Drawing Out Meaning

The drawings in the collections of the RIBA tell us how the meaning of the images created by architects and artists changed in 400 years, from the 16th century to the present day.

Project for a metropolitan cathedral, perspective view, 1782. Designer: Étienne-Louis Boullée. © RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

The drawings in the collections of the RIBA cover four distinct periods; each period marks a major shift in drawing style and reflect the changing attitudes and design skills of architects and, perhaps most significantly, a growing consciousness of a designer’s ability to change the world around them.

 

16th and 17th-century architecture

Conjectural reconstruction of the Baths of Trajan, Rome, 1540s. Artist: Andrea Palladio. © RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

Conjectural reconstruction of the Baths of Trajan, Rome, 1540s.
Artist: Andrea Palladio.
© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

Through his drawings, built work and writings,  Andrea Palladio  was able to publicise his own designs and expose a wider audience to his thoughts about architecture. Through his own illustrated books  I Quattro Libri dell’ Architettura  ( The Four Books of Architecture)  he resurrected ideas from the classical world about what made good architecture, in particular from the writings of Vitruvius. Palladio’s own designs were included in these publications and through them were transmitted his ideas on the use of symmetry and proportion in buildings. Although his work is found mainly in The Veneto region of Italy, through his books, his style went on to influence architects across Europe and beyond in North America. Most of Palladio’s original drawings are now under the care of the RIBA.

The long 18th century

Project for a metropolitan cathedral, perspective view, 1782. Designer: Étienne-Louis Boullée. © RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

Project for a metropolitan cathedral, perspective view, 1782.
Designer: Étienne-Louis Boullée.
© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

With the use of one-point perspective and exploiting the contrasting effect of light and shadow, Étienne-Louis Boullée’s scheme for a metropolitan cathedral in Paris is presented in the most dramatic way possible. For its time, this building would have been of an almost unachievable scale. Such romantic drawings hint at the growing desire architects had for grand designs – they could act as visionaries. The increasing sophistication of architects and their ability to communicate ideas of scale, perspective and detail is shown in Boullée’s work; this drawing is meticulous and more life-like than ones created in previous generations.

The Victorian era

Design for the dining room fireplace, Cragside, Northumberland, 1870. Artist and designer: Richard Norman Shaw. © RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

Design for the dining room fireplace, Cragside, Northumberland, 1870.
Artist and designer: Richard Norman Shaw.
© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

Architects in the Victorian period received more formal training than those in the past, thus replacing the gentleman architect or dilettante. In an age of mass-produced components, drawings reflected this sense of professionalism through precise measurements, notes and details for every aspect of a building, even, for example, a dining room fireplace. Using inspiration from 17th-century English architecture, Richard Norman Shaw's designs used a vernacular style combined with the technological advances of the Victorian era. His drawings show the increasingly detailed  drawings required to build the architect's vision, even for a single fireplace.

20th-century architecture

Proposal for Finsbury Health Centre, London, 1938. Designer: Lubetkin and Tecton. © RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

Proposal for Finsbury Health Centre, London, 1938.
Designer: Lubetkin and Tecton.
© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

From the beginning of the 20th century, some architects took a more political outlook, moving beyond aesthetics and practicality to the belief that the living conditions of the masses could be improved by the way buildings and the spaces were designed. Drawings no longer had to be exact, but be illustrative and explain concepts. Working in 1938 before the establishment of the National Health Service, Tecton, a group of radical architects in London, prepared a set of cartoon-like drawings for an exhibition in Finsbury Town Hall to show the improvements the new Finsbury Health Centre would bring. According to these playful drawings, the new centre would be practical, clean, modern and attractive. The images help to encapsulate the optimism of architects like Tecton working in the 20th century who believed that architecture could be used to improve society.

In more recent times some architects, like Tecton, were actively influencing society through their work. These drawings raise certain questions:

• What is the relationship of drawing to architecture?
• How have styles of architecture, and the drawings that architects use to express them, changed over time?
• How is drawing relevant to contemporary architects and architecture?

 

 

×