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.

Sunday, November 25, 2018


A couple of posts back I put caryatids as placeholders for the four statues that stood guard over Soane's triumphal arch on the south side of Lothbury Court.  Soon afterwards I got a message from Russell Fuller Hill who did such a fantastic job of modelling the Consols Transfer Office, way back in the early days of Project Soane.  He was the original source of these caryatids, and offered to come up with a few more examples.

Sure enough, a week or so later he sent me a link to half a dozen "Greek statues" gleaned from the web.  They aren't close matches to the figures that Soane used, but at least we can have some variety.  In any case, a placeholder is not meant to be a faithful representation.  We just want to say, "here are four different statues in a classical style".  So I have taken Russell's statues and a couple that I found myself, and turned them into a little collection... to be enlarged upon as time allows.

Russell's approach to mesh geometry is to give the "spiders web" a pale colour so that it fades into the background.  It's a simple solution, but I'm not happy with the orthographic, hidden line views that result.  I want to see a black outline and a little bit of detail, so that the statues a represented in the same general way as all the other geometry.  This is achieved by processing the image with 3dsMAX.  Now I'm a complete novice in Max, but I stumble my way through a hack that I picked up on the web by groping around the interface.

It involves exporting to DXF, which requires a maximum of roughly 30k faces in the model ... so you have to "optimise" (sometimes called decimate)

My first attempts to do this were abject failures.  It was simply deleting faces, leaving gaps everywhere.  Did I forget something?  Is there something different about these meshes?  Who knows?  But I fixed it by fiddling with the options.

I'm using the "ProOptimiser" function (Modifiers/Mesh Editing/ProOptimiser) and the key variable seems to be the "Merge Vertices" tick-box.  Check that and play around with the percentage figure until the faces/after number gets down to 30k.  Then export to 2004DXF.  For some reason that will remember the edge hiding that you do in the next step.

Delete everything, then re-import the DXF.  Forgive me if I am being stupid here, but this is the process that works for me.  I had problems hiding edges with a modifier in the stack.  Kept reverting to the larger number of faces.  So exporting and reimporting was a simple/crude way of getting around that.  It works.  You go to edge selection mode (a little wireframe triangle)  Select everything. Scroll down and click on "invisible".  The edges change from solid to dashed, or if you change from "Clay" mode (my favourite) to wireframe, everything disappears.  You have hidden the edges

Export to 2004DXF again and you have a CAD mesh that imports into a Revit family, looking the way I like it to look.  For some models that's all you need to do.  For the statue of Hera (I'm pretty sure that's who she is, goddess of motherhood) The simplified mesh is OK-ish but a bit crude when you zoom in.  So I included two versions in the family, with an instance visibility switch.  So when you are generating renders in Enscape3d, you get the nice smooth look.

In my collection, I've made these as Site category (maybe I want to host some statues on Topography) but inside there are double-nested planting families, so the whole thing scales to whatever you type into the Height parameter.  But I'll leave all that to another post.

Saturday, November 17, 2018


Project Soane started in mid 2015. It would be interesting to do a graphic of the burst of activity and pauses. My guess is that there have been 4 or 5 extended sessions (maybe 6 months each) , separated by gaps of 2 or 3 months when I switched to something else.

At the end of the Triumphal Arch post, I updated the model to BIM360  This process exports mesh geometry with attached data, plus 2D sheets and views , making the project available to non-Revit users through a web browser.

It’s called "publishing" the model, borrowing language from the UK standards with their four stage sequence (WIP to Shared to Published to Archived.)  WIP and Shared are essentially the same thing if your model is in the cloud.  But if consultants are modelling in their own silos you will need to "Share" on a regular basis.  "Publishing" is a bit more formal.  Usually it means a formal issue of deliverables to the client.  Archiving is automated in BIM 360 in the form of versioning. You can retrieve any previously published version from a drop-down list.

Haven't done much work on the sheets for ages and ages, but of course the model itself has moved on, so it was interesting to see what they are looking like now.

Will I ever achieve the mythical goal of a set of crisp record drawings and visuals for Soane's bank, as if he had designed it on Revit just a few weeks ago?  We live in hope.  However that may be, I am certainly learning an unbelievable amount about a great variety of topics along the way.  About BIM, about drawing, about history, about John Soane, about the Bank of England ... not least the history of its evolution.

The model is quite heavy now, and typically I work with most of the links unloaded. But sometimes it's nice to load everything up and save out some images.

I took screen shots of the model from various angles, firstly in Revit, then from the A360 viewer itself.  Revit gives you more visual options: cast shadows and ambient occlusion for example.  But the web viewer is accessible to more people on more devices.

The size and complexity of the model presents quite a challenge to the A360 viewer but it holds up remarkably well. Like most viewers it seems to convert Revit solids to a surface mesh. I'm intrigued by the “finger joints” that are sometimes visible, splicing surfaces together like carpentry.

I have been reading a book called the master and his emissary which suggests that the two halves of our brain deal with different kinds of attention. One is focused on the task at hand while the other stands back and reflects. The idea is that this split dates back to animals and birds which needed to perform precise behaviours while keeping an eye out for predators.

I think this duality is always present when I work on the Bank, dealing with modelling challenges while reflecting on the historical context, or Soane’s design rationale. But a more formal distancing is also helpful: publishing the model, writing up a blog post. My fallow periods perform a similar reflective function but spread out in time.

Coexisting dual perspectives are characteristic of Soane's work.  He was a classicist with an strong attraction to "the picturesque".  How do you balance order and chaos?  Quite a topical question I think.

I have a strong memory from the initial modelling phase of puzzling over the screen wall. Long hours were spent comparing the various conflicting sources of information, trying to understand the development sequence and striving for a consistent level of simplification and abstraction in the modelling. Why did he design it like that? What were the early decisions that tied his hands later on? How did he gradually crank up the architectural grandeur without creating any obvious break in style?

I've said before that Soane's Bank is like a medieval walled city with it's irregular maze of circulation routes. Evolution over time has been one of the major themes. It strikes me now that the gates facing North South East and West are another city like feature.

It's been a lonely effort at times, puzzling over the history of this fascinating building, but I'm very conscious of the many contributors and collaborators who have participated along the way.

The initial modelling and rendering stages focused on the transfer halls of the SE quadrant, plus the screen wall in its final state. Heartfelt thanks to the many sponsors, judges and competitors who kick started this whole process.  From the beginning I was obsessed with understanding how the Bank evolved over time: how Soane's work related to that of his predecessors.  Meanwhile, Russell & Alberto in particular did a fantastic job of setting a standard to aim for, in two specific areas that had been identified by the founders of the competition.

For almost three years now, we have been fleshing out the labyrinth of spaces that comprise the rest of Soane's Bank. Here the levels are much more complex and the information more patchy. Given how hard it has been to figure out this 3d jigsaw puzzle, imagine the titanic effort involved in design development.

The first floor rooms were quite extensive, but the highest cut plane intersects just three isolated areas.

Firstly there is the upper room at the West End of Garden Court.  Then there is the top floor of Sampson's rear courtyard (curved North wall be Soane) and finally the attic floor of Residence Court (servants' quarters?)  I'm pretty chuffed with the section through the Accountant's Office, extending through to the Residence Court.  Feels like we are really getting there.

If I can get the site upgraded to 2019 we will be able to access recently added new BIM360 features. These are not really designed for the kind of work we are doing on Project Soane, but I am curious to see how they can enhance our efforts.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018


Despite my best intentions, writing up my Project Soane exertions is still lagging behind the work itself, and this past week I've done a few digital sketches in the evenings on my phone, while lying in bed.  I don't wish to claim there is anything special about these.  It's just me, trying to re-ignite the intuitive, "sketching" side of my makeup, and reflecting on the outcome.

The first two were done fairly quickly in a flat, graphic mode with no post-processing.  The subjects are my son & youngest grandson, and my daughter (looking cool in silver wig and shades).  We live on separate continents  (typical "WhatsApp" families) &  I've been sharing these sketches as part of our regular chit-chat.

The drawing style is fairly crude, but choice of colour  balance and deciding how far to simplify, make these personal images.  There is an element of creativity, and at times (Joe's necklace for example) I am rediscovering the vitality that my linework had in my younger days.

The second pair benefit from "time spent practising" (John again, and his older brother Jack dressing up in WW1 uniform at the local museum).  I am relaxing a bit and becoming more ambitious.  Perhaps because of this, I felt motivated to add some digital trickery that results in altogether more impressive images.  Is this a good thing?  Does slicker imagery beat honest error?  I don't have any simple answers to these kinds of questions.

The processing is not just "pushing a button" There are subtle choices going on, mostly at a subconscious, "intuitive" level, to arrive at a colour balance and unity of texture that feels "right".  Once again, these are "my images" despite the assistance of two or three different "apps"  So I'm not really concerned about the "honesty" argument.  As long as I'm letting my emotions blend with my conscious thought processes while practising hand-eye coordination ... it has to be beneficial.

Now I just have to integrate this into Project Soane :)