Matthew Wells, Sarah Handelman (ed.)
Park Books

Softcover, 176 pages, EUR 48.00

Survey, the newest addition to Park Books’ ongoing Architecture Iconographies series, is an examination of architectural drawings, paintings, maps, and photographs from the last five centuries. Rather than attempting to showcase the full range of images from such an eventful and prolific epoch, the book chooses instead to present its subject via six essays, each of which focuses on a single architect or scholar. Through these essays – which mostly focus on 18th-19th century drawings of classical architecture, many of them from the UK’s Drawing Matter collection – the book makes the argument that surveys are not just visual renderings of buildings, but also an integral part of the way those buildings are perceived and understood.

Detmar Blow, Tintagel Old Post Office, elevations and ground plan, 1896. Pencil on paper, 180 × 115 mm. © Drawing Matter Collections

Over the course of the book, a picture begins to emerge of architectural surveys more as highly variable lenses through which sites and structures are viewed, and less as any sort of objectively truthful data. In the pre-photography era, when hand-drawn surveys were the only means of documenting and planning structures, such drawings were of paramount importance in the way buildings were built and maintained, as well as presented to the world at large. As Wells points out, the words “Surveyor” and “Architect” were synonymous in 18th-century England, and while surveying as a practice generally requires advanced technical skills in perspective and geometry, even the most technical of drawings can be profoundly affected by a surveyor’s subjective choices.

Alberto Ponis, Yacht Club Path, 1965. Colored inks over print base on yellow paper, 365 × 1007 mm. © Drawing Matter Collections

The book traces these subjective influences in fascinating detail across the centuries, covering aesthetic factors that range from the chosen perspective of the surveyor, to the type of lines and markings used, to whether details of patina, decay, and vegetation are included or excluded. Most fascinating are surveys that include structural details absent from the observer’s current time, which are often colored in exquisitely subtle shades of blue or pink. These juxtapositions of different eras reach their sublimest peak in Charles Robert Cockerell’s exquisite birds-eye study of the Parthenon, which includes not only walls and columns destroyed over the centuries, but also the footprint of the 15th-century mosque that formerly stood on the site. In such surveys, time is another dimension to be measured and represented visually alongside the physical layers of plaster, brick, and stone – and in the case of these no-longer-existent structural details, the older practice of hand-drawing paradoxically provides details that more modern techniques (such as photography or scans) cannot.

Frank Lloyd Wright, E J Kaufmann Residence, Fallingwater, Bear Run, Pennsylvania, 1936–39. Pencil on tracing paper, 380 × 550 mm. Drawing Matter Collections © Drawing Matter

The second half of the book consists of a wide-ranging selection of plates, which include the previously mentioned “grand tour” surveys of the classical Greek and Roman world as well as non-European settings such as Egypt, China, and North America. The selection includes numerous 20th- and 21st-century images, which introduce new techniques such as aerial photography and Lidar scanning as applied to structures both old and new.

Zachary Mollica, Jonathan Sellers and Lucas Wilson, ‘The Barton’, Shatwell Farm, Somerset, 2019. Digital Lidar scan. © Drawing Matter Collections

Among the images featured are various creative and imaginary surveys, including the “Bellman’s Chart” from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark and the Situationist cut-up cover of Guy Debord’s Guide Psychogeographique de Paris. While such illustrations are certainly fictive in the most immediate sense, they reflect the same urge to describe the world, whether real or imagined, found in the most technically precise surveys. As Wells suggests in his introduction,

…as much as it documents what already exists, the survey is also a site for the imagination. It is not a passive object or record, but an agent and instrument of power… a tool for recording the present and a mode for projecting into a past or future; a way of documenting what is right there in front of our eyes, and a provocation to conjure something new into being.

Just as maps of distant lands are created long before they are actually explored, such surveys can also shape buildings of the future, which for now exist only in the imagination.