An Informal Enquiry

Märkli Sketchbook, La Congiunta 2 – Drawing Matter

Peter Märkli (*1953), La Congiunta sketchbooks, 1992. Ballpoint pen on squared paper, 110 × 70 mm.

Sketchbooks, as a genre of work, appeal and entice perhaps because of their immediacy, their privacy, their informality, portability and tactility – indeed their humanness, for the sketch often veers off into the mundane and the personal: a train schedule, a financial log, an appointment missed or kept, a phone number. Though sometimes intended for copying or circulation, the sketchbook is more often reserved for the private eye. Looked at, read, handled, it establishes an intimacy, a knowing; one enters the thinking, the events, the travels, the drawing hand of the artist or architect. Indeed, it could be said that the sketchbook eschews its own identity as such, insofar as it always escapes categorisation. A drawing is sometimes a sketch as James Ackerman defines it -- an observation, a fantasy or whimsy, a proposal for something yet to be, drawn rapidly in an emotional frenzy[1] -- while at other times it is measured, thought and analysed. And thus, the sketchbook in addition to its objecthood, is perhaps best considered a practice, one that assembles in some fashion, either on the page or in its binding or folding, and which travels in another. Generous and generally informal, it brings the thinking drawing to life.

Villard de Honnecourt – Drawing Matter

Villard de Honnecourt (*), Album de dessins et croquis, folio 30v, 1220 – 1235. Parchment. Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

Codex Coner – Drawing Matter

, Codex Coner: Doric entablature and capital of the Basilica Aemilia from the façade facing the Forum., c. 1475 – 1500. Parchment. © Sir John Soane's Museum..

Another early example comes with the invention of paper in the fourteenth century, followed by Leon Battista Alberti’s, De re aedificatoria (1490), which proposes that the architectural drawing differs from that of painting and sculpture insofar as it is measured; and the proliferation, in the fifteenth century, of Vitruvius’s writing, in which he divides architectural drawing into ichnografia (plan), ortografia (elevation) and scaenografia (perspective). The Codex Coner, in the collection of Sir John Soane’s Museum, was executed between c. 1475–1500 and assembled and bound in the mid-1510s in Rome. Thought to be the work of Bernardo della Volpaia (c. 1475–1521), a carpenter, it is essentially a compilation of survey drawings of ancient and what were then contemporary Roman buildings and monuments. While a dissertation by Chen Liu argues for its classification as a sketchbook, the Codex breaks with all preconceptions for such a definition: it compiles measured drawings in lieu of sketches, is the work of more than one author, and was bound, again, retrospectively.[6] More than being the private place where an architect or artist ‘goes to be themselves’, this book was intended to be copied and circulated.

Marie Jose van Hee – Drawing Matter

Marie-José Van Hee (*1950), House, c. 1990. Graphite on tracing paper. © Marie-José Van Hee.

Marie Jose van Hee – Drawing Matter

Marie-José Van Hee (*1950), House, c. 1990. Graphite on tracing paper. © Marie-José Van Hee.

Siza 8 – Drawing Matter

Álvaro Siza (*1933), DMC(SB31) 8, 1979. Biro on paper, 297 × 210 mm.

Siza 3 – Drawing Matter

Álvaro Siza (*1933), DMC(SB31) 3, 1979. Biro on paper, 297 × 210 mm.

Indeed the questions that both the Villard album and the Codex raise for the sketchbook are, in fact, more interesting that trying to establish precise categorisations. Be it the pattern book or manual meant for use in a workshop, studio or for circulation; a recueil that comprises a master’s drawings; a pre-bound book meant to assemble all the loose bits from site visits: examples can be seen from the Renaissance to the present day, from the work of Antonio da Sangallo to that of Gilles-Marie Oppenord, from Chatillon to Viollet le Duc to Alvaro Siza and Peter Märkli. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries practices range between the assembled and collected, bound and unbound, the sketch and the finished drawing, the conventional and the eccentric. Peter Märkli and Marie-José van Hee each have a daily practice of drawing, yet draw on loose sheets. In the case of Siza, Adolfo Natalini and Ugo La Pietra the intimate work of the artist-genius is to be established in more traditional sketchbooks. Giorgio Moretti's sketchbook drawings oscillate between the travel sketch and the design proposal, while sheets by Alberto Ponis and Soldani, though centuries apart, make comparable use of folding, working around the sheet, to establish perhaps a sequence and continuity that is found in the binding.

Alberto Ponis, Study for Casa Heintzschel, Punta Sardegna, 1986, DM L2837.1 IN SET – Drawing Matter

Alberto Ponis (*), Study for Casa Heintzschel, Punta Sardegna, 1986. Pencil, pen and ink and felt pen on paper, 900 × 780 mm.

Massimiliano Soldani, Untitled, c. 1700, DM 2941.2 – Drawing Matter

Massimiliano Soldani (1656–1740), Untitled, c. 2018. Pencil on thin laid paper formerly folded in three, 212 × 231 mm.

What follows here, then, is a first exploration of sketchbook practices, one which seeks to look across historical periods, practices, and collections. It considers those at Drawing Matter in conjunction with selections from the Victoria and Albert Museum, RIBA and the Harvard Houghton Library. It is designed to be an extension of the first conversation held with Drawing Matter at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which considered, with multiple voices, what constitutes a sketchbook, what practices define a sketchbook, what techniques sketchbooks employ, and other issues, contexts and future avenues of enquiry. And it reaches back to a first visit with Cedric Price’s ‘notebooks’ at the St. John’s Library, Cambridge in 2016, which sparked the conversation (and for which, unfortunately, images are unavailable). Such a line of enquiry is pursued in the same spirit as the sketchbooks themselves: as a mode of exploration and assembly.

Siza notebook cover – Drawing Matter

Álvaro Siza (*1933), Siza notebook cover, c. 1979. Pen on paper.

It is among the myriad vicissitudes of the object that elude categorisation (but which are nevertheless attempted, in some format), where perhaps we arrive at the pressing question behind the sketchbooks, namely: what is its role in the development of an architect, an artist and their architectural and artistic ideas? Can it be seen as an originary moment? How do sketchbooks explore the possibility of architecture? Is it here where we can come closest to how an architecture is conceived? Often the most rewarding thing about any good sketchbook is working out why the draftsman turned the page when they did (often the clue is on the next page, so our own page turning is nice kind of parallel act). Had the idea under examination been exhausted, or resolved? Or was some other approach required, or a solution suggested to a problem in another project? Did they see something elsewhere in the Forum that interested them more? Or a detail that required a different scale, or to move position?  Did it start to rain, or did Gio Ponti just phone from Domus?

And how then do we incorporate this series of pages, the sequencing of pages and books, into selection and display?


  1. [1] See James Ackerman, ‘The Origins of Sketching’. In Origins, Invention, Revision (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), 2016, pp. 1-20.

    [2] James Ackerman. ‘Villard de Honnecourt's Drawings of Reims Cathedral: A Study in Architectural Representation’. In Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 18, No. 35 (1997): 41-49. Chen Liu, ‘Between Perception and Expression: The Codex Coner and the Genre of Architecture Sketchbooks’, PhD dissertation, Princeton University, Department of Art and Archaeology, 2011.

    [3] 15 December 2017.

    [4] According to Ackerman the sheets are devoted to ‘architectural and mechanical construction, measuring, and architectural sculpture’. See Ackerman, ‘Villard’, 42.

    [5] Ackerman, ‘Villard’, 47.

    [6] Chen Liu, Between Perception and Expression: The Codex Coner and the Genre of Architectural Sketchbooks, A dissertation presented to the Faculty of Princeton University, in Candidacy for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, 2011.