In a post a few weeks ago, RIBA Blogs had a look at the first of the online workshops ’Design in Process – How architects communicate ideas’. Today, in this second of six posts, we look at ‘Drawing Out Meaning’, an online workshop that explores 500 years of architectural history and practice through drawings created by architects and other artists, from the  collections of the V&A + RIBA Architecture Partnership.

The workshop identifies four distinct periods; each period marks a major shift in drawings styles and reflects the changing attitudes and design skills of architects and, perhaps most significantly, a growing consciousness of a designer’s ability to change the world around them:

  • 16th and 17th-century architecture
  • the long 18th century
  • the Victorian era
  • 20th-century architecture


16th and 17th-century architecture

Conjectural reconstruction of the Baths of Trajan, Rome, 1540s

Conjectural reconstruction of the Baths of Trajan, Rome, 1540s. Artist: Andrea Palladio (© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections)

Through his drawings, built work and writings, Andrea Palladio was able to publicise his own designs and expose a wider audience to his thoughts about architecture. Through his own illustrated books I Quattro Libri dell’ Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture) he resurrected ideas from the classical world about what made good architecture, in particular from the writings of Vitruvius. Palladio’s own designs were included in these publications and through them were transmitted his ideas on the use of symmetry and proportion in buildings. Although his work is found mainly in The Veneto region of Italy, through his books, his style went on to influence architects across Europe and beyond in North America. Most of Palladio’s original drawings are now under the care of the RIBA.


The long 18th century

Project for a metropolitan cathedral, perspective view, 1782

Project for a metropolitan cathedral, perspective view, 1782. Designer: Étienne-Louis Boullée (© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections)

With the use of one-point perspective and exploiting the contrasting effect of light and shadow, Étienne-Louis Boullée’s scheme for a metropolitan cathedral in Paris is presented in the most dramatic way possible. For its time, this building would have been of an almost unachievable scale. Such romantic drawings hint at the growing desire architects had for grand designs – they could act as visionaries. The increasing sophistication of architects and their ability to communicate ideas of scale, perspective and detail is shown in Boullée’s work; this drawing is meticulous and more life-like than ones created in previous generations.


The Victorian era

Design for the dining room fireplace, Cragside, Northumberland, 1870.

Design for the dining room fireplace, Cragside, Northumberland, 1870. Artist and designer: Richard Norman Shaw (© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections)

Architects in the Victorian period received more formal training than those in the past, thus replacing the gentleman architect or dilettante. In an age of mass-produced components, drawings reflected this sense of professionalism through precise measurements, notes and details for every aspect of a building, even, for example, a dining room fireplace.


Drawings of the Koran School, Haram esh-Sherif, Jerusalem, 1913.

Drawings of the Koran School, Haram esh-Sherif, Jerusalem, 1913. Artist: John C Rogers (© Victoria and Albert Museum. Museum number E.1264 – 1963)

In their drawings, architects also showed the era’s greater opportunities for travel and exchange of ideas between different parts of the world. John C. Rogers’s drawings of a Koran School in Jerusalem were made in 1913, only a few years after the foundation stone for Edwin Lutyen’s New Delhi was laid. Rogers drew these to introduce students to the architecture of the non-Western world. Architects in the Victorian period and into the early 20th century worked in an increasingly international environment, though of an imperial nature. Designed in the most part by British architects, the colonial architecture of India was able to absorb local influences, a style that reached its apogee in New Delhi.


20th-century architecture

Proposal for Finsbury Health Centre, London, 1938

Explanatory drawing comparing traditional health centres with the proposal for Finsbury Health Centre, London, 1938. Designer: Lubetkin and Tecton (© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections)

From the beginning of the 20th century, some architects took a more political outlook, moving beyond aesthetics and practicality to the belief that the living conditions of the masses could be improved by the way buildings and the spaces were designed. Drawings no longer had to be exact, but be illustrative and explain concepts. Working in 1938 before the establishment of the National Health Service, Tecton, a group of radical architects in London, prepared a set of cartoon-like drawings for an exhibition in Finsbury Town Hall to show the improvements the new Finsbury Health Centre would bring. According to these playful drawings, the new centre would be practical, clean, modern and attractive. The images help to encapsulate the optimism of architects like Tecton working in the 20th century who believed that architecture could be used to improve society.


We can see in 500-years worth of drawings from the V&A + RIBA Architecture Partnership how architects have always responded positively to new ideas and technology. In more recent times some architects, like Tecton, were actively influencing society through their work. This workshop raises certain questions:

• What is the relationship of drawing to architecture?
• How have styles of architecture, and the drawings that architects use to express them, changed over time?
• How is drawing relevant to contemporary architects and architecture?



About Wilson Yau
I work for the British Architectural Library at the RIBA as part of a team to share news, images and information online about the activities of the Library and the fascinating items we have in our architectural collections – it contains over four million items, so there's plenty to see! If you’re curious about what we do at the Library and with the collections, or want to discover the latest about our education programmes, public events and exhibitions at the RIBA, please visit

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1 Comment
  1. Biggey beil

    April 13, 2012

    There was Good details however i don’t Understand the instillation of the dome floor ,
    We here in Egypt Make it Different

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