Thursday, December 13, 2018


Soane explored a wide range of different treatments for Lothbury Court before arriving at the Triumphal Arch motif that was eventually built.

I have a whole folder full of drawings downloaded from the online archive of the Sir John Soane Museum in London.  I've looked through these many times, but there are so many, and which ones are different views of the same scheme?  What order were they created in?  Maybe some of them were developed in parallel by different pupils.  I ought to read the notes and check for dates on the drawings, but that's so academic.

A faster way to get to grips with these questions might be to make some quick sketches: engage actively with hands, eyes & brain.  So I scanned through the images for noticeably different versions and ultimately came up with four different sketches.

I'm using the Android version of Sketchbook Pro on my phone.  I have it on iPad also, but somehow the urge to sketch often comes to me when lying in bed, or maybe that's when I have the time, when I let go of all the other imperatives. There's a jpeg on the first layer, then a layer of flat colour set with a slight transparency to give for that "yellow tracing" effect. Then a layer for the linework, and another one or two for colour fills.  Finally I will use a soft brush to rough in some shadows, give it some depth.

The first scheme is a 3 storey facade, divided into three bays by columns.  It could be an urban house with a coach entrance.  I'm taking this as the first in the series because that just makes sense to me.  It allows me to tell a story.  Soane is trying to create a ceremonial space for the entry of gold. He wants to represent the people of England rallying to the cause in times of war.  Gold for paper.  So an town-house is not really going to cut it.

Sketch two.  Brings the end columns in and pairs them up, pushing the windows of the side bays outwards to make room for the resulting features which are crowned with his favourite double-scroll motif.  Stand back and look at this scheme.  It's definitely much better, but does it really hang together?  Isn't it just five different bits side by side, with a centre bay that's a little weak?

So we come to the third of my sketches.  You can see that I'm faster and looser in the way that I sketch as I try to hunt down this puzzle. This time he has taken the "columns in antis" motif from the screen wall that he very recently erected along Lothbury, and reproduced it on this parallel internal wall.  Now we have a triumphal arch, (which is great) but is it a good idea to echo the treatment of the external fortifications in this internal "celebratory" space?  And isn't the whole thing rather squeezed into the courtyard with no room to breathe?  (more importantly perhaps no room for the grand flight of stairs he would need to introduce on either side of the processional route)

The fourth sketch brings us most of the way towards the final solution.  He has introduced the four statues, but they are high up above the attic.  Eventually he would drop them down to the cornice level and raise the parapet slightly on the centre bay.  If you look back at the first image, I think you will agree with me that the final solution achieves a unity that eludes the earlier attempts, while focusing attention on the centre bay.

It will be interesting to read the notes and date the drawings now that I've come to grips with the issues.  Maybe I am altogether wrong, but at least I've started to highlight some of the potential issues, to create some scaffolding for a deeper understanding.  But I'll come back to that.  Time to start developing the tunnel itself.

There is a section through the tunnel.  At first sight this is very exciting, but when you start to model, it doesn't quite work. It must have been drawn before he decided to form an apse at the transition to Bullion Court.  This shortens the central portion.  The plan which I have placed next to this section is the same mix of "AHA!" and "WTF?" Service stairs in the leftover trapezoidal spaces on either side: that makes sense.  But why is he showing those long flights of steps around the edge of the courtyard.  They were certainly never built.  Because ... photographs.

This work has been like that all along.  One minute you are full of excitement as another piece falls into place, then you realise that something else just doesn't work, and no single set of drawings or photographs gives a definitive view of the building as it was in 1830.  The photographs of the  tunnel are very dark and grainy, but I have a feeling that it was kept rather plain and simple.  All the same I am trying out a modified version of that coloured section.  Sometimes I prefer the spirit of Soane's intent to the dry letter of inconclusive "evidence".

I think it's worth putting all this elevational development into a planning context.  The North East extension (orange) filled out the site to its irregular rear boundaries, as they were at the time.  Lothbury to the North East, and the dogleg of Princes Street to the North West.  Sampson's double courtyard is in red.  Taylor's extension on either side in pink, with his library tucked around the back.  Soane wanted to create another double courtyard, this time separated by just a thin screen.  But to make room for this he needed to move the library into the top corner of the site.

My final diagram shows how carefully calculated his geometric tricks needed to be.  Obviously I haven't quite got the setting out right because the axis doesn't sit properly down the centre of Lothbury Court.  I think he was remarkably lucky in being able to double up the Lothbury screen wall and maintain symmetry.  But there was skill in pulling it off also.  Lots of awkward junctions to be finessed.


Friday, December 7, 2018


Time for another progress report on Project Soane.

I've been trying to flesh out the neglected regions, the blank, undeveloped rooms and spaces that still exist in the model.  Two months ago I decided to tackle the Reduced Annuities Office. This is part of an L shaped wing, built by Taylor towards the end of his life.

There were two rooms: a square one in the corner, lit from above by a large circular lantern, and a rectangular one forming the western boundary of Garden Court and lit by three large Palladian windows, overlooking the court.

Soane built an upper room above this second space, as shown in a previous post.    At the same time he connected the two lower rooms, replacing the dividing wall with a triple archway which maintains its structural function, supporting the wall above.  There are perspective sketches of this feature, made by Soane's pupils during construction.  I found it difficult to reconcile all the heights, but made significant progress.  It's starting to look like a real space.

A number of anomalies remain to be resolved.  The long side walls of the upper room are set back from the parapets of the walls below.  Just how was this achieved, structurally? I would like to think that the walkway around the battlements overlooking Princes Street was maintained along this section.  But how would you achieve sufficient width?  The thickness of the screen wall itself doesn't seem to be enough.

These are questions for the future.   Meanwhile I started to look at the first floor rooms above the Old Barracks Block. This was one of the first structures built by Soane and was unusual in having an upper storey.  I think this was originally the location of the printing works where bank notes were produced. Much later, when Waiting Room Court was built it became part of "T" shaped suite of rooms.  Soane didn't leave us any floor plans for these upper levels, so how were they accessed?  There is a staircase close to the corner of Garden Court, which presumably also gave access to the room above the Reduced Annuities office.  But there are lots of problems as I discovered when I tried to model it.

I have to believe that the stair was set back from the parapet around Garden Court so as not to disturb its continuity.  I came up with a somewhat implausible arrangement where the stairs wind around and finally reach the upper room via a couple of short flights and a section of open flat roof.  I couldn't see a better way to connect the various levels and half-levels together.  The grand spaces around Garden Court have rather high ceilings compared to the much humbler rooms of the Old Barracks block, which was tucked away in a rear yard.  Once again I have opted for putting a solution in place and continuing to reflect, gather information, keep an open mind.

The Old Barracks was the next item on Taylor's list when he died.  It's not clear whether Soane designed it from scratch or modified a plan left by Taylor, but there are a couple of elevations in the Soane archive.  I used these to inform my work.  There is a symbolic "cannon ball" feature still to add and the cornice is not quite right.  It's interesting that he took such care over an elevation that faces into what is essentially a narrow light well, possibly containing privies for lower level staff.

The levels shown in this yard are speculative, and moving north we come to the complexities of the corridors and stairs on either side of the Doric Vestibule.  It's typical Soane, with lots of stepped levels allowing for side light to enter the building in unexpected ways.  As usual the various drawings in the archive don't quite match up.

I made a lot of progress.  All these areas were developed in an ad-hoc manner.  Walls have been split and adjusted in height repeatedly.  I'm using face-brick for these "back-of-house" zones, partly based on drawings, partly because that's what he usually did.  Some of the walls need to be split to allow for narrower parapets above roof level.  It's nice to be getting to that level of detail, and to see these marginal zones starting to hang together as believable parts of a Soane building.

Coming to the Doric Vestibule, I started to adjust the walls and vaults below the half-level of the entrance lobby.  Grids were not showing up in some of the working sections, a sure sign that the section plane is slightly skew.  This whole area is set at 5 degrees to Project North and it's very easy for inaccuracies to creep in.  I set up a view and used colour over-rides to turn sections green once I had verified that they were aligned correctly.  It's such a complex structure, you really need dozens of sections to pick up all the subtleties.  Quite a lot of time went into regularising angles and dimensions.  Tedious, but it will pay off down the road.

A good long session developing the cellars was long overdue.  I have a couple of parametric families for the vaults and arches which were enhanced to include a "flatness" parameter that maintains a proportional "rise" value as you vary the span.  It's becoming clear that there is a progression from some of Taylor's work which was built without cellars, through the majority of the site which has grid of walls supporting brick groin vaults, and ending at the lower end along Lothbury where the basement is effectively at ground level.  It seems that there are no vaults here, but rather timber floors like those on the upper levels.

Let's conclude with a couple of Enscape images of that RAL space.  Enscape is great for giving a sense of the quality of light in this space.  When you look back from the side-light space, the portion below Taylor's lantern really glows with an ethereal light.  But when looking back the other way, the effect is somewhat different.  Is there something about the way that Soane's treatment of daylighting animates the process of moving through a sequence of spaces?

The final collage deals with the three windows.  Actually the bank had Soane erect a partition, dividing two of these windows off into a separate room, but I couldn't bring myself to do this.  What was it like to be a clerk in one of these offices, I wonder?  To be a cog in the wheels of finance at the moment when the Industrial Revolution is unfolding.  When the longstanding tussle between England & France is about to tip in England's direction, partly because of the financial stability underpinned by the very institution you are working in.  Difficult to grasp that the work of filling out ledgers by hand, was the equivalent of today's cutting edge cloud database.  The accuracy of the Bank of England's record keeping was legendary.  Would you feel a sense of wonder at the pace of change, knowing that the trees outside had only recently belonged to a churchyard established in medieval times?

Friday, November 30, 2018


I've been sketching on my phone at odd moments, often while trying to drift off to sleep in my bed.  I think I am gradually adapting to a digital toolkit.  Ultimately it has to become a kind of "muscle memory" thing, so to some extent you just have to put the time in and see what happens.  Focus your conscious attention on higher level questions, and let your subconscious self develop its skills in the background.  At times I just scribble out the first thing that comes into my head.

Recently I have been doing a series of pilaster capitals.  It's a way of gaining a deeper understanding of the enormously rich variety that is possible within the rigid discipline of "the 5 orders"  I've been modelling these things in Revit, but sketching them by hand gives a completely different set of insights.  I've done four in the past few days: mostly composite. but one of them is probably more Ionic.  Sketchbook Pro has layers, so I usually save out a line drawing, then do some fill and brushwork, save again and process the result in an app to soften it a bit, or adjust the colour balance.

The resulting folder full of images gets synced to my One Drive cloud so I can also apply a bit of trickery in photoshop (or similar) In this case I wanted to harmonise the images so that they are more similar in treatment.  We want to compare four column  capitals, not four drawing styles.  Basically I have taken two versions, put them on separate layers, duplicated one of them, used blending modes, transparency and masks.  The result is a more consistent colour balance. Some subtle variation between greens and browns, deeper shadows (especially towards the centre) and some white (or at least very pale yellow)

Let's start with a fairly straightforward "Composite".  Why is this not Corinthian?  Well the scrolls are a bit bigger, more compact, and connected by a row of "egg and dart" running ornament.  That's typical Ionic, subtly different from the volutes you would see in Corinthian.  But Ionic would not have the broad band of acanthus leaves.  In this case you have a row of "baby leaves" with three full size ones above and behind. Often the lower row would also be full size leaves, two leaves aligned with the gaps.

Next we have a rather elaborate and esoteric interpretation of the composite, with both a winged cherub and a festoon inserted in place of the upper row of leaves.  The festoon is a kind of garland, as if the decorations hung on a building during festivals had fossilised and become a permanent part of the building.  Soane used festoons quite a lot, often with ribbons flying out, curling and folding to fill our the spaces on a rectangular background.  How are you going to model them in Revit?  It's an interesting challenge.  I've made some progress but not really get their yet.

Third up, I'm going to call this Ionic, because it lacks the rows of acanthus leaves.  The rosette, or fleuron has been dropped down from its usual position on the top moulding (Abacus) to the egg and dart row which is almost obscured.  These are all capitals to shallow pilasters, shallow projections dividing up the wall surface rather than having a structural purpose.  In this case the shaft itself is treated as a panel with a rectangular recess, as if it were a board, held in place by a moulded bead.

And finally there is this strange beast, which I think is from the V&A, a splendid museum that I visited when last I was in London.  I guess it's composite, but both the leaves and the volutes are rather unusual and abstracted.  Once again the shaft is treated as a panel.  These S shaped scrolls interest me.  I've seen quite a few different versions, in one case interpreted as Dolphins.  Somehow classical architecture seems to be very comfortable with sliding between realism and abstraction in a quite unselfconscious manner.  Leaves, animals, faces: rectangles, circles, spirals; it's an endless game of exploring the border between order and chaos.

The leaves in the last example suddenly reminded me of fingers, and the volutes seem to be eyebrows, so I was motivated to make another rather playful sketch.  Can we invent new capitals in this day and age?  Of course we CAN ... but the meaning may be different in a world where the classical language is no longer the default mode of building.  It becomes a rather self-conscious, tongue in cheek gesture.

But let's keep our feet on the ground.  I am learning to become more fluent with my digital pencil: getting the hand-eye-brain loop moving again at a subconscious level.  And I am continuing to probe the classical orders and associated motifs, reprocessing images that I have collected over the past decade or so in various cities: exploring the variety, the rules, the pitfalls even.  Some of this will surely feed back into Revit and my "Heritage BIM" studies.