, jobs and recreation.  We breathe portable technologies; we live portable lives.

                So what are we left with?  The family farm has lost its potency, but replacing it is a new manifestation of the ancestral home, a weekend summer place, a haven from modern life.

                The family cottage has become, over the past few decades, the gathering place for the generations.  Unencumbered with the complex realities of the rural farm economy, the cottage has not been squeezed from the grip of a struggling family whose livelihood depended upon its production.  Its image is not synonymous with work, quotas or barnyard smells – it is a summer place, a setting for dreams, the centre of a memory-world of dog-days, sunshine and docks.  The cottage looms much larger in the imagination than a city home ever could.

                One family I know, who live spread across the nation, own an island that is the scene of a massive annual homecoming.  Generations have built a carefree summer architectural continuum.  One family elder, in a moment of solemn reflection, told me:  “Catastrophe? Nuclear war? We’ll all head for The Island, no matter where we are; we have an ‘understanding’”.

                There is really nothing odd in such a notion:  every family would like to have a place to make the ultimate retreat.

                I have visited cottages on the Muskoka lakes that seem out of sync with the apparent needs of their owners – great, sprawling lakeside structures, many a century old or more, whose floor area is more in keeping with that of an Adirondack lodge.  “This is a family hotel for most of the season”, I’m told dockside as an antique boat rocks gently in the evening breeze.  “This is our summer base of operations.”  The family, coming home from Pittsburgh or Toronto, Los Angeles or Vancouver, throw their formality to the smog-free wind, put their feet up and sigh:  They’ve made it back home once again.

                For the architect, the phenomenon of “cottage as family seat” presents its own daunting problems and tests one’s diplomatic skills.  One such place, for which I was hired to design a large addition, is the summer home of one of Canada’s wealthiest families.  And even though expansion eventually leads to some sort of change, the most frequently heard comment when drawings were presented was “No, no – that would be changing it!”  The collective memory of an outspoken family was wrapped up in a certain configuration of wood, stone, water and vista.

                Other clans, such as my wife’s, built a tradition on a more realistic budget, but the “never quite completed” cottage, decorated with dog-eared castoffs, sits on a rocky outcrop as proudly as any baronial castle.  It once looked like the cottage would never be completed; the very presence of builders and architects in the family practically guaranteed it.  But that hardly matters.  The idea of retreat is what counts, the quiet place at the end of a hectic Friday-night drive.  Its pristine setting has been the nursery for my wife’s fondest memories, her family’s best times and the larger-than-life stories that come with days spent between water and woods.

                The fleeting summers of childhood claim a large share of our memory – summer places tend to underline that.  We are perhaps more honest and less guarded as we sit on docks together, half-naked in the twilight; we are less concerned with pretence and ostentation.  We are truly at home with ourselves.

                The cottage has given us that home-fire of refuge we thought we had lost, and has become in the process a guarded and cherished family seat – Grampa’s Farm for  future  generations.

                                                                (first published in The Globe And Mail)

David Gillett

Friday, April 13, 2012


Over the Christmas holidays, I spent some late (but enjoyable) evenings illustrating several stories written by architects for the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA) journal PERSPECTIVES....line art, pencil sketches, B&Wscratchboard.  I had some great chats with editor Gordon Grice about the state of hand-drawing in this age of 3D computer simulation. Our conclusion: drawing is alive but perhaps on life support. The upside is that architects and artists who CAN draw, are in possession of an increasingly valuable and rare skill. Keep that sketchbook handy. Draw, draw, draw. There is something about the hand/pencil-eye connection that makes drawing an engaging visceral exercise unlike virtual digital manipulation.

 The spring Perspectives issue has just been released in print and in digital format.  Have a look at :