The Lost Arts

by Ellie

On a recent visit to the Soane Museum I made a detour to the new first floor galleries of No 12 where an exhibition of architectural drawings is on temporary display, the result of a cultural exchange between the Soane – the world’s oldest architectural museum – and the Tchoban Foundation, which was established in Berlin in 2009.

The display consists of highlights of the Foundation’s newly assembled collection of drawings, which spans from the sixteenth century to the present day, and is part of an attempt by the Foundation to engage a wider audience, and re-engage the architectural profession, with the lost art of drawing. Unfortunately the exercise is hugely hampered by poor communication design.

Works by French, German and Italian artists of the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries predominate in the selection, although Russia is also well represented with drawings from the Constructivist and Stalinist eras as –  it has to be said –  is the recent work of Mr Tchoban himself. The earliest drawing in the exhibition (c.1565–75) by Jacques Androuet du Cerceau depicts in pen and ink an idealised design for a moated castle and its formal landscaping, its objectified isometric projection perhaps a practical device to inspire the wealthy to build bigger and better. In contrast a colourful watercolour from 1804 by Joseph Gandy, Soane’s favoured draughtsman, sells the design for a cenotaph in romanticised, dream-like perspective as a theatrically lit hyper real experience. A creepy curiosity is the inclusion of the design for an unblinking elevation of a Reichsstatthalter building in Linz (1943–45) by Hermann Giesler, a Nazi architect who worked on the project in close collaboration with Hitler. This can be contrasted with Stalinist architect Boris Mihailovich Iofan’s Study for the reconstruction of the city of Novorossiysk (1944), which proposes a classically inspired scheme for the port city newly liberated from German occupation. There’s also a hurried back-of-the envelope sketch by Mies van der Rohe from 1935, and a dreamy half-finished watercolour, Study of a cloud and tree, executed by the 16 year old Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1797.

While there’s no suggestion that this exhibition is aiming to be a comprehensive survey, without an articulated thread to bind them together the leaps in time, geography and chronology made within the display induce giddiness. On top of that the inexplicit curation means that an opportunity to explore the range of nuances that hand drawing has brought to the communication of architecture over a significant period of time is sadly under exploited. Instead the exhibition experience is of drowning in footnote-level detail, with no structure or hierarchy to guide you through the selection of drawings or to articulate the many potentially fascinating juxtapositions that are thrown up by this show. A similar problem afflicts the exhibition’s catalogue, which like that of an auction house lists in myopic detail the provenance of many of the pieces, from sale history to appearances in exhibitions elsewhere, while completely failing to engage you with the bigger picture.

If the Tchoban foundation is serious about promoting the lost art of drawing in architecture to a wider audience – or any audience at all – it is going to have to get to grips with the lost art of communication first.

The catalogue from the exhibition of drawings at the Soane Museum