Photo by Ryan Ancill

A drawing is worth a thousand photographs

This collection of measured drawings recovers the backbone of architectural education

Artillery Row Books

When I was young, part of the education of every budding architect was to survey a building of quality and to prepare measured drawings based on that survey, which included details of mouldings, ironwork, masonry joints and so on. The finished measured drawings were sometimes prepared on good paper, rendered with water-colour to show shadows, etc. Drawings and notes were subjected to close scrutiny, criticised and then marked. 

Sketchbooks: Collected Measured Drawings and Architectural Sketches
by George Saumarez Smith (London: Triglyph Books, 2021), 239 pp., ISBN: 978-1-0163554-3-9. £40.

This discipline was invaluable, for it involved a physical engagement with buildings, touching their surfaces, and appreciating how the different parts were put together to form a coherent whole. From the very first year of my studies, that instilled in me a healthy respect for the complexities, subtleties, and qualities of real architecture. Surveys and measured drawings oblige students to look at buildings and understand them: it is only by surveying and drawing up those surveys that a detailed knowledge of proportional systems, relationships of parts, axial planning, mouldings and, above all, how junctions are formed in a satisfactory manner, can be acquired. 

That essential discipline was ditched in the 20th century as part of “architectural education”, because it did not fit in with the nihilism of Modernism’s total rejection of the past. The dismal results can be seen on all sides. Students nowadays have virtually no feeling for how buildings are put together, or how ornament (a dirty word today) was once an integral part of architecture rather than plonked on as an afterthought. They simply do not understand the importance of context (another dirty word, as Modernism demands the tabula rasa).

George Saumarez Smith, now a Director of ADAM Architecture, based in Winchester, was in the last year-group at Edinburgh to be taught the skill of measured drawing as part of the core architectural syllabus, and that skill has since become a passion for him. This beautiful book presents a selection of the drawings he has made over the last quarter of a century in a series of bound sketchbooks. As he acknowledges, measuring buildings and drawing them from those measurements used to be a normal part of any architect’s work, and in his case he found it a form of self-education. 

Today, thanks to the jettisoning of everything that was valuable in an architect’s education when the cult of Modernism imposed its narrow, puritanical rigidities, surveys are carried out by specialist companies’ usual digital methods, so architects are further divorced from understanding the fabric of their subjects.

Nobody knew how to make a staircase

Saumarez Smith recalls one evening near the end of a year at architectural school, when somebody asked if anyone knew how big to make each step of a staircase. Nobody knew. By the time he had finished his degree the situation had not changed much, for projects became less and less like actual buildings: designing something like a staircase would have been considered “dull and uninspired”. Yes among all the parts of  building, staircases often contribute the most drama, as any student of historical architecture will know. 

A perusal of this admirable volume is sufficient to convince the reader of the depth and breadth of Saumarez Smith’s mastery of core skills. The geographical scope is also immensely impressive: it includes concentrated observations of buildings in London, New Delhi, Rome, Stockholm, Istanbul, Chicago, Copenhagen, Seville, Sydney and many other places. 

Here are works by great architects, humble details from quite ordinary buildings (but nevertheless put together with far more sensitivity and skill than graduates from a modern school could muster), a marvellous compilation of many things that make architecture. 

Saumarez Smith’s drawings vary from exquisite details to impressionistic sketches of whole buildings or rooms. I zeroed in on his detail work from Charlottenhof, Potsdam (1826-7), a handrail and baluster from Schloß Glienicke, near Berlin (1824-32)  and a beautiful part of the gallery-landing balustrade from the Altes (Saumarez Smith incorrectly labels it “Aaltes”) Museum, Lustgarten, Berlin (1824-30), all by the great Prussian architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841), whose work has always entranced me, though much of it was lost to war, stupidity or both. What remains of it is heartbreakingly beautiful.

The sensitivity with which Saumarez Smith wields his pencil is apparent on every page. One particularly beautiful drawing is that of a twin-handled mid-19th century gilt-bronze and green serpentine marble vase, which shows everything needed to make the artefact, drawn with a deep feeling for it. It is, however a vase, and not as he calls it, an urn: urns are lidded; vases are not. Very clear indeed are his drawings of tiles from the floor of Siena Cathedral, where he introduces colour.

The book is handsomely bound, decently printed on good paper, and Saumarez Smith’s narratives are short, pithy and to the point. The drawings are divided into different sections. These are: 1. Elevations, Sections, and Plans of Buildings; 2. The Orders: Capitals, Bases, Entablatures, and Mouldings; 3. Scroll Decoration and Enrichment; 4. Staircases and Balustrades; 5. Doors and Windows; 6. Panelling and Fireplaces; 7. Furniture; 8 Geometric Patterns in Floors and Tiles; 9. Miscellaneous Objects; and 10. Views of Buildings (this last a mixed bag, including some not very successful drawings, yet others, such as the detail from a house at 12 College Street, Winchester, a street I know well, are sensitive and informative). However, I have one major quibble: why on earth were the captions not printed on the same pages as the images? Having them grouped together on separate pages at the start of each section is not user-friendly, and indeed profoundly irritating. 

I earnestly urge anybody involved with the built environment to study this rather wonderful book. Without the deep study of existing buildings of quality Saumarez Smith advocates and demonstrates, budding architects can never hope to acquire the skills to design buildings that will please and actually work. The only way to really understand a building is to draw it: taking a snapshot with a digital camera or a cellphone is of no use whatsoever. 

Saumarez Smith teaches measured drawing and traditional and Classical architecture, subjects which are more and more in demand from graduates who recognise the vast lacunæ in their “architectural education”. Many, indeed, have spoken to me of having been “conned” by the purveyors of nonsense infesting schools of architecture, and of their hunger and need to know about real architecture, not the meaningless failures erected everywhere today. 

Measured drawings should be an essential part of the education of any person hoping to become an architect. This excellent book shows why.

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