Glasgow’s unique contribution to the fabric of architectural history is not a stand-alone style or a genius mind, of which there are many – Mackintosh, Salmon, ‘Greek’ Thomson to name a few. It’s contribution is the humble tenement which gives the city its unique layout and spatial feel.
Growing up in Glasgow the gridded lines of tenements had a profound influence on my understanding of scale and order within the built environment. Indeed the wave of post-war modernism attempted to sweep away these robust stone blocks and replace them with concrete towers. But this is not what this little article is about.
The most dominant feature of the tenements is there repetitiveness in terms of plan and façade, indeed this means the city as a whole, where tenements are prevalent, has a visual coherence. The real architectural joy comes in moments of difficulty for the tenement.
Given the flatness and vertical nature of the facades turning the corner always presents a moment where the building has to change dramatically. The architects of the tenements embraced this and found beautiful little ways to achieve this turn but also to express a little creativity whilst maintain that visual coherence.
Indeed these moments that are so subtle and go unnoticed by passers-by are essays in stone in how to deal with architectural and urban joins in a gorgeous and under stated way. They at one time blend to their surroundings whilst express their own architectural intents.
Nothing shows the Architect’s mentality more than a worm’s eye axonometric. This seems like a bold and brash comment to make but I feel they sum up the approach certain architects take not only in how the portray their design but how they themselves work through their design.
For me the master of this curious drawing type was Mario Botta. Now any architect could tell you that Botta is obsessive in his love for the simple line axonometric, a quick flick through any of his monographs is an education in how to produce them. But every now and then you will come across a worm’s eye axonometric, most likely from his medium scale projects of the early eighties.
I find these examples of commercial buildings drawn in a style which is only really comprehensible by a keen eye fascinating. They don’t actually show you much in terms of a drawing, the ground floor plan and a few elevations if you’re lucky, I mean a bird’s eye or normal axonometric can convey the entire building form, but a worm’s eye cannot really do that.
So what’s the point in producing such a drawing, well I feel they have a value in terms of the thought process behind them. Botta loves nothing more than showing his buildings as toy-architecture, by which I mean representing a building as a simple three dimensional object that could almost be held in your hand. The worm’s eye shows this object being examined from below and giving the viewer an up-skirt view of the design, one that in reality will never be seen.
In this way Botta and others who produce such worm’s eye views are revealing that they see the building as object, the building as simple form. The toy like nature such drawings show is a reflection of the architects own sense of scale, when considering the building as a whole they can be said to observe it in the palm of their hand.
How to represent architecture or architectural ideas has been a key issue in the entire history of architectural history and theory. Even in today’s contemporary architectural world we are bombarded with computer generated renderings of 3D models and the omnipresence of Adobe Photoshop, each new project, each new competition has to have a ‘sexy killer perspective’.
I of course can appreciate the skill and work that goes into making these seductive images but I often wonder what they actually convey about the project itself. I mean to say that these all the time to often photo-realistic images only serve to give those who cannot construct a mental image of a building from standard drawings such as plans and elevations an insight into the projects appearance. In achieving this I think they lose or rather fail to communicate the main architectural ideas or ambitions of the project.
I feel sad that this has become our expected standard and that every new architectural student is expected to produce such bland images for client purposes and that most of the time have failed to understand how drawing can communicate more than mere realism. I often wonder how people like the great Russian Constructivist Iakov Chernikhov has been side lined in architectural thought by these 3D Renders when we discuss how drawing communicates architectural ideas. Particularly his drawings of his ‘City of the Future’ and ‘Tales of Industry’ drawing series’ has always been of immense fascination and inspiration to me personally.
I find the drawing, or should we rather call it the graphic style, of Chernikhov and his remarkable ability to communicate an entire world of architectural imagery through the simple use of a handful of colours and abstract arrangement of shapes intriguing and fresh today as they were when they were first produced. I believe that there is infinitely more value in these obliques and perspectives than in any 3D Photo-Realistic render.
I have always been a great admirer of the work of Antonio Sant’Elia who in his short life produced images of the future which are the basis of all futuristic cities. As the main architect of the Futurist art movement Sant’Elia laid out the foundations for the Modernist movement within architecture. But he produced a series of drawings and sketches of churches that clash with his Futurist ideologies.
In his designs for fantastical cathedrals we see a heaviness and permanence that is a contradiction to his writing that architecture should be flexible and impermanent. Also the perspectives focus on facades and decoration which again are the complete opposite of his proclamations. So what explanation can be given to these contradictions?
Well I believe that Sant’Elia could never escape his Viennese Art Nouveau origins. Indeed if he hadn’t been caught up in the Futurist Movement he may have become an Italian Art Nouveau master who bridged the gap between the old and new much like Mackintosh did in Scotland, Wagner in Austria and Perret in France instead of dying in a Futurist blaze of glory in the First World War.
The churches by this Futurist show that we can never forget our beginnings and show what might have been. I would not want the position of Sant’Elia to change as he was the precursor to all architectural thought in the twentieth century, but it is fun to imagine the works he could have given to architectural history if he had chosen his a different group of friends.