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A Drawing is not the Building

The old architect visits site every day, six days a week. Each day, he stands in the centre of the half built nave, stops and looks around him. He experiences the weight of the walls rising around him. Each day he says: ‘one more course’. The bricks are laid in single courses as a continuous ring, describing the perimeter of the building.

Finally one morning: ‘Enough! This feels like a church. Today we build the roof.’

The story is apocryphal, and almost certainly untrue. But no matter. What is important is the possibility of it being true; the potential for the acknowledgement of the inadequacy of paper and pen, of the drawings we make, of our understanding of scale. The potential to build as a 1:1 site model, deciding from the very experience of the space created whether it works or no.

The architect of the story is Sigurd Lewerentz, the church; St Peter’s Klippan. Lewerentz was able to spend such an unusual amount of time on site for a number of reasons: although he went on to complete another project (Malmö Cemetery Flower Kiosk, 1978) he was to all intents and purposes retired. He also commanded a deal of respect as an architect of some renown, and he had previously worked with many of the bricklayers and particularly their foreman, Carl Sjöholm.

Lewerentz was an old and increasingly frail man at the time of the commission, and the strain of producing the drawings landed him in hospital. In writing about the project, Ahlin contends that “when construction started, only a few sketches existed which mainly gave the buildings measurement and location. Lewerentz was confined to the hospital in Lund, exhausted by the great exertion required before construction began [he was 82]…” This is perhaps a little exaggerated, though it all adds to the myth. We know, for example, that a detailed model was produced, and the building had been definitely set out to a brick module.

He was in hospital a number of months, at precisely the time that construction was due to commence. As the project was already delayed, a decision was taken to carry on regardless. Incapable of drawing, a direct phone line was installed in Lewerentz’ room (no small expense in 1964) with the architect relaying his instructions verbally. 

Lewerentz had intended St Peters to be constructed using a brick based on the new modular size, which was slightly larger than the Swedish standard, but which gave a working ratio (including mortar) of 6:3:2. This offered more possibilities for turning corners, particularly in three dimensions. However, at the point he fell ill, he had neglected to tell anyone, and in any case the (local) Helsingborg brick he’d specified was only available in the standard dimensions. As a result, the ‘wrong’ brick had been delivered – something only discovered on the site first site visit, when a wall had been mocked up for Lewerentz’ inspection.

For the main walls, it would have been relatively easy to recalculate the runs, and maintain the desired openings. However, Lewerentz had specified certain brick patterns in specific areas – such as around the doors to the parish building. These patterns were based on the co-ordinated dimensions of the modular brick, which did not work with the standard Swedish brick – and so it was decided to take up the difference in the mortar joints.

Lewerentz uses this mistake as an opportunity, and this variable mortar joint goes on to become one of the defining characteristics of the church. Of course, there is some precedent for this choice in the St Marks’ church at Björkhagen, the project which precedes this one, where Lewerentz takes up building discrepancies in the thick, rag scrubbed mortar joints.

Lewerentz and his bricklayers were forced to answer, again and again: How does this straight brick course meet that angled beam? How does this sloping floor plane meet the curved surface of the acoustic chamber beneath the font? The angle of the bricks that make up the floor shifts again and again: here to relate to the (nearly) central steel beam come crucifix, here to indicate the edge of the seating area, here again to shift the font slightly out of plane with its surroundings.

Bricks are only really good at right angle joints. Given enough space, they can form a gradual curve, or an arch. But these are sudden shifts, of perhaps 5, perhaps 20 degrees. Each of these shifts, many originally planned and detailed are compounded by the change in brick module. The end result is vast swathes of mortar. A scar, a deliberate mark showing an edge, where one thing ends, and another begins.

Each of these shifts is deliberate, and for some (the marks around the font for example) so imbued with significance it is hard to imagine an architect as obsessive as Lewerentz not drawing them in minute detail. But there are so many of these junctions, some which are clearly secondary and which exist merely as a consequence of other, more fundamental decisions: for example, the relationship of the shifted plane around the font and the edges of the wall.

Drawings are about describing things. The level of accuracy displayed is both a comment on the clarity of aesthetic intent, and a reflection of the degree of trust in the maker. Ahlin recounts a story of the building of the Chapel of the Resurrection at Enseke Cemetery, a much earlier scheme completed in 1925. Lewerentz had not only the capitals but the whole entasis is drawn at 1:1 – further clarity as to intent could not be requested. Lewerentz, however, did not allow either the masons or the architectural technicians to add a drip detail on the abacus, fearing it would spoil the line: water stains were the inevitable result of his failure to trust their individual expertise.

The second point about drawings is that they enable relationships to be proposed, developed, tested, reworked, refined. They enable the relationships between building elements to be established, and harmonic proportions to be developed. They stand in for the site visit, when we cannot test at full scale, with the actual materials. They allow us to change our minds, to develop our thinking, without the cost (in time, money, resources)

The third point is that they require interpretation. “Lewerentz’ drawings were a story unto themselves. Many revisions and explanatory drawings reached the contractors office. They were not easy to understand, and Lewerentz had to instruct further as to how they were to be read.” (Ahlin, 1987)

The emphasis in the above quote is mine. It seems this is true of the majority of architectural drawings. There are many reasons why the congregation of St Peter’s found a model much more satisfying than the drawings presented to them, but fundamentally it is that drawings, particularly the classical model of orthogonal projections relate much more clearly to the process of making buildings than to the everyday experience of inhabiting buildings.

By which I mean that a ground plan has a clear function for a builder: it tells him how to set out the site and the building, where things happen in relation to each other, how much ground he has to excavate and how much concrete he has to pour for the foundations. Likewise an elevation conveys useful information to the builder – it tells him that the tops of the doors and windows should line up, for example, and how many brick courses he should allow before leaving an opening for the window.

But neither of these things tell us very much about what the building is actually like. Architectural photographers like to take photographs of elevations to render them as flat as possible – standing perfectly square on and using either pitch shift lenses or Photoshop to ‘correct’ the perspective. If we can only see elevations through such effort and trickery, then how much less do we experience sections and plans – by convention sections cut at 1m above floor level.

Experienced architects can understand a set of drawings, in the same way that a professional musician can understand a piece of music by reading the score. Few musicians would let having read the score stop them from hearing a piece performed by a virtuoso performer though – understanding and listening are different categories of experience.

In the same way, there is a divorce between the drawing and reality. Plans, sections and elevations are very useful ways of recording and conveying information, but they are disembodied voices, divorced from the visceral thing-ness of building by convention, standardisation and technique. Even experienced architects move a piece of new furniture around their homes, trying out different configurations until it feels right, as well as looking right on paper.

Robin Evans tells of how, when teaching drawing at an art college, it struck him that architects and painters and sculptors were essentially different in one respect – architects spend their time drawing, or making models of an object. In contrast, painters and sculptors spend some time with these representative objects, but the majority of their time with the object in and of itself – the painting or the sculpture that they are creating. With the exception of (largely) paper architects, like Peter Cook, who contends that (for example) Mendelsohn’s postage stamp sized sketches of the Einstein Tower have more ‘motive force’ than the building itself, the drawing is not the point – it is simply a means to an end.