Measure Draw Build – Classicism, Craft and (the absence of) Computers

On show at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in London is “Measure Draw Build, an exhibition of classical architecture and architectural drawings by the British architect George Saumarez Smith, a director of ADAM Architecture. It showcases architectural work from his student days at the University of Edinburgh through to recent classical buildings erected here in the UK and overseas by his practice. As the title of the exhibition suggests it focuses on his measured drawing work, presentation drawing work and completed built commissions.

The photographs of recently completed classical buildings designed by Saumarez Smith which one comes to last as one walks around the 3rd floor exhibition space at the RIBA have been photographed professionally. These faultless essays in classicism appear new, clean, bright and sunlit, without the patina of age. The Richard Green Gallery in new Bond Street, a variety of mixed use and residential buildings in Poundbury, villas like Brighton Grange, Hayes and extensions to Wudstone House, East Hoe Manor and Kilmeston Manor all exhibit classical architectural pedigrees, well-wrought and delightful to look at. There is even a very recently completed urban villa in Amrita Shergill Marg in New Dehli, in which Saumarez Smith has employed the architectural language and grammar of the Greek Revival (Doric Order), ideal for such a climate. While there are no overtones of Sir Edwin Lutyens per-se in this last example, the association of location hangs delightfully (and some would say provocatively) in the air.

The Drawings

In many ways the actual buildings are not the main event, attractive though they are. They are upstaged by the ample set of architectural scale drawings which form the main body of the exhibition. This is unsurprising since the drawings are operating in their intended “natural” habitat, an exhibition, while the existential reality of the buildings must be represented as best they can by two dimensional photographs – albeit finely wrought ones. Mostly executed in pencil and ink on tracing paper (often A1 or double elephant sized) the drawings are all about the creative process, beginning with measured drawings, some in cloth-bound sketch books and moving on to framed and wall hung scale drawings beginning with sketch designs and culminating in large presentation drawings. These are a tour de force. For those of us brought up in the tradition of the drawing board and working with pencil on tracing paper it is immediately obvious that there is a particular economy of means, technically proficient and a highly practiced effect in Saumarez Smith’s style of drawing. It is precise but fluid moving dexterously from broad pencil strokes for background and trees to fine detail in elevational compositions which allow the eye to move effortlessly and naturally across the drawing. The skiagraphy is precise and convincing and the use of tracing paper is traditional and practical. These aspects alone would justify the journey to Portland Place but it is the fact that they are being exhibited at all that is of importance here – because hand drawing of this type (pencil on tracing paper) in architectural practice is now a rarity – largely because of computers.

Why Hand Drawing Matters in the Digital Age

In 2010 I was fortunate to attend the “Three Classicists” exhibition held at the RIBA in London, a presentation of architectural work at that time by three up and coming classical architects based in the UK, Ben Pentreath, George Saumarez Smith and Francis Terry. In his introduction to the catalogue of that 2010 exhibition H.R.H. The Prince of Wales wrote, “…I have always placed enormous emphasis, both at my former Institute of Architecture and my Drawing School, on the continuing, timeless importance of drawing (of course, computer-aided design is an enormously useful tool, but should not be the measure of all things…) and I am particularly happy to see these three friends set such high personal standards of draughtsmanship….” I was struck firstly by how clearly correct the Prince of Wales’s statement was but also by the need to make it and the phrase he used to do so, “…the measure of all things.”

The use of digital technologies is now ubiquitous in producing buildings today because they are indeed very useful at an instrumental level. The technical information produced on computers and used to execute a building design can have a consistency, detail and manipulability which convey myriad economic, quality control and collaborative advantages. Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) and Building Information Modelling (BIM) are two of the most significant examples in this regard. But creating the building design in the first place, before this technical information for execution and maintenance is the essential first step and here the role of computers is much more ambiguous.

Traditionally architects design with a pencil in their hand, sketching and drawing quickly to evolve ideas in an active, iterative process of composition and experimentation, in much the same way that an artist or a musician might in their respective mediums. Through a series of subsequent episodes of design development and iteration often involving drafting, adjustment, repetition and re-appraisal these sketches are formalised into drawings following conventions of architectural representation. Importantly this process too is carried out by hand, often in pencil or ink on tracing paper, utilising the layering properties of this semi-transparent medium to explore and evaluate alternative design configurations. Hand drawing is used throughout, it just becomes increasingly formalised, but still retains the immediacy of a physical process, like crafting a wooden chair or carving a stone pinnacle. This is the process so clearly and elegantly displayed by Saumarez Smith at the RIBA, hand crafted designs rendered in hand crafted techniques. It is beautiful and increasingly rare.

Many parts of this process of design and design visualisation in architecture generally are now carried out on computers, indeed from its earliest inception Computer Aided Drafting has sought to integrate itself with this established process and in many ways has adopted it as its paradigm. From sketching on an iPAD to 3D modelling, drafting, texturing rendering, animating and even now 3D printing, computers can be used as tools to create fully develop architectural designs and to visually present them in ways which parallel the traditional hand-crafted design and visualisation process. But building designs created by extensive use of computers inevitably to a greater or lesser extent exhibit the tool-marks of their making and often their very essence, their form and appearance is changed. This is because digital tools can strongly lead and influence the architect.

The reasons for this are interesting. Digital technologies appear to convey increased design “power” to the architect, but in fact they essentially industrialise (in a division of labour sense) and mechanise (in a prime mover sense) the process of design. John Ruskin and William Morris would recognise the dilemma. Where they were concerned with crafted versus manufactured outcome of the design, today we are concerned with the crafted versus manufactured process of design.  The ethical issues implicit in how we choose to design when the power of digital technologies are at our disposal are all too familiar. Purposeful abuse of digital power in architectural design is as common as is its naïve adoption and misuse. Economic imperatives of business and competition forced architects from the 1990’s onwards to adopt digital technologies and now these technologies have become enshrined legislatively, professionally and by custom and convention in the education and practice of architecture. Thoughtful practitioners and educators are making valiant efforts to direct the power and consequences of the digital revolution in architecture in ways which strengthen rather diminish the traditional values and behaviours of good and long trusted forms of design. But there are others who gripped by naïve enthusiasm, straightforward venal ambition or egotism over-extend its form finding power in design, producing what the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in a parallel context called “hopeful monsters”, propositions that in reality are dystopian nightmares of frightening alienation, so malformed or out of tune with their environment that they are doomed to fail.


This is not the case with classical architectural design, which is essentially a process of hand-crafting buildings and cities with the human being as the central concern (humanism). It relies upon the skill and judgement of a human being (often an architect) using a highly flexible, structured architectural language to create an intelligible, articulate, sometimes witty or apposite statement in built form that is related fundamentally to the scale and needs of the human body and mind. Computers cannot design classical buildings in the way that human beings can because they cannot negotiate and innovate, make value judgements, make moral choices or balance qualitative criteria. These lie at the centre of Classicism as an approach to architecture.

So where does that leave architects like Saumarez Smith as a contemporary practicing architect? Interestingly it seems Saumarez Smith is also refreshingly pragmatic about computers. Some of the drawings have been produced by overdrawing onto computer produced light-line drawings. This is a natural point of intersection of old craft and new technology, over-tracing is a traditional technique, albeit in this case the underlay has been produced digitally rather than by hand. There is no sense of the two disciplines being at odds, in fact I had to look hard to see their combination after I read the small label below one of the drawings which perfectly honestly stated this aspect their production. Nothing could be more natural than this useful digital technology being co-opted sensitively into a traditional craft process. The classical approach to architectural design does not preclude the use of computers but does require – like the use of any other tool – reflection on where they are and are not used. This may seem perfectly prudent and uncontentious but if one accepts it as true then it quickly conducts us to a very much more important aspect of the theory and practice classicism that is not just about drafting and presentation but about the very nature of classical design itself and the regulating principles which underlie it.

Metiendo Vivendum

What is immediately apparent from Saumarez Smith’s work is that these are drawings not only of aesthetic persuasiveness but also of technical exegesis. This is obvious in the measured survey drawings – and measurement and drawing in the field quite rightly appears to have been a constant theme of the architect’s practice. Less obvious is the “technical” nature of many of the design and presentation drawings. In true classical tradition these have dimensions inscribed upon them too, either in feet, meters or modules. It is a simple matter to take out a pocket calculator or notebook and pencil and deduce from these figures the underlying proportional systems Saumarez Smith has used for his architectural compositions. The satisfaction derived from this small act of enquiry lends considerably to the overall enjoyment of the designs for anyone who understands the central role of proportions in classical architecture. Mathematics and geometry lie at the heart of classical architecture and in particular in the use of proportion and arithmetic because they retain not only an attractive (if at times somewhat mystical) historical legitimacy going back through the renaissance to the Aristotelian cosmology of antiquity but also a practical utility. Technical devices such as arithmetic and geometric armatures – invisible and abstract, mathematically coherent, adjustable, three dimensional frameworks or underlays upon which architectural features can be proportionally arranged with considerable creative flexibility in painterly composition remain useful design tools. In these and other respects it is sometimes said of proportion in architecture that low mathematics raises up high art.

So as unlikely as it may seem, computing in architecture and classicism in architecture have a shared provenance, rooted in Euclidian mathematics. The considerable differences which seem to separate them lie not merely in the tools used, computer chips or compass and rule but most importantly in the differing attitudes of mind and assumptions they seem to bring with them. It would for example be a mistake of the greatest magnitude to assume that the use of proportion in architecture is deterministic or robotic, quite the reverse, it is fundamentally open and flexible and requires human direction to succeed in its application. As A.S.G. Butler, wrote in 1926 “Proportion relies on the maintenance of scale and affects the whole disposition of the parts of a building in all their relations: it is less a rule for relative lengths and areas than a general instinct which propels the machinery of beauty.” Classical architecture, irrespective of its means of transmission is carried by mathematical genes and this along with its remarkable flexibility of expression and its basis in the human condition is the reason it has persisted. Computer aided design should indeed, “…not be the measure of all things…” but the reflective and careful use of computers and digital techniques to support both the mathematical theory and the architectural practice of classicism in the 21st century seems right in principle and forward thinking.

Given this and that Saumarez Smith’s exhibition makes clear that computers have been used to produce some of the under-lays for some of the otherwise hand-drawn pencil and ink on tracing paper drawings we are left to speculate on the extent, if any to which his practice uses the geometric and numeric advantages of computers in the actual design and composition of these classical schemes rather than just their presentation. They quite legitimately may not, which is fine, but one cannot help thinking that the tradition of classism shows that innovation within it tends to enrich it rather than denude it. For undecided young architects who might be searching for an idiom in which to work, this exhibition demonstrates the persuasive immediacy, sheer beauty and continued relevance of classicism. Let us hope that opportunities may be available for them to see the innovative potential within classicism as well the value of sublime recapitulation.

“Measure Draw Build” is on at the RIBA, Portland Place, London from 25th October – 26th November 2017. George Saumarez Smith is a director at ADAM Architecture. The paint scheme for the exhibition was by Edward Bulmer and the furniture was loaned by Jeremy Rothman.


About Douglas Cawthorne

Reader in Digital Heritage at De Montfort University.
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