Wednesday, June 5, 2013


Arnold Pacey, in his book Medieval Architectural Drawing, (Tempus Publishing, Gloscestershire, 2007), identifies the scale drawing as being the ‘break with the past’ that allowed buildings to be designed on paper, leading to a ‘separation between those who did the drawing and those who did the building,’ allowing ‘architecture to become a gentlemanly profession.’

p. 225-226
To sum up, although the practice of making full-size drawings persisted long after the Middle Ages, with some of the drawing instruments that had been employed by medieval craftsmen still being used, the advent of new attitudes to measurement, and of scale drawing, marked a major break with the past. One of its effects was to make it possible for a design to be completely worked out on paper, away from the site, leading to a greater separation between those who did the drawing and those who did the building. That, in turn, allowed architecture to become a gentlemanly profession separate from the work of craftsmen. However, there was not a sharp transition in which everybody changed their ways at once. Except for a minority of high-status buildings, craftsmen continued to play the major part in building design using a mixture of traditional and modern methods. Timber-framed buildings continued to be built by carpenters with hardly any use of the new drawing methods nor any involvement of architects. John Abel in Herefordshire and the younger Dale in Cheshire were carpenters who may have begun to function rather like architects but, in general, medieval methods, including setting-out techniques, persisted among carpenters until after 1700.

Arnold Pacey. Medieval Architectural Drawing. Tempus Publishing. Gloscestershire, 2007

It is an interesting observation that Pacey bases on the medieval craftsman’s use of full-size drawings. In his book he identifies various techniques including the plaster tracing floor, (in Wells and York cathedrals), where full-size details were set out for pattern making. Drawings of windows and arches are seen as scratch marks, albeit in a rather piecemeal shambles of lines that he has interpreted. The argument does beg the question: while it seems clear that some details might have been drawn for either clarification or construction - both? - just how was the building itself conceived? The complexity of a cathedral seems just too complicated and coherent for it to be worked out as it is constructed. Some communication to establish the intent and its organization must have been required prior to starting work on site.

Pacey glosses over the larger scale of things, mentioning merely the ad quadratum and ad triangulum techniques of proportion, but these are very schematic in the order of things that can be involved in establishing exactly what has to happen in a proposal, and being able to communicate this, first to the client and then to the workmen so that what is being anticipated actually comes into being. Surely it was not all one big surprise? The concept was planned; it involved precise prior thinking. We know that those who were illiterate had better memories than ours and related to the world differently, but still envisaging a complete cathedral seems to be a ‘big ask.’ What really went on?

Using the idea that things could not be too different to how we might manage matters today given the same situation, we should be able to gauge a strategy for our review. This will have to be explored later in another piece. Today we still see contractors setting out awkward parts on site to full size, on both floors and walls; and, of course, building anything is a ‘full-size’ enterprise. While paper or parchment might have been rare in medieval times, chalk and charcoal must have been common; even ink was known. Scratching in the dust seems to be just too romantic and imprecise an idea. Something must have begun the process - an outline; a model; a variation to a prototype? If drawing was so unusual, was there a copybook from which variations were made? There is the statement that Rheims cathedral became the model for cathedrals in that region of France, and even in nearby Germany; but where did Rheims cathedral come from? It is almost a chicken-egg situation.

Consider men sitting around a table organizing things; consider the ordering of materials; the management of men; the construction management; consider the first setout on site - see  There must have been more than ambitions, thoughts and words coagulating in some sharing of mind. Were precise dimensions and levels established ad hoc on site? Was it all trial and error, a starting and discovering enterprise? It is interesting to observe that the tracing floors are in an upper part of the cathedrals that had already been constructed. It seem sensible that options for a complex window might have been explored and detailed prior to its making, but this occurred in a building that was well under construction. The full-sized drawing is probably still the best way to get such a thing made today. Patterns are needed for the parts. The idea is not that surprising. It is the fragmentation of the whole that Pacey never mentions, the delineation of the divisions that define each part. Broad setouts and profiles are essential, but who decides on the joints and their locations in an arch once the arcs, profiles and decorations have been finalized?: see  The whole remains a puzzle that suggests there was much more going on; that the scale drawing may not be as critical and crucial as Pacey might choose to believe.

How did the Egyptians build? The Aztecs? The work of the craftsman is traditionally described as ‘having concentrated, he set to work,’ in the context that the work was envisaged as a whole, complete and final, prior to the commencement of the making; that the fabrication involved merely a reproduction of the concept that had been visualized. It is the identification of, the development of, and recording of this concept beyond this visualization that needs to be considered. Surely the process was not very different to the method that we might choose today, even with computers. In one way we draw everything full-size on computers; but, in spite of this, the outcomes are certainly much more prosaic and mundane than buildings of the past. The Egyptian artist is known to have worked with precise grids and proportions. Why might an architect - or whatever one might wish to call this person - not have done likewise in medieval times?

Is the Pacey version of history only for the evolution a ‘gentleman’ architect - a dilettante - who became remote from the reality of the site: the precursor of today’s ‘architect’? Is this our heritage that seeks to be so special and unique; an exclusive class controlled by registration boards? Maybe we need to get back to our true roots and become involved in the site, its processes; the materials and their properties; the making of things, so that architecture can get back onto its feet and be a profession of substance rather than one for genteel aesthetes? We could even try some full-size drawings on site too. The profession might gain more respect that it is given today: ‘gentlemen’ or not. If we can believe the craftsmen of old, then the work was envisaged as a whole: it was known in detail prior to any action. That this might not be so today is our problem; that Pacey has identified buildings constructed without an architect - a carpenter only - is no different to today where most suburban homes are still the work of builders and builder designers.

A lack of evidence does not alter experience, even if the folk of old were able to manipulate memory more powerfully than us, and identify with the world more symbolically. We should not dismiss their strategies as historical anomalies, as these skills might re-enchant the world for us too, such, as Ananda Coomarswamy noted, is the bugbear of literacy: also see David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, Vintage, 1997. Who knows what buildings we might come to design - scale or no scale; even full-size!

We have allowed that in industrial societies, where it is assumed that man is made for commerce and where men are cultured, if at all, in spite of rather than because of their environment, literacy is a necessary skill.

But however we may be whistling in the dark when we pride ourselves upon “the collective wisdom of a literate people,” regardless of what is read by the “literates,” the primary concern of the present essay is not with the limitations and defects of modern Western education in situ, but with the spread of an education of this type elsewhere. Our real concern is with the fallacy involved in the attachment of an absolute value to literacy, and the very dangerous consequences that are involved in the setting up of “literacy” as a standard by which to measure the cultures of unlettered peoples. Our blind faith in literacy not only obscures for us the significance of other skills, so that we care not under what subhuman conditions a man may have to learn his living, if only he can read, no matter what, in his hours of leisure; it is also one of the fundamental grounds of inter-racial prejudice and becomes a prime factor in the spiritual impoverishment of all the “backward” people whom we propose to “civilize.”

Ananda Coomaraswamy The Bugbear of Literacy
from the World Wisdom online library:


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