South Florida

Urban Sketch Tour: Where students learn to draw Miami’s historical buildings

Ammi Cabrera, left, and Deja Williams, right, sketch the inside of the MCAD building on a recent Saturday during SketchMIA.
Ammi Cabrera, left, and Deja Williams, right, sketch the inside of the MCAD building on a recent Saturday during SketchMIA. For the Miami Herald

During SketchMIA, an architecture sketch tour, participants learn the bare basics of how to draw some of downtown Miami’s most historical buildings.

Two architecture professors, David Rifkind of Florida International University and Joachim Perez of the University of Miami, lead the two-hour class on the last Saturday of each month. They’ve been teaching it for a year, though it’s been under the radar for many Miami residents.

“It’s a fairly simple process of looking at the world using pens and pencils to record it,” Rifkind said of the class, which meets at the Miami Center for Architecture and Design (MCAD). “What we try to do is get people to trust their eyes — a funny thing happens: people try to correct what they’re seeing,” he said of the challenges of drawing buildings as three-dimensional.

Isabella Matute, 21, was one of seven people on Saturday’s tour. A sculpture and photography student at Miami Dade College, she says drawing in general is challenging. “I’m used to seeing things as flat, so this offers a different way of viewing the world.”

The program, which combines walking with art, was developed by Cheryl Jacobs, the director of the American Institute of Architects Miami chapter and MCAD, as a way to supplement MCAD’s monthly walking tours of downtown’s historical buildings. She approached Rifkind and Perez after seeing their drawings and asked if they would be interested in leading the sketch tours.

“Downtown is still growing,” Perez said. “We have remnants from the 1920s here with high-rises sprung around, yet these buildings haven’t lost their architectural character.”

The class is open to all levels and ages. Students sign up online or can pay in person the morning of if there’s room (12 student maximum) at MCAD.

In their first task, students position themselves at one end of MCAD’s main floor as they learn how to draw a one-point of perspective of part of the interior. The building used to be the Old U.S. Post Office and still retains the high-curved arches throughout, which they sketch.

The professors want them to learn how to visualize and draw this one-point perspective before they venture outside. There they’ll be met with two-point perspectives — where one set of parallel lines converge at one point and other parallel lines meet at another point, like the corner of a building. In one-point perspectives there’s a single vanishing point and lines converge parallel to one’s line of vision.

The Gesù Catholic Church, the oldest church in South Florida, and the Miami-Dade County Courthouse, which at one time was the tallest structure in the region at 28 floors, are the two other stops on the tour.

“It’s a fun way to get to know a city,” said 26 year-old Deja Williams, an elementary school teacher from New York City who was visiting on spring break. “I’ve never done anything like this before. The trend now is taking photos and posting on Instagram but I’m sick of it. … Photos capture memories but drawing produces similar effects, too.”

“It’s pretty much creating on the go,” said Eric Zareno, 28, an MCAD staff member who greets participants when they arrive. “I feel like it brings out that lost paradise of childhood,” he said of the class. “As kids we sketch and draw a lot but when we become adults we lose that — I feel like this brings it out again.”

Those who enroll can bring their own sketch pad and drawing utensils or can purchase a sketch pad with pencils and a pen for $10 when they register.

Ammi Cabrera, 23, of Philadelphia, says she’s seen architectural-history walking tours in her home city, but had yet to come across a tour that involves sketching the buildings. “It’s a hands-on experience,” she said of SketchMIA. “The biggest challenge for me is visualizing a certain point, as your perspective can change and patience can run out easily.”

Though the buildings are complex, Rifkind aims to helps students break it down to simple geometry, using proportion and perspective to see and draw it block by block.

“Most people come here without any ability to draw while others want to have a day out and see Miami’s historical buildings,” he said of the range of participants’ backgrounds and interests. “I’ve had people involved in the construction or real estate business that take this class because they want to see the buildings the way their architects do.”

Saturday’s age range spanned from 10 to 50, with a mix of locals and tourists. With arms stretched out, they held their pens in front of their line of vision, which they learned is a good way to judge angles and measure proportions, like the width of a window measured against the height of the building.

Rifkind says he hopes the participants will get a keener sense of the “built environment” after taking the class.

“I want people to see how cities go together. When people appreciate buildings and spaces they become more passionate about them and can advocate for the need for better architecture and public spaces.”

If you go

What: SketchMIA: An Urban Sketch Tour.

Where: Miami Center for Architecture and Design, 100 NE First Ave., Downtown Miami.

When: Last Saturday of each month (next: April 30), from 10 a.m. to noon.

Contact: Email or visit

Cost: $20 for AIA and AIAS members, $25 for seniors and students, $30 for all others.