X Ray Specs

A small show currently on view in the V&A’s Architecture Galleries, Europe and English Baroque: English Architecture 1660-1715, got me thinking about cross-sections in design drawings. The display features works by Christopher Wren and other architects of his era. (Those who saw the excellent exhibition Compass and Rule at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford will see some familiar names – that show will open at the Yale Center for British Art soon.)

There are two especially striking examples of cross-sections in the V&A show. First, Christopher Wren’s sketches for the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. On the left is one of the earliest surviving drawings for the building, in which Wren is calculating the curves of three separate parabolic shells. On the right is a modern drawing showing the construction in detail.


Wren’s idea was that the dome could hold itself up, thus allowing him to give it extra height. (Filippo Brunelleschi did something similar for the dome at Florence Cathedral, which has two shells.)  

The most spectacular object in the ‘English Baroque’ show is a model for Easton Neston, a country house designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor that still stands in Northamptonshire. On the left is the model assembled, and on the right, the object exploded into its three elements as shown in the exhibition.


This is a very early survival of an English architectural model. The ingenious multipart construction allowed Hawksmoor to show his client the unconventional layout of the interiors.

What I love about these objects is the way they show things that are impossible to see in real life. Not until the advent of X-rays in the 1890s did it become possible to see through objects. But this is exactly the effect that Wren, Hawksmoor and other architects achieved in these 17th-century preparatory designs.

Below is another example by William Chambers, best known for his design of Somerset House. This drawing dates from the 1770s and is an unrealized design for a church near Oxford Street. I like the combination of real and unreal in the drawing, with shading used to define the interior volumes, the timber frame construction for the dome, but also a surreal pink used to signal where a wall is being seen in cross-section.

More recent cross-section drawings show how architects and designers continue to rely on this ‘impossible’ view to specify the most functional concerns about a design. Computer Aided Design (CAD) has made this leap of imagination more precise than ever, so that a cross-section can be a virtual reality version of the object. Here for example is a drawing of the London City Hall by Norman Foster’s architectural firm, showing various environmental measures that were built into the structure – including pipes that pull cold groundwater up into the building to cool it.

To the left is a CAD concept drawing for a ‘mould blown’ plastic refrigerator, by the designer Roberto Pezzetta for the Italian manufacturer Zanussi. By pairing the exterior view of the fridge with cutaways, Pezzetta subtly implies a link between the object’s sensuous, fluid surface and the functional details of its interior design – as in the curvilinear shell that slides down to cover a vegetable drawer at the bottom.

There is something truly seductive about cross sections. Though they are among the most functional and informative of design drawings, they also give us the sense of seeing into the designer’s mind, as if we were literally inside the process. Perhaps this is why the British jeweller Vicky Ambery-Smith chooses to use cross-section views in her architecturally-inspired work. Below is her own take on St. Paul’s Cathedral. The brooch (you can see a similar one on view in the V&A’s jewellery galleries) is only about 5cm high, but it seems to be a whole world that we can enter in our imaginations.