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How drawing made architecture

By Jeremy Melvin, Curator at World Architecture Festival

Drawing is so important to architects because it is what distinguishes architecture, as Reyner Banham writes, from other perfectly respectable ways of making buildings.

It is axiomatic that architectural drawing took a decisive turn in the Renaissance. Less well known is the role of architectural drawing in Renaissance architectural historiography, which Guido Beltramini, director of the Centro Palladio in Vicenza, recently outlined in a discussion with the art historian MaryAnne Stevens and myself.

Guido explained that the first generation of scholarly Renaissance architectural historians, like Rudolf Wittkower, Anthony Blunt and James Ackerman (who died last year aged 97), were essentially art historians who became interested in architecture. Their prime interest was in buildings and the ideas they contained – triumphantly confirming that architecture could be on a par with painting and other artistic media. Think of Wittkower’s Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, which outgrew its initial publication in the scholarly Journal of the Warburg Institute and became, aided and abetted by Peter and Alison Smithson, a touchstone for the intellectual ambitions of the New Brutalism.

A study for the left half of the Disputa | Raphael.
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

The Conversion of the Proconsul | Raphael.
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

The next generation, including Joseph Connors and Howard Burns, explored new ground, as second generations do. They put drawings centre stage and in so doing caused a historiographical revolution. Buildings, Guido continued, are evidence of the ‘winners’, not just of architectural competitions but of politics and power. Drawings open up more private and forgotten territories, the realm of speculative ideas and individual fantasies, which may give deeper and wider insights into the architectural psyche.

This also raises the issue of what makes a specifically architectural drawing, as opposed to a drawing for any other purpose. Here the discussion turned to Raphael and his letter to Pope Leo X of 1519, which was a plea to preserve Rome’s ancient monuments in the face of papal urban ambitions. Raphael has a reputation as the most confident and serene delineator of the Renaissance – though Waldemar Januszczak detects a thread of ‘restlessness and experiment’ throughout his oeuvre in a Sunday Times review of the Ashmolean Museum exhibition of his drawings. In any event, Raphael is quite clear that ‘the way of drawing specific to the architect is different from that of the painter’.

Architectural drawings have to give accurate measurements and are principally plans, sections and elevations. Raphael allows that perspective helps architects to ‘better imagine the whole building furnished with its ornaments’, but is firm that ‘this type of drawing . . . is the preserve of the painter’. It took the next generation and in particular Palladio (who was 11 years old when Raphael wrote his letter), to free architectural drawings completely from perspective and depend entirely on orthogonal projections. The stage was set for the next 400 years of architectural drawing, and the flowering of the Beaux-Arts tradition.

Villa Saraceno, Agugliaro: plan and elevation | Andrea Palladio.

As that tradition has run its course, and new digital technologies challenge anew the conventions of architectural drawing, the next generation of architects will no doubt explore the relationship between buildings and ideas still further.

This article forms part of our series on The Architecture Drawing Prize: an open drawing competition curated by Make, WAF and Sir John Soane’s Museum to highlight the importance of drawing in architecture. The article originally appeared in The Architectural Review.

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