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For the Library: George Saumarez Smith’s sketchbooks reinvigorate the endangered art of measured drawing

A new publication brings together a wide selection of meticulously detailed drawings by of one of today's leading classical architects

George Upton
For the Library: George Saumarez Smith’s sketchbooks reinvigorate the endangered art of measured drawing

Until relatively recently, drawing was an essential part of an architect’s practice. Making measured drawings of classical monuments and notable buildings was a cornerstone of the architect’s education and – in the centuries before computerised design tools – accurate drawings were the lingua franca through which a vision could be translated into its physical form. Yet the speed and precision of digital programs in measuring and rendering now means that drawing is no longer considered such an important component in a contemporary architect’s skill set.

George Saumarez Smith – a director of the classically minded Adam Architecture – was one of the last people to be taught measured drawing in his studies at Edinburgh University. His passion for draughtsmanship now sees him continuing to championing it as a tool, long after its demise in today’s architecture schools. A new publication from Triglyph Books, Sketchbooks: Collected Measured Drawings and Architectural Sketches, brings together illustrations made by Saumarez Smith over the last 25 years in a celebration of this slow, methodical and endangered art form.

First and foremost, these drawings are beautiful – careful representations of façades, ornamental details or patterns. Taken as a whole, however, the book makes a compelling argument for the continued relevance of measured drawing for architects working today. In his introduction, Saumarez Smith explains how the act of producing a detailed drawing of a building brings you into a conversation with the architect. As you take measurements and record them on paper, “you feel yourself unlocking the secrets of the design”. The tactile experience of measuring by hand­ – Saumarez Smith prefers the challenge of using a steel tape measure to a digital device – offers an intimate understanding of the materials and techniques involved in a building’s construction.

It is true that the practice of measured drawing compliments Saumarez Smith’s particular expertise as one of the foremost classical architects working today. His intricately detailed sketches of antique capitals, mouldings and fireplaces have a practical use in his day-to-day work. “Whenever I come to design anything,” he says, “the knowledge built up from years of sketchbook drawings has made me fluent in the language of buildings.”

Yet it is also clear that these drawings are more than just a visual archive of forms and proportions that Saumarez Smith references in his projects such as the Richard Green Gallery in New Bond Street, or the Poundbury development in Dorset. In the introduction to a section on windows, for example, he expands on how fenestration “[mediates] between the inside and outside of the building”; staircases, meanwhile, “often contribute the most architectural drama and excitement” to a building. Such musings demonstrate his idea that the practice of drawing encourages contemplative reflection on the fundamental elements of architecture. Elsewhere, in a section on Miscellaneous Objects, we see how, for Saumarez Smith, draughtsmanship is a way to engage with the world around him more generally: there are sketches of the profiles of bottled water, while one of his first – and favourite – drawings records the contents of an abandoned swimming pool he stumbled upon in Venice.

Saumarez Smith’s drawings have developed since he started working in his first cloth-bound sketchbook (dubbed ‘Augustus’ after the first Roman emperor) in 1996. The later sketchbooks (named after subsequent emperors) have become more meticulous, seeing Saumarez Smith starting to favour dipping pen and ink rather than a fibre-tipped pen. But the drawings are all made on-site and can take several hours. Throughout Sketchbooks, there is an exacting precision that expresses Saumarez Smith’s wide-eyed appreciation for architecture in intricate detail.

From his plans of the piazze of Tuscan hill towns at 1:500 scale, measured out by foot, to his delicately rendered full-size scroll decorations, Saumarez Smith’s drawings not only convey, with pleasing and authoritative accuracy, an impression of the objects and places they depict. They also draw attention to the parts of a building that are often overlooked. This book makes for a fascinating and informative read for the casual and curious reader alike, and puts forward a persuasive argument for the role of drawing for architects of any discipline working today.

Further reading

Sketchbooks: Collected Measured Drawings and Architectural Sketches, by George Saumarez Smith, is published by Triglyph Books and can be purchased here


Adam Architecture

George Saumarez Smith on Instagram


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