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An Author of Note: Magma's Architecture Sketchbook

Who dares tamper with one of the architect’s most prized possessions: the sketchbook?

Walter Benjamin famously advised to ‘keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens’. I am still unsure whether he was referring to migrants or extraterrestrials, but I am leaning towards the latter. He was obsessed with the tools and techniques of writing, and the notebook and pen were items to be chosen with an almost ritualistic attention to detail.

If anyone took his advice to heart, it was the architect: few collect and keep notebooks and sketchbooks with the same fervour. For the student of architecture in particular, the notebook is a statement of intent, a declaration of engagement before any design has even begun and an addictive means by which briefly to reinvent your work processes.

I am as guilty of this as anyone. Surrounding me now as I write on a laptop is a green Leuchtturm1917, pocket-size, but a little too small for ‘serious’ jobs, a limited edition ‘Night Sky’ Field Notes that I have not been able to bring myself to write in, an everyday A4 soft cover Moleskine, and, most importantly, the Magma Architecture Sketchbook.

The author of this unassuming tome is The Architectural Review’s former Assistant Editor, Phineas Harper. The Magma series, which already includes fashion, film and animation and ideas generation, combines space for sketches and notes with practical information – enough to aid the creative process but not to the extent that it interferes with its freedom.

For architecture, this means condensing history, drawing styles, technical considerations and more into just 15 blue pages at the back of the sketchbook; it is a testament to Phineas’s editorial skill that he has managed to pull it off. Types of drawing, a whistle-stop tour of architectural styles, anthropometrics and structural types sit side-by-side in an extreme distillation of those classic first-year architecture books: Kostof, Neufert, Unwin and Vitruvius.

The main body of the sketchbook is split into dotted squares for perhaps a plan or section sketch, dotted triangles for isometrics and plain paper, including pages with scale rules on the edges for on-the-fly measuring.

Although not explicitly marketed as such, it is something of a godsend for students. It might not be historically rigorous to sum up Baroque in three lines, but it is certainly useful and accessible, and the all-too-common questions of ‘how wide is a toilet?’ or ‘how large is a car?’ that so often bring the imagination to a halt need no longer hold up drawings.

Discussions around the architect’s use of sketchbooks are often conducted as if it is surprising that we still not only enjoy drawing but rely on it: Magma’s sketchbook refreshingly rises above this. It does not attempt to shoehorn in the digital, à la Moleskine’s cumbersome Evernote sketchbooks, rather it embraces the age of instant-access information in which we demand everything at a glance. Why stop to Google or load Ecotect when you only have to flick to the back of the book to see wheelchair access requirements and thermal mass? The classical orders sitting overleaf from wheelchair access diagrams make for a fitting allegory for architectural education.

The fact that the man behind 90 per cent of the AR’s digital operation has chosen a physical notebook for his first publication is telling of an ability to deftly move between the two, something his time at this magazine itself has been a testament to. It is something a little more refined in a market overrun with stagnant ideas.

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