The Twentieth Century Society

Review: 100 Years of Architectural Drawing: 1900-2000

by Neil Bingham (Laurence King, 320pp, £30)

Reviewed by Sally Rendel

Three hundred architectural drawings from the last century and from across the globe are given room to breathe in this wide-ranging collection. The spacious one-per-page format in five chronological sections encourages comparison between peers and over time. Text is kept to a minimum and, while the short section introductions merely scratch the surface of the historical and architectural context, the captions to the drawings really sing. Each one tells a tale, and the many themes show just how rich and diverse architectural drawing is.

Architectural drawings have many purposes over the course of a project. They are key tools of communication: to sell a design, capture its essence and set out how it is technically arranged and built. They are also used to explore and develop designs. Many drawings do a bit of everything, and this book includes examples of each, the author recognising that working drawings for constructors ‘are often more beautiful and intriguing than the most elaborate perspectives created for seducing clients’. Subjects are at scales from urban masterplan to door handle, viewed from every angle – birds above, and worms below – or twisted, flattened, distorted.

Early 20th century architectural training included life drawing, still-life and measured building studies. Good draughtsmanship took you into architecture. Bingham tells us of Dutch architect Michel de Klerk who, aged just 14, was plucked from his school classroom in 1898 to begin an apprenticeship with the visiting architect Eduard Cuypers. De Klerk’s excellent drawings underpinned a very successful career. At the end of the last century architectural pupils were still judged on their ability to communicate through the creation of images, but drawing from life was no longer on the curriculum.

The fruits of real life representation are evident in the 1:50 coloured rendering of the American Hotel in Amsterdam, created by Willem Kromhout’s office in 1900. An office-wide undertaking, this was an enormous finished piece at a scale that would give the architects space to express the three dimensional qualities of the brickwork facade they were designing, capturing form in material and shadow across the surface of the building. This is a technical drawing enriched with texture and depth – both a representation and a tool to evolve the detail of the façade.

Drawing skills may have been well-honed in the early 20th century office, but pretty representations to sell a design were sometimes farmed out to illustrators and perspective draughtsmen, such as the Edwardian Robert Atkinson. These perspective representations are a delicate balance – enhancing the project and setting it in context with just enough detail for each. Rudolph Schindler’s 1930 image of a seashore house in Venice, California stands out, where the detailed stepping floating planes of the house are set against the dumb massing of the neighbours, and the playful arc of the waves in front evokes a happy life at the seashore. Basil Spence’s rendered perspective of the British Embassy in Rome (1962) and the examples of smooth and shiny digital images of the last few years of the century show that the use of perspective to publicise a scheme has endured.

Alongside these there are looser and more expressive drawings, with plenty of colour and not many inhabitants. Some express the quality of spaces, some focus on concepts. Others, such as Erich Mendelsohn’s fluid pencil sketches beautifully illustrate the exploration of an architectural form through freehand drawing. Densely arranged across a page (perpetuating a war-time habit of being frugal with materials) are many options for the entrance façade to the Metal Workers’ Union building in Berlin (1929). Such insight into a thought process is precious.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Neil Bingham to shortlist these three hundred drawings, a minute fraction of the work he has been surrounded by at the RIBA and the Royal Academy. Many architectural drawings are lost without ever being published. This book serves as a reminder to all architects how the act of drawing – and of really looking – can liberate and clarify thought.