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Drawings that Count: The work of AA Diploma Unit 15

[THIS WEEK] James Pallister reads an entertaining critique of restoration and ‘antiquity’

The Architectural Association’s publishing imprint, AA Agendas, has a back catalogue many institutions would envy. Its latest offering, Drawings that Count, examines work done by Francesca Hughes’ Diploma Unit 15 from 2004 to 2010.

The polemical intent of Hughes’ work is expressed at the beginning of the 192-page book: ‘This is a render-free zone.’ Drawings abound, many of them complex. Her introductory essay interrogates the notion of context, ‘that most fickle of categories in architecture’s bag’, whether deployed to generate form or as a defensive position ‘when architecture remembers its ultimately conservative roots - genius loci, critical regionalism and other forms of vernacular manqué’.

The classicist, Mary Beard, was enlisted to give academic rigour to the unit. Beard is an entertaining and likeable presenter and writer and her transcribed conversation here with Francesca Hughes makes good reading. Beard skewers the ambitions, inconsistencies and anachronisms of restoration projects: ‘the Acropolis restoration … is both an architectural achievement on the most extraordinary scale and completely bonkers … What they’ve done is tagged every stone on the bloody Acropolis and they have worked out its trajectory from its original position to where it is now and then how to replace it.’ Beard asks to which version of history do you restore: should the Parthenon be the one of the fifth century or the mosque which preceded it?

Beard’s father was an architect who worked with medieval buildings. This helped give her a teleological sense of history of which she later rid herself. ‘Somehow I’d got the impression that medieval buildings were kind of worse than ours. I’d internalised a sense of progress.’ Hence her shock at seeing the Elgin Marbles: ‘I thought, God! Nobody told me they could be good at things!’ It’s worth the cover price alone for Beard and Hughes’ conversation on ruin, Piranesi and what Hughes calls the ‘eternal, endless, futile labour of reconstruction’.

Drawings that Count

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