Lines of Descent

Making measured drawings gets me under the skin of old buildings, says George Saumarez Smith


There is a rule passed down in architecture school that whatever you think of old buildings, you should never try to copy them. Many reasons are given, wrapped up in derogatory language: it would be a denial of being modern. Not honest. A pastiche. When I was a student this presented a big problem, because I have always loved old buildings.

I love almost everything about them: their appearance, their feel, their sounds, their smells. I love their different parts – their staircases, their floors, their cellars, their attics. I love their different components – windows and doors, ironmongery, stonework. And I love the different trades that grew up around these components: the carpenters, masons, plasterers and painters.


Top: Marble floor patterns from the nave of Siena Cathedral, 2017, from Saumarez Smith’s ‘Domitian’ sketchbook.
Above: Alphabet from the Altes Museum, Berlin, 2010, from Saumarez Smith’s ‘Vespasian’ sketchbook. 

I was born in London, but have also lived in Suffolk and in Hampshire. I love the fact that English architecture was always very regional, varying enormously depending on what local materials were to hand.

And it was also a complex melting pot of influences from other parts of the world, so that we have both the Gothic and the Classical traditions, and at different periods English buildings might seem more Dutch, French or Scottish. This was reflected in a rich language of mouldings that filtered down to the finest of details, such as the glazing bars on a window or a door handle.

I love the fact that English architecture was always very regional, varying enormously depending on what local materials were to hand”

I love the fact that this language could be adapted depending on whether a building was in a city, a village, the countryside, or even a wild landscape. It is a language of almost infinite subtlety and sophistication.

I love the fact that old buildings have adapted over time and that they have the capacity to age gracefully – because they were designed in such a way that they took account of the effects of weather. And I love the fact that many buildings were not designed by architects, but by builders following rules of simple common sense.


It may be a romantic view but to me, this love of old buildings encapsulates what architecture is all about. And I have never seen any reason why new buildings should not aspire to these qualities.

As a result, architecture school was difficult. When we were given our first design project my instinct was to design a conventional building with doors, windows, rooms, staircases and a roof. This did not go down well with my tutors who encouraged me to think more freely. The goal, it seemed, was to design something as un-building-like as possible. And so, after five years of study, my final-year project was not a building at all, but a series of lead-lined wooden caskets submerged in trenches full of tar. My tutors loved it.

Above: Composite order, Winchester Cathedral screen, designed by Inigo Jones, from Saumarez Smith’s ‘Otho’ sketchbook

But meanwhile I was trying to teach myself about the language of old buildings, and started keeping a sketchbook of measured drawings. I found that drawing a building to scale is like getting underneath its skin: you begin to see patterns of dimensions, proportion and detail. And there is a hands-on physicality in measuring a building that enables you to appreciate its surfaces and textures.

Design by Saumarez Smith for an art gallery on New Bond Street, 2010

As I travelled I continued to measure and draw, and have done so ever since. Last month for instance I was in Tuscany, measuring floor patterns in Siena Cathedral.

Measuring has become the foundation of my architectural work. I often say in the office that our goal is to solve practical problems as elegantly as possible. We rarely discuss style and, in fact, I hardly ever look back at measured drawings in my sketchbooks. But years of measuring makes the process of design much more fluid – like oiling the wheels of a machine. And I hope that, as a result, the new buildings I have designed share some of the best qualities of old buildings.

‘Measure Draw Build – an exhibition of work by George Saumarez Smith’
25 October to 26 November 2017
RIBA, London W1

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