Everyone thinks architects must be able to draw, and imagines perfect draftsmanship to be an industry norm. Though we all know this isn’t true, we can still claim some masters of graphite, pen and ink among architecture's practitioners. A collection of architect's - and architectural - drawings from the 16th century to present day is now on show at London's Sir John Soane’s Museum. The materials come from the Tchoban Foundation’s collection, an exchange for a selection of Piranesi drawings at the foundation's new Berlin museum, reviewed in uncube here. Ellie Duffy investigated the London exhibition and discovered more than just pretty images.
There is no doubt that architects today draw by hand far less than their forebears: digital technology has usurped much of the need to. Even sketching – the architect’s visual thought process – has to an extent been digitized.
This exhibition is part of an attempt to re-engage us with the lost art of drawing, and is the result of a cultural exchange between the world’s oldest and newest architectural museums: Sir John Soane’s Museum in London and the Tchoban Foundation in Berlin, respectively.
The Tchoban Foundation was established in 2009 by Russian architect Sergei Tchoban. Now based in Germany, he designed the Foundation’s new building in Berlin. It exists, ostensibly, to promote the validity of draughtsmanship to both the profession and the public at a time when computer generated imagery has become virtually ubiquitous. In the exhibition’s catalogue, Tchoban claims that drawing can “convey a feeling and a vision for a building that will persuade and inspire clients and lovers of art and architecture for centuries to come”. More specifically, the Foundation reasons on its website that drawing is essential to architecture because “development and training of formal and proportional inventiveness still proceeds via ideas which flow through the drawing hand”.
Sir John Soane’s Museum, a much loved London institution long renowned for its eccentricity and charm, was home to architect and collector Sir John Soane from 1792 until his death in 1837. To accommodate the display of his ever-expanding collection of architectural antiquities – in part for the benefit of his students at the Royal Academy – Soane during this period rebuilt in succession three adjacent terraced houses of Lincolns Inn Fields (No’s 12–14).
The current exchange means that while Berlin is presented with a series of Piranesi drawings acquired by Soane in 1817, London gets to see highlights of the Foundation’s newly assembled collection of drawings, which spans from the sixteenth century to the present day. These are on display at Sir John Soane’s new first floor gallery spaces at No. 12: an elegant, historically aware refurbishment scheme completed last year by Caruso St John architects, which successfully avoids pastiche.
Works by French, German and Italian artists of the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries predominate in the 40 or so drawings on display, although Russia is also well represented with drawings from the Constructivist and Stalinist eras. The earliest drawing in the exhibition (c.1565–75) by Jacques Androuet du Cerceau depicts in pen and ink an idealised design for a moated castle and its formal landscaping, its objectified isometric projection a practical device to inspire the wealthy to build bigger and better. In contrast a colourful watercolour from 1804 by Joseph Gandy, Soane’s favoured draughtsman, sells the design for a cenotaph in romanticised, dream-like perspective as a theatrically lit hyper real experience. A creepy curiosity is the inclusion of the design for an unblinking elevation of a Reichsstatthalter building in Linz (1943–45) by Hermann Giesler, a Nazi German architect who worked on the project in close collaboration with Hitler. This can be contrasted with Stalinist architect Boris Mihailovich Iofan’s Study for the reconstruction of the city of Novorossiysk (1944), which proposes a classically inspired scheme for the port city newly liberated from German occupation. There’s also a hurried back-of-the envelope sketch by Mies van der Rohe from 1935, and a dreamy half-finished watercolour, Study of a cloud and tree, executed by the 16 year old Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1797.
While there’s no suggestion that this exhibition is aiming to be a comprehensive survey the leaps in time, geography, and chronology made within this display, without an articulated thread to bind them together, induce giddiness in the viewer. What cannot remain unremarked upon is the fact that a significant proportion of the exhibition is made up of drawings by Tchoban himself. The technical and conceptual merits of these are perhaps best left to the judgement of the reader.
My biggest problem with the exhibition, however, lies with its inexplicit curation. An opportunity to explore the range of nuances that hand drawing has brought to the communication of architecture over a significant period of time has been under exploited. The exhibition experience here is of drowning in footnote-level detail, with no structure or hierarchy to guide the viewer through the selection of drawings or to articulate many of the potentially fascinating juxtapositions that are thrown up by this show. A similar problem afflicts the exhibition’s catalogue, which like that of an auction house, lists in myopic detail the provenance of many of the pieces, from sale history to appearances in exhibitions elsewhere, while completely failing to engage the reader with the bigger picture.
If the Tchoban foundation is serious about promoting the lost art of drawing in architecture to a wider audience – or any audience at all – it’s going to have to get to grips with the lost art of communication first.
- Ellie Duffy
Northern Vision: Master Drawings from the Tchoban Foundation
21 June - 28 September 2013
Sir John Soane’s Museum
13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields