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Thursday 10 March 2011

Masterworks: Architecture at the Royal Academy

Review by Nathan Breeze

The Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768 with the aim to promote the ‘Arts of Design’ element in Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.

An Institution for the privileged few, an architect who wishes to become a Royal Academician must first be elected by the General Council (all Royal Academicians) and then submit a distinguished piece of work, known as the Diploma Work for approval. The status of ‘Architect-Academician’ is then granted by the current Monarch. Masterworks is an exhibition of the Diploma Works submitted by celebrated architect-academicians from its founding to the present day, demonstrating the vast evolution in architectural representation.

Early Diploma Works of picturesque perspectives in pen and coloured washes remind us how many architects at the time also worked as artists. Under the guidance of Sir William Chambers, The Royal Academy founded the first British Architecture School. Prior to its establishment, architects, like artists trained as apprentices. Withholding traditional values, the school believed that to be an accomplished architect one had to be an accomplished artist.

Discounting changes in architectural styles, the first major shift in representation technique is seen in Diploma Works submitted at the beginning of the 20th century when, Post-Industrial Revolution, architecture began to be more aligned with science. The result was the submission of precise technical drawings on a layout alongside the same charming perspectives. It was at this time that British architects began to build projects abroad. A must see is the stunning pencil and coloured wash perspective by Sir Herbert Baker (RA,1932) of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa. The combination of precise, geometric pencil drawing with free strokes of many different colours captures a vibrant new atmosphere.

The following and ever-present change in architectural representation came with the emergence of the computer. Quickly hand drawing began to be replaced by faster, more efficient and accurate CAD programmes allowing for greater integration across the construction industry. Architects can now use sophisticated 3D modelling software to create hyper-realistic visuals of projects within their proposed contexts complete with accurate lighting and materials (as well as smiling people and the odd hot air balloon). Due to this technological shift the Royal Academy has slowly had to relax previously strict rules on the type of work that can be submitted. The first Diploma Work drawing to incorporate computer crafted imagery was submitted in 1993 by the architect, Paul Koralek. Since then architects have submitted physicals models, photographs and computer renderings. When elected to the Royal Academy in 2000, Will Alsop submitted a mix-media collage entitled Fog is an Urban Experience relating to a redevelopment project in Toronto, Canada.

It is fascinating to see the rapid change in the way architects have expressed their designs. However, this exhibition could have been stronger if it has speculated on the future of architectural representation and in particular of hand drawing. As the mouse replaces the pencil and the computer screen the drawing board, hand drawing has fallen into decline both in practice and in architectural schools.

Increasingly in architectural practice drawing by hand is viewed with a level of cynicism. With offices working on tight fixed fee contracts, presenting hand drawings can be both time and money consuming. Furthermore the post-rationalized concept sketch has become clichéd, undermining the complexity of (and the architect's role within) a project and fuelling the growing stereotype within the construction industry of architects as mere stylists. But is this quick decline in hand drawing such a bad thing? Drawings act as the interface between architects and clients, bridging the gap between ideas and material. For me, drawing by hand is most directly linked to the free imagination. Taking the time and care to sketch can lead to the intuitive and inspired solutions that separate architecture from just building.

If architects are to remain as creative professionals they must resist a complete ‘parametricising’ of the design process. An over-reliance on CAD software, particularly at the early stages of a project can lead to generic, unimaginative and standardized designs emerging. Furthermore the inability to sit down with the client and confidently sketch out a proposal could further isolate the Architect as a distant specialist. Seductive and hyper-realistic visuals often present a falsely objective vision of the future proposal and can lead to the finished building being below clients' expectations.

I would like to believe that the future lies in developing designs simultaneously in a variety of mediums. Like the latest computer programmes, hand drawing is a design tool that can be harnessed. The curator points out that recently elected architects such as, Eric Parry and David Chipperfield, still develop their designs through hand drawing but these are architects who have both forged their careers in a time before CAD and SketchUp. It will no doubt be very interesting to see a repeat of the exhibition in twenty years time with the likely prospect of architects elected to the Academy who cannot confidently hand draw.

Masterworks at the Royal Academy continues until 13 March. A fully illustrated book by exhibition curator Dr. Neil Bingham explores the history of each of the architectural masterworks. For more information please visit www.royalacademy.org.uk

Alfred Waterhouse RA (1830–1905), Manchester Town Hall: perspective, 1887. Pencil, pen with black ink and coloured washes, 762 × 1092 mm

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