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A
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The art of an art historian
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The art of an art historian

Posted 05.10.2018
By Alan Powers

I started drawing buildings long before writing about them, indeed before I could string a sentence together. In my new book Alan Powers: the art of an art historian (Inky Parrott Press, 2018), the publisher Dennis Hall has kindly allowed me the opportunity to get this material out of the closet. Art schools in the 1970s could not have tolerated what I wanted to do, which was to become an artist somewhere in the space between John Piper, Eric Ravilious and Osbert Lancaster, so I did this for myself, while studying art history with a specialism in architecture.

The two activities seem to me to have surprisingly little in common. The most drawable buildings are not usually the art-historically important ones. Drawing engages a different part of the brain to the analysis you can do with a photograph and documents, but it can be useful as a way of illustrating books and articles on the cheap, while editing out parked cars and signage. Steen Eiler Rasmussen did this brilliantly in Towns and Buildings, 1953. Even so, self-illustration in academia doesn’t normally go beyond plans.

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Pages from 'The Manufactory of Artificial Ruins', 1980

Drawing does allow you to invent buildings and settings that never existed, and when I no longer had time for topographical painting, I continued making little books and Christmas cards that often play on architectural themes and experiment with graphics. When I have taught in schools of architecture, it pains me that students have such limited drawing skills, and while their tutors may agonise about it, they do little to improve the situation. If too much drawing skill can make for superficial architecture, as the Edwardians came to think, it is still a desirable gateway to pass through on the route to the creation of three-dimensional form.

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'A Calendar of Gates for 1998', pen and ink, 1997

This post forms part of our series on The Architecture Drawing Prize: an open drawing competition curated by Make, WAF and Sir John Soane’s Museum to highlight the importance of drawing in architecture. From 17 October to 18 November 2018 the winning and shortlisted entries will be on display at the Soane Museum.