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A Life in Architecture

Louis Hellman is an architect and cartoonist known for his sharp observations on the world of architecture. Seven Ages of the Architect is an anthology of his work first published in 1991. Hellman’s cover illustration (below) satirises the stereotypical career trajectory of a successful British architect, from precocious baby playing with building blocks, to "Aged Neo-Classicist".

Of course, Hellman’s cartoon offers a glimpse of just one, imagined, life in architecture. Using the cartoon as a jumping-off point, a new display in the RIBA Library draws on drawings, photographs, and objects in our collections to offer a window into some of the different materials that are consulted, collected, and created over the course of an architectural career.

Historical texts are studied at university, souvenirs and photographs are brought home from travels, and design drawings are issued to contractors. By exploring some of these objects, we find the many different directions that a life in architecture can take.

Many of these materials, from antiquity to the present day, can be found in the RIBA Collections. Our collections are continually growing, enabling us to record, preserve, and celebrate the collective memory of the profession for generations to come.

Louis Hellman, Seven Ages of the Architect illustration, 1991 (RIBA Collections). The tongue-in-cheek Seven Ages of the Architect identified by Hellman in his cover illustration are (left to right): the Infant; the Schoolchild; the Student; the Young Idealist, the Partner; the RIBA Councillor; and the Aged Neo-Classicist.

Early inspirations, from building blocks to Barbie

An early fascination with building blocks often features in architects’ origin stories. Since the 19th century, a range of architectural toys has served the childhood enthusiasm for construction. Products such as Anchor Blocks, Lott’s Bricks, and LEGO allowed children to construct (and demolish) their own buildings.

This section explores some of the early inspirations for a career in architecture. Alongside toys, such as Anchor Blocks and 'I can be an architect Barbie,' are glimpses of family dynasties in architecture, such as the Voyseys, and spaces and products specifically designed for children, like those of Ernő Goldfinger.

“The smooth cardboard triangles and maple-wood blocks were most important… I soon became susceptible to constructive pattern evolving in everything I saw. I learned to ‘see’ this way and when I did, I did not care to draw casual incidentals to Nature. I wanted to design.” - Frank Lloyd Wright

Architectural education

Before (and well into) the 20th century, aspiring British architects would typically pay to be apprenticed or ‘articled’ to a firm, rather than studying through an institution. This section explores the different modes and methods of an education in architecture, from the cast drawings advocated by Sir John Soane, to a student design by Zaha Hadid.

“I never lost any opportunity of collecting Casts from the ruins of Ancient Structures, Marble fragments, Vases and Cinerary Urns... in order that the students might have easy access to them.” - Sir John Soane

C. F. A. Voysey with his wife, Mary Maria Evans, and their four children (RIBA Collections)

Practice life

The ever-evolving architect’s office is represented in furniture and tools in the RIBA Collections, as well as the photographs and drawings that plot the history of the studio. This section reveals early photographs of architects' studios, alongside changing drawing techniques as plan chests, drawing boards, and set squares have increasingly given way to computers and Building Information Modelling (BIM).

“Young men scrambled to get into the office of George & Peto, which soon began to be known all over the kingdom as a fashionable training ground.” - Darcy Braddell, pupil of Ernest George and Peto

International inspirations

International exchange has shaped the evolution of architecture over centuries. This section touches on how travel, migration, and colonialism have influenced architectural practice, through architects' travel sketches and photographs.

“The techniques that we have today in the modern world... by our extraordinary means of communication, have been distributed all over the world from one country to another.” - Walter Gropius

Sir Edwin Lutyens, cartoon of staff and pupils working at drawing boards in his office, London, 1900s (RIBA Collections)

Unbuilt ambitions

Some designs in our collections never made it off the page, whether because they were unsuccessful competition entries, projects that were cancelled, or fantastical ideas that were intended to attract the attention of clients rather than to be built. This section explores some of these alternative schemes, including a spotlight on London's National Gallery, a site that has generated dozens of design proposals in its 200 year history.

“Architecture would be better described as the framework of a dance rather than as frozen music.” - Henry Thomas Cadbury-Brown

Constructing a legacy

From medals to mausoleums and manuscripts, this section highlights the legacies that architects leave behind - including Sir John Soane's Museum, the RIBA Stirling Prize, and the practice archive of Colin St John Wilson & Partners, architects of the British Library.

“We were thinking, the British Library has got to be a building which doesn’t look like a particular moment in time, doesn’t try to be fashionable... because there’s nothing that dies quicker than something that’s fashionable.” - MJ Long

Subscriber’s ticket for the Gold Medal given to Sir John Soane in 1835 (RIBA Collections)

The RIBA Library is open to all, five days a week. Plan your visit to see the display in full.

CIAM delegates at the Temple of Poseidon, Cape Sounion, Greece, 1933 (RIBA Collections). The delegates pictured are Moncha Sert, Ricardo Ribas, Wells Coates, Jose Torres Clave and Jose-Luis Sert.
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