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Lines of Inquiry: Defining Mastery in Architectural Drawings at the Courtauld Institute

How can we understand drawings as expressions of a specific creativity, forming part of a history of creative thinking?

The status of the architectural drawing is perhaps only becoming harder to define. In the main, the makers of architectural drawings are not those who analyse their possible cultural significance, whether for reasons of insufficient critical distance or simply lack of ‘reflective’ time. And since the ‘invention’ of architectural drawing itself, in the differentiating of Architecture from the so-called Manual Arts, we have struggled to say what sets architectural thinking apart, largely relying on the perennial definition of ‘artistic’ ability combined with ‘technical’ savoir-faire.

The recent workshop Beyond the Documentary: Defining Mastery in Architectural Drawings, held at London’s Courtauld Institute, sought to reassess prevalent assumptions about architectural drawing, asking how these works can be understood not only as serving the act of building but as having a status of their own. In the words of Courtauld curator Stephanie Buck, the debate endeavoured to articulate how we might understand architectural drawings as ‘expressions of a specific creativity’, forming part of a ‘history of creative thinking’.

Studies from the workshop of Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, Rome, 1545

Studies from the workshop of Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, Rome, 1545

Study of seven entablatures © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Study of seven entablatures by Circa 1550-1570 © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Over the course of two days, these questions were explored by a 30-strong panel of invited participants, including historians, architects, educators and curators. This diverse group was assembled by Niall Hobhouse, who initiated this experiment in scholarship uniting the Courtauld’s archive from the Renaissance to the 19th century with items in his own collection.

Arranged in thematic clusters, the drawings acted as vehicles for debates regarding architectural ‘production’ within broader parameters, from cultural history to connoisseurship. During these sessions, a dichotomy emerged in attitudes corresponding broadly to perceptions of the architect’s role: the polarisation of ‘technical’ orthographic drawing and ‘pictorial’ renderings of a project, in turn giving rise to a perceived division between drawings made for a professional audience and those created for the ‘lay public’.

Here you sensed the dialogue between intuition and reflection, between concreteness and abstraction, which may be peculiar to the embodied mind of the architect.

Explorations of the ‘pictorial’ category, led by Nicholas Olsberg, made a compelling case for the long-standing interdependence of representational practices in art and architecture respectively. The grouping of virtuosic drawings by both architects and non-architects under topics such as ‘Sturm und Drang’ established a common ground for discussion between architects and art historians. This directed attention at the pieces themselves, as opposed to seeing architectural drawing as an index of a further reality, or simply a means to an end.

However, orthographic notations placed the discussion on more uncertain ground, demonstrating the difficulty of avoiding the documentary approach which the workshop purported to broaden and enrich. Gordon Higgott’s rigorous research into the working drawings for St Paul’s, identifying the hands of Hawksmoor, Wren and various masons (partly evidenced by divergent methods of drawing Corinthian capitals) suggested broader questions in the current context. How readily can you transfer the criteria applied to the ‘pictorial tradition’ in art historical analysis, to other sides of architectural production? Does this relegate ‘thinking’ drawings to a second tier, destined to remain ‘documentary’?

Composite half-section, half-plan and half-elevation of two versions of a 16-bay dome with paired columnar buttresses around the peristyle, by Wren, Sir Christopher (1632–1723) (Surveyor) Hawksmoor, Nicholas (c.1662–1736) (Draughtsman) Gribelin, Simon (1661–1733) (Draughtsman) © The Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral

Composite half-section, half-plan and half-elevation of two versions of a 16-bay dome with paired columnar buttresses around the peristyle, by Wren, Sir Christopher (1632–1723) (Surveyor) Hawksmoor, Nicholas (c.1662–1736) (Draughtsman) Gribelin, Simon (1661–1733) (Draughtsman) © The Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral

The portico and narthex: half-section on the north–south axis; cross-section on the west–east axis, by Wren, Sir Christopher (1632–1723) (Surveyor) Gribelin, Simon (1661–1733) (Draughtsman)

Half-section of masonry construction from the top of the cone to the upper attic of the lantern, nearly as built, by Wren, Sir Christopher (1632-1723) (Surveyor)
Unidentified draughtsman associated with Edward Strong (fl. c.1706-07) (Draughtsman) © The Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral

The greater reticence of non-architects on the subject of orthographic or notational drawings is understandable, for their spatiality appears at first to be a ‘negation’ of the visible world, and only with training − most easily acquired through designing − comes to be seen as a ‘translation’ (to borrow Robin Evans’ term). Yet as an architect, attention is drawn most often to these cryptic, impossible representations. This was demonstrated by CR Cockerell’s 19th-century survey of the Parthenon. Extensive annotations accompanied a radically distilled spatial diagram, asserting the eloquent power of these abstract markings in the mind of the designer. You would refer to this as the picture’s proverbial thousand words, were it not for the finer distinction (articulated by Andrew Zago) between ‘drawings’ and ‘pictures’, poles of a spectrum within which architectural production might be placed. What is at stake here is an appreciation for mastery of the potential in architectural drawing (Zago’s tension between immanence − something as what it is − and projection − something which directs the mind to a reality not yet in existence).

A fruitful territory tentatively emerged between these two extremes: drawings which acted as ‘invitations to an architectural experience’. Here you sensed the dialogue between intuition and reflection, between concreteness and abstraction, which may be peculiar to the embodied mind of the architect. For example, a plan of Asplund’s Woodland Crematorium combined the abstraction of orthographic drawing with a delicate rendering of both landscape and interior − the furniture and the paving stones acquiring similar weight − so as to give a privileged sense of walking through a topography.

The portico and narthex in WRE/3/3/3: half-section on the north–south axis; cross-section on the west–east axis, by Wren, Sir Christopher (1632–1723) (Surveyor) Gribelin, Simon (1661–1733) (Draughtsman) © The Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral

The portico and narthex in WRE/3/3/3: half-section on the north–south axis; cross-section on the west–east axis, by Wren, Sir Christopher (1632–1723) (Surveyor) Gribelin, Simon (1661–1733) (Draughtsman) © The Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral

West–east section through the north aisle of the western body, to the middle of the third bay of the nave, by Wren, Sir Christopher (1632–1723) (Surveyor) Gribelin, Simon (1661–1733) (Draughtsman) © The Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral

West–east section through the north aisle of the western body, to the middle of the third bay of the nave, by Wren, Sir Christopher (1632–1723) (Surveyor) Gribelin, Simon (1661–1733) (Draughtsman) © The Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral

An exhibition design by Sironi demonstrated another kind of drawing occupying this middle ground: a sheet made simply to see what you are getting, moving seamlessly between plan, atmospheric interior and detail. Discussion of such works could serve to explicate what it is to think like an architect, not only to the world outside the profession but also to ourselves. Moreover, these drawings effortlessly linked aspects of cerebral and sensory experience in ways which computers are unable to replicate (at least for the time being).

The discussions culminated in a debate surrounding the possible educational purposes of these artefacts. The benefits of combining a range of approaches were evident for the deeper understanding of the drawings in their own right. It may even be said that architectural drawing, as part of a collaborative process which does not easily conform to the idea of the individual artist-author, and also as evidence of an activity spanning so many aspects of human experience, demands this kind of collective analysis. However, as an architect you are tempted to look at this problem less in terms of exegesis and more in terms of how such material can support the continued practice of thinking through drawing. Part of this challenge is to eradicate the apparent ‘distance’ of history for the architecture student, so that drawings are not dead deposits or didactic instruments, but places of encounter with a colleague engaged in the ‘serious play’ of architectural thought (Peter Carl’s phrase). In this sense, there is little substitute for physical proximity to the drawings.

Design for a circular temple - Tempio del Sole, by Visentini © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Design for a circular temple - Tempio del Sole, by Visentini © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Design for Greenwich Hospital - Half of the North Elevation, after 1711, by Studio of Wren © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Design for Greenwich Hospital - Half of the North Elevation, after 1711, by Studio of Wren © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Closing remarks suggested that the panel might be turning architectural drawing into ‘art’ at the very moment of its extinction. I would suggest that the opposite is possible: this kind of forum could help the survival of architectural drawing as the vehicle for a specific mode of inquiry into the world around us. This relies, however, on maintaining an appreciation − beyond the documentary − not only of embodied means of representation, but also of the differences between the core of architectural drawing (design) and art practice. With this approach, you may understand that architectural drawing provides the thinking designer with a means for articulating that to which − as yet − we have no other access. It is to be hoped that this event will open such avenues.

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