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Architects and Their Sketchbooks

Sketch for a sideboard, Edwin Landseer Lutyens, 1891. Museum no. E.1:36-1991 (click image for larger version)

Sketch for a sideboard, Edwin Landseer Lutyens, 1891. Museum no. E.1:36-1991 (click image for larger version)

Drawing in a sketchbook, said Le Corbusier, teaches 'first to look, and then to observe and finally perhaps to discover … and it is then that inspiration might come.'

Sketchbook' can be a misleading term. It implies a collection of freehand drawings of buildings (or other subjects) made with pencil, pen, watercolour or any other portable medium. Sketchbooks are often more than that though - they are record books with both freehand and scaled drawings, sometimes combined with notes as well, and now often with photographs. The earliest sketchbooks were made to order, but at some time in the late 18th century, it became possible to buy them ready-made from artists' merchants.

Unlike most of the drawings and notes produced in the design process, those made in a sketchbook are a personal record of thoughts, observations, problems and memories. Architects use sketchbooks in many ways - to record objects and make observational notes; to document memories, journeys and experiences; and to solve problems.

Sketchbooks and the design process

Because they are often private, sketchbooks provide freedom. Drawings can be left unfinished, mistakes and erasures are allowed. The drawings are not meant to be shared, or used as a form of communication, so their order or sense can be personal - they can be an imaginary museum for the person who made them. Ideas go round in circles, or sit crowded on top of each other; it is evident that designing is often not a linear, accumulative process. Instead, it is a coming together of thoughts, observations and invention, and a process of identifying and resolving problems. Many architects have valued the space for associative thinking that their sketchbook provides. For the student or researcher, design sketchbooks provide insight into the thinking behind the design process. The Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger calls this unstructured freedom 'wild thinking,' and plenty of this can be found in the wide collection of sketchbooks held in the V&A+RIBA Architecture Partnership collections.

Observing landscapes and buildings

The largest collection of architects' sketchbooks can be found in the RIBA Drawings Collection, accessible in the RIBA Architecture Study Rooms. Among the 1500 sketchbooks, there are many examples containing design work, such as those belonging to 20th-century architects like Goldfinger, Lethaby and Lutyens, or 19th-century architects such as Cockerell, Gilbert Scott and Butterfield as well as valuable older holdings such as Hawksmoor's sketchbook.

Many of the sketchbooks also, or exclusively, contain topographical drawings. These show what landscapes and buildings looked like in the past. They hold impressions of British medieval, Tudor and Stuart buildings long since demolished. Sketchbooks also hold clues to architects' historical influences, and solutions to urban and formal problems that no longer exist. The NAL has a 19th-century copy of Inigo Jones's important Rome sketchbook, for example, with his views of 18th-century Rome. Painters' sketchbooks - Constable's for example - contain impressions of vanished landscapes.

Sketchbooks for analysis and measurement

Design for a coach house, Edwin Landseer Lutyens, 1891-2. Museum no. E.2-1991

Design for a coach house, Edwin Landseer Lutyens, 1891-2. Museum no. E.2-1991

Sketchbooks are portable, and so are often used to preserve information useful to the architect. A visit to site is often recorded in a sketchbook - with annotated and measured survey drawings, and notes on conditions and first impressions. More recently, photographs are often included with other ephemera, like postcards and ticket stubs, alongside.

Another kind of analysis and measurement is the accurate recording of historical detail. Architectural historians and illustrators will keep visual notes among their written ones. Both John Summerson and Bannister Fletcher are represented among the RIBA Drawings Collection's sketchbooks.

Some architects used their sketchbooks to gather evidence and precedent for their work. Pugin used his sketchbooks to record Gothic details in preparation for Contrasts, his treatise on Gothic architecture. The NAL holds Pugin's preliminary sketchbooks, as well as pocket sketchbooks full of observed detail.

Architects on sketchbooks

We have asked some of the architects involved in the V&A's FuturePlan programme about their sketchbooks.

Sketchbooks are used by each designer in a highly individual way.

Chris Bagot of Softroom

'I don't really have a sketchbook. I don't like to carry things around, but I always carry a pencil and find paper when I need it in the moment…. I have a lot of my creative thoughts in the morning, walking across the park.'

Eva Jiricna of Eva Jiricna Architects

'I sketch all the time, I am surrounded by endless amounts of A3 and A4 size pads. I am constantly trying to resolve problems and details. I have a necessity to know what a detail looks like - how the materials come together, how it works in three-dimensions. If I draw it for myself, I understand it. If I try to imagine it, it is too whimsical. Sketching is a tool - an extension of one's brain.

'I don't sketch to make a beautiful drawing, but to resolve ideas.

'I don't carry a sketchbook with me, I find paper everywhere - the back of letters, anything.'

Peter St John of Caruso St John Architects

'I always have my sketchbook with me. It's a little black book - small enough to go in my pocket. It's useful for thinking when I'm not formally working in the office. On planes, on trains or late at night. Travelling is relaxing - I enjoy working then, the most intuitive ideas come when one's in a mood like that.

'Sketching is a thinking tool - a way of imagining space. I never have time to draw what I see - I don't have time to do that. I draw little sketches, very spatial, not technical. I like it that you can draw an idea and then see it quite quickly - even the simplest proportions can't be judged until you draw them. It doesn't become real until you draw it - you can't hold a building in your head.

'I wouldn't show my sketchbook to anyone else. It's very private, for intimate working. Lots of the drawings are messy, not very good - they're a means of thinking. I don't like the idea that you open up your sketchbook. It's not supposed to be beautiful.'

Kim Wilkie of Kim Wilkie Associates

'I have two kinds of sketchbook. Recreational sketchbooks are for recording things like the way a street works, or an image of mountains in a lake … for seeing landscapes. I take them on journeys or out in the evening.

'I also have sketch-notebooks specific to projects. They are for collecting information and recording visual thought processes. Its important not to cramp the thought process - the moment you start thinking of it as a work of art you're finished.

'My sketchbook isn't private. I use it as a communication with myself, but also with the client - to communicate ideas on a site visit. It is not precious. Parts of the sketchbook may be incorporated in design drawings.'

As new technologies for recording and communicating ideas develop, the role and format of the sketchbook changes too.

Chris Bagot of Softroom

'I don't record ideas when I have them. We work with complex three-dimensional ideas that are difficult to sketch - involving effects like transparency and reflection. A visual concept will be tested and developed using sophisticated technology - computer modelling for example.

'I use a digital camera a lot - it replaces a traditional sketchbook, especially on holiday. Now that memory cards can hold a thousand images there is no editing process. All the images are archived and accessed when needed.'

Eva Jiricna of Eve Jiricna Architects

'I can use a computer, but it's so slow, and the drawings are not full size. The computer doesn't give any scale. I need to know what something is like at 1:1.

'I also find it irritating when I need to see a plan, an elevation and a section on the same paper, which is hard on a computer. It's difficult to see a problem three-dimensionally.'

Kim Wilkie of Kim Wilkie Associates

'I use a digital camera more and more. I take hundreds of photos of the site and then sketch on top of photos. Sometimes the photos and sketches become part of the sketchbook.'

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