Sunday, 8 May 2016

Drawing as an exploration of urban space

The abstract of a paper which will be presented at the forthcoming conference THE ART OF ARCHITECTURE: HAND DRAWING AND DESIGN to be held at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture 29 September - 1 October 2016

Drawing as an exploration of urban space

This paper will reflect on the drawings produced in preparation for the book 'The Politics of the Piazza: the History and Meaning of the Italian Square' (Ashgate 2008).

The images created fall into three stages which correspond with three types of representation. Drawings of the space in situ, the experience of being in the piazza and the visual enclosure of surrounding buildings were recorded, often from different viewpoints, as an aide-memoire, as much as a document of a time and place. The second type, corresponding to the analytical stage take the form of axonometric projections, reducing the elements of the piazza to a simple form to capture the essential relationships of building and space, solid and void. The third stage was the production of watercolour renderings of the spaces, hybrid compositions which combine details and general drawings to capture the atmosphere of the spaces studied, with colour applied and occasional elements of capriccio.

The drawing methodology, as distinct from the textual and archival methods employed in parallel, allowed a loosely systematic research to be pursued which, while alert to the typical conditions, could encompass the variety of planned and organic spaces which were included in the study. The employment of different methods of visual and spatial analysis, sketching, diagramming and composition allowed the text to be supported with qualitative design material which emphasised the uniqueness of the tradition of Italian urban space, and the consistency of it as a representative expression of societal values.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Imago urbis: Rome’s recurring dream

A presentation made at the GENIUS LOCI: PLACES AND MEANINGS conference held at the University of Porto 20-22 April 2016


The genius loci of a city is a complex phenomenon to describe but within the context of Rome it offers the opportunity to read contemporary life through the lens of the past, and the metaphors it gathers.


The attempt to capture the eternal should not be confused with historicism. The intrusion of modernity, paradoxically represented in Rome by the presence of the Altare della Patria represents a rupture in that continuity in whatever forms it is dressed. As a result, the aspiration to regain the condition of an urban paradise can only be provisional since we have knowledge of its limits, its subjectivity and its likely ruin.


The archaeology of place amplifies meaning. The concept of reburying sites that have been excavated evokes the autonomy of the subterranean city, existing for its own purpose, in its own time and anticipating its discovery. The landscape of the ground diminishes the significance of the present in relation to the past and the future of the city.


The eclecticism of the city’s architectural languages between the ancient and the modern, represents the diversity of its lives. As order and disorder, formal and informal it embodies a balance between the social and the aesthetic which is only resolved in its complementarity. This variety need not be masked as it represents the very essence of urbanity and contrasts clearly with its opposition to nature.


The natural condition threatens to overwhelm architectural and urban order at every turn, offering the prospect of decay as the destiny of the man-made environment. Resisting this process is the fundamental situation that brings architecture into being, its necessary precursor and conclusion, humanity’s organic desire to make sense of the world through place.

The coexistences of these meanings, their erasures and their interpretations in the multiple matrices of Rome present a model through which the familiar but imprecise term genius loci might be illuminated and extended.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016


The draft proposal is woefully inadequate in that i) it devotes too much of its text to listing matters which have already come about or are well developed and little to a strategic vision for the city centre as a totality ii) it seems overly concerned with facilitating and promoting large scale developer-led projects which citizens are expected to welcome without hesitation and iii) it makes no mention of any resilience planning which, following recent flooding incidents on the Irwell is nothing short of property speculation induced folly.

The city needs a comprehensive and genuinely visionary plan which deals with the disjunctions between the various districts the draft report discusses largely in isolation from each other. It also needs a strategy which connects the city centre with its suburbs, physically, socially and economically. Developing a city requires a more sustainable basis than the inducing of a commercial property boom based on often fragile investment funds. The dismal quality of the public realm projects the draft strategy praises suggests no awareness of the many global initiatives to create successful urban places, falling back on security as a precondition of access to the public realm, an issue clearly connected to the increase in licensed premises which the strategy also reports uncritically, making no mention of any consequent anti-social issues.

Despite Manchester's continuing ability to generate good publicity, if this strategy is adopted unaltered, the underwhelming experience of new built environment projects will continue to puzzle and disappoint visitors and, more importantly, citizens, reducing aspirations and increasing alienation from the sort of civic values which should be fostered by our elected officials.

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