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Pattern recognition: drawing and the art of architecture

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Rory Olcayto examines the artistry that went into the creation of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre at the British Museum

Before the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre (WCEC) was a building, it was a drawing. Or rather it was hundreds of drawings, even thousands of drawings, most of them black ink on white paper, some drawn directly by hand, many more drawn on computer screens, the result of a million mouse-clicks. Regardless of their precise nature, whether colourful, monochrome, rendered on a supercomputer or sketched on the back of the proverbial napkin, all of these drawings are vital, each and every one of them, like a modern-day spell, conjuring Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ building into life.

Leafing through RSHP’s design and access statement for the proposed development, the document that serves as a framework explaining how it is a suitable response to the site and its setting, we see a startling range of drawings. There are coloured felt-tip pen studies of sun paths across Bloomsbury; hard-line, computer-aided design drawings of plans and sections through the proposed building; and hard-to-believe-it’s-not-a-photo renders of the Portland stone-clad stair towers and mottled glass facades facing onto Montague Place. These latter almost seem to be saying: ‘This is what I want to look like; the reality better match up, right?’

We tend to favour the sketch over hard-line drawings, because of their suggestive nature and the room they allow us to think for ourselves, but some of the technical drawings produced by RSHP are as compelling as any sketch. The ‘iceberg’ section is a good example. It shows the WCEC’s 50-50 split – four levels above ground and another four below – and has the same allure as a comic-book cutaway of a secret HQ.

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre at the British Museum

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre at the British Museum

Colour-coded iceberg section of the WCEC

The machine metaphor that pervades the WCEC’s design is at its strongest in this key image: the top two floors are colour-coded blue to denote conservation and science, and we see users sitting at computer screens or standing at tables designed to be worked at standing up. The second floor, coloured orange, and designated entirely for plant, shows a lone figure inspecting ventilation machinery. Below this we see the special exhibitions gallery, complete with Chinese terracotta soldiers and horses and visitors gaping in awe. One floor down, a full 6m below Montague Place, we’re in logistics, a ‘two-level’ floor, and here we can see artifacts being studied and prepared for show. Below this we have three levels of archives, a forklift truck at the bottom to suggest the activity these floors will see day in, day out.

Before it was a sketch it was an idea sitting in the architect’s head, itching to get out

It would all, of course, have started as a sketch. In truth every building designed by an architect begins life as a sketch. And before it was a sketch it was an idea sitting in the architect’s head, itching to get out. Drawing is the key that unlocks the mysterious difference between architecture and the more general art of building. As Reyner Banham explained in his last essay, Black Box: The Secret Profession of Architecture: ‘Even before architectural drawings achieved the kind of commercial value they can claim nowadays, they had such crucial value for architects that being unable to think without drawing became the true mark of one fully socialised into the profession of architecture.’ In short: if you don’t explore your ideas for a building through drawing, then what you’re designing isn’t architecture.

Still, the many drawings RSHP created during the design process for WCEC, a fraction of which can be seen in the design and access statement, were done not to offer proof that what they were proposing to the British Museum was architecture rather than mere building. The drawings were made because, as Banham says, they serve as a pure expression of architectural thought.

Architecture critic Jay Merrick puts it like this: ‘Pens, pencils and paper are the primary building materials; sketches are the first intimations of the tense physicality and potential of architecture, and the effect that even the smallest details may have.’ Yet RSHP’s repertoire includes images made with the assistance of computers. Can such images have the same connection to the art of architecture, too?

A computer is a machine for making art

Banham died in 1990, just as computer-aided design was becoming commonplace in architectural practice and, as a technophile, he was more than happy to see it used to create great buildings. In his Black Box essay, however, there is a hint of impatience with architects who resist computers. He sees such objectors as parochial at best, bloody-minded, at worst. Banham would no doubt have found Graham Stirk’s view on the computer-rendered drawings of Montague Place facades encouraging then, because Stirk calls Hayes Davidson, the firm that worked alongside him to produce them, ‘artists’.

5370 BM Revised Design and Access Statement FINAL Page 055

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre at the British Museum

Render showing a panoramic view from Montague Place at dusk

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre at the British Museum

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre at the British Museum

Render showing a panoramic view from Montague Place by day

This is a divisive view within the profession. To many, computer-generated images of buildings are deadening and artless. Yet Stirk credits Hayes Davidson’s role in creating drawings as crucial to the project’s success, particularly those drawings of the WCEC’s contentious glass facades, whose subtelty planners took a long time to understand. Drawing glass is tough, says Stirk. And boring, too. How do you show an edge of glass? How do you show translucency? How do you show transparency? In the end, a combination of render and post-production Photoshopping – adding in watercolour studies and other analogue techniques – produced the ‘look’ Stirk wanted and led him to consider the Montague Place renders as ‘art’, and a worthy companion to the free-flowing, hand-drawn sketch. Had Banham lived to see the kind of images computers can help us to create today, he would have been inspired to pen (or more likely word-process) another of his wonderful, meandering essays.

As well as the stunning renders produced with Hayes Davidson, one other RSHP drawings stand out as the product of clever mixed-media collage-making techniques: the Montague Place elevation, which blends photography, with CAD and watercolour washes to show the WCEC in context. The long, landscape-format drawing spans from Russell Square on the far left, taking in the King Edward building, the reading room, and the undulating Norman Foster-designed Great Court roof, and the WCEC itself, modestly scaled, almost quiet, and tucked behind two trees. Then we see the end-of-terrace facade that edges along Bedford Square, and the railings that define the garden at its centre. Looming in the background we see faded elevations of other large institutional buildings that define Bloomsbury and the chimney stacks and pitched roofs of residential terraces. The drawing aims to show the WCEC as part of a continuous townscape, rather than as an object building.

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre at the British Museum

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre at the British Museum

The Montague Place elevation

Unfinished business

All good drawings, but especially good sketches, have a certain magical power. They seem loaded with potential energy: they are, in essence, unfinished things, and that, perhaps is their secret charm. They suggest infinite possible futures, and each of us who sees them, sees something different. In some ways this is also true of the objects specialists in the WCEC will analyse and study before handing them over to the curators to show.

Without context, without deep analysis, ancient pieces of earthenware, jewellery or weaponry mean nothing, or could indeed mean a million things. But once these anonymous objects have been studied and placed in an historical context, one that identifies its social, economic and cultural value, we can see what they mean more clearly.

As soon as the building is handed to the client, it becomes something else, something beyond the architect’s control

The British Museum has a long history of revising what it knows about the artefacts it puts on display. As we learn more about the past, objects we thought meant one thing, come to mean another. The same is true of buildings, evens ones as definitively thought-through as the WCEC. It might seem to be a very particular thing, the sum total of a thousand technical drawings, yet this pure-state moment – when everything is exactly as planned – is really just a flicker in the building’s long life. This moment, too, is only ever captured in the carefully composed photographs – another kind of machine-made drawing – that are typically used to promote the project in the press, online and in marketing brochures. As soon as the building is handed to the client, it becomes something else, something beyond the architect’s control. People and how they use the spaces they inhabit change the building’s shape every day. The better architects know this, and indeed plan their buildings to respond dynamically to sustained change.

But what of the building before it is complete? That sense of potential energy, of second-by-second change, is embodied most explicitly during the construction phase, when the entire site footprint is in a state of constant flux.

At the WCEC, this in-between state has been logged and examined by artist Liam O’Connor. He spent three years on site working alongside RSHP and MACE to record the building’s steady journey towards completion, his drawings a metaphysical foil to the architect’s definitive portfolio.

The building site as artist’s muse

There is a long history of artists recording construction. In 1746 Giovanni Antonio Canal – Canaletto – travelled to London to capture its emergence as a world capital and almost every painting the Venetian artist made focused on a new piece of architecture or a scene of urban upgrade. His most famous London painting might well be his view of Westminster Bridge seen through one of its scaffolded arches with a builder’s bucket hanging from above. It was probably inspired by Piranesi prints, most likely the imagined scenes of underground construction sites rendered in the Italian printmaker’s Prisons series, published in 1750.



The City Seen Through an Arch of Westminster Bridge (1747), by Canaletto

Piranesi: Carceri Plate XI

Piranesi: Carceri Plate XI

Carceri Plate XI – The Arch with a Shell Ornament, from Carceri d’invenzione (published 1750) by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

O’Connor’s drawings of the WCEC mix the optimism of Canaletto’s views with the darker aspects of Piranesi’s underground fantasies to encapsulate the layered complexity underpinning RSHP’s Bloomsbury scheme. His most memorable is View from the Model Room Window 2010-2013, which frames a large portion of the building site.

O’Connor has continually drawn over earlier views, from a window that looked due west, to show the emergence of the architect’s new building, while also maintaining a sense of what was there before. In this way you can see all the different shapes the emerging edifice has thrown within a single drawing.

Once a building goes up, nobody really remembers what was there before

As the site changed, O’Connor changed the drawing. It was a weekly ritual. He would stand at the drawing for a morning or an afternoon adding new developments but maintaining the site’s previous forms as well. The idea was, O’Connor explains, that once a building goes up, nobody really remembers what was there before. All the energy and activity that has gone into making the WCEC would otherwise be lost or hidden within the structure and facade.

There will always be a limit to what is possible to put down on paper. View from the Model Room Window 2010-2013 shows concrete being poured, excavation pumps, the landscape of the excavation itself – the cliffs and hills thrown up by the process of digging it out – and lots of scaffolding.

It also shows the steel of the above-ground structure under construction, and you can still make out the chimney tops and pitched roof of the previous building – the brick-built Bindery – ghosting through. You can see the back of Bedford Square, a little of the square itself beyond, some trees, and the established museum buildings on either side of RSHP’s emerging steel structure. And, at the top of the drawing, you see crane movement. This is the one part of the drawing that betrays its secret, in that the crane is shown as an object described in all the possible positions it can be in, a clear expression of movement through space and time. The end result is almost overwhelming but it rivals Piranesi for mood, complexity and sheer spectacle. The added element of time, however, places it in a category of its own.

The drawing as a time machine

One detail of the drawing, of a crossbeam being lowered into place, is evocative of the potential energy all drawings encode within their lines (and there is a resonance here too, with the potential of the yet-to-be analysed artefacts the WCEC will process before they are displayed in the museum). The element is shown twisting into position.

O’Connor describes it as having a kind of balletic, performative quality. ‘Then – bang – it’s in place. It’s there forever. For a while it was this beautiful object moving through the sky, then its fixed, and that’s that.’

RSHP’s architects, who have carried the entire project around in their heads from day one, back when it was merely a set of principles rather than anything as definitive as a building, would revel in O’Connor’s observation. They will have thought about that piece of steel – how big it needed to be, when it needed to appear on the construction programme, where it came from, its exact dimensions – and to have an artist explore that knowledge must be gratifying.

It would explain, too, why RSHP bought View from the Model Room Window 2010-2013 and donated it the British Museum’s drawings and print collections.

It’s a big drawing: 84cm across by 120cm high, but surprisingly, given the density of black graphite on the page, the paper isn’t heavyweight, just 120gsm. The pencils used range from 3B for the more tight, detailed line work all the way up to 8B, typically for adding tone to the more expressive areas of the drawing, like where the concrete is being poured.

And the window frame through which O’Connor looked out from while he made the drawing now lives on as the actual drawing’s frame, lending a vertiginous temporal texture to the whole endeavour.

View from the Model Room Window 2010-2013 is an attempt to reconcile what the reality of the WCEC building site is with a memory of what it was. Time-lapse photography offers a similar perspective, but with its singular forward momentum, it captures site progress only in the most basic sense.

O’Connor’s drawing on the other hand, like all good drawings, feels almost sentient. It has a life of its own. Rendering all those now-vanished moments, and attempting to collect them all on to one surface, is a vital, fecund gesture: ultimately this drawing is a time machine.

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre at the British Museum

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre at the British Museum

View from the model room window 2010-2013, by Liam O’Connor: the completed drawing

The building site as artist

Another, even bigger, O’Connor drawing shows the whole L-shaped site transformed over a four-month period. Moving from left to right, across the fish-eyed perspective study, we see the edge of a tower crane, then a huge pile of clay in the corner of the site where lorries pull in, are filled up, and drive off again to dump their contents.

Beyond that you can see the smooth Portland stone facade of Senate House and the temporary structure of site office huts, the welfare office and canteen. In the same drawing you can see the rear of the King Edward building that neighbours the WCEC on Montague Place, enclosed with scaffold. Below that it drops into the huge space carved out for the basement, with steel props beneath.

The scale is heroic. There is a sense of movement once more, diggers this time, rather than cranes, as they shift clay around the site; clay that looks fluid again now after millions of dormant years. In the far right corner of the drawing, this quality is mirrored in O’Connor’s depiction of the basement concrete being poured, as it swirls into place before setting.

Unlike View from the Model Room Window 2010-2013, this drawing is composed of 20 different A3 sketches pieced together from different vantage points.

Yet both drawings share that epic sense of transformation and the beauty of all the in-between states WCEC manifested during its construction.

The construction site, too, created its own kind of drawings. O’Connor’s photographs capture some of these as moments: there is a lino floor embedded with circles, traces of the marks a chair has made every time it has been repositioned and sat upon. There is a top-down shot of a pile of bricks neatly composed as if for a canvas; a part-demolished wall that has the undulating flow of a natural landscape; a glue-stained floor that has the same appeal as abstract expressionism.

O’Connor made woodcut prints from a carpenter’s cutting blocks; screen-prints from puddles scooped up on sheets of card; and rust pattern studies from fibrous metal links discarded on site. ‘After a while,’ O’Connor says, ‘you think no, I can’t compete with the imagery the site is making on its own. The site is the artist, not me.’

WCEC site photograph

WCEC site photograph

Photograph by Liam O’Connor showing materials and textures of the WCEC site

Full circle

In essence, RSHP’s prosaic, information-rich studies for the design and access statement that first willed the WCEC into being and the images O’Connor says capture ‘drawings’ the site itself has made, are part of the same family.

There are echoes of RSHP’s colour studies of the Bloomsbury streets, which show the off-white stone used for institutional buildings and the soot-washed bricks of the residential terraces in O’Connor’s photographs of the Bindery, which contrast bare and painted brickwork.

And O’Connor’s snapshots of broken ceramics arranged into neat grids resonate with Stirk’s checkerboard studies of WCEC’s pavilion blocks. You might even draw parallels between RSHP’s turning-circle diagrams that determine the space required for truck deliveries with O’Connor’s photograph showing a swirl of dust on a basement concrete floor.

Spotting these connections – pattern recognition – is what artists and architects do best.

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