Architecture for Urban Sketchers (1)

July 28, 2012


I took out my copy of The Art of Urban Sketching this morning to suss out where Buildings fitted into the scheme of things. It’s listed as the second preeminent category after Skylines, Cityscapes and Panoramas, so it’s pretty important. Interestingly, 2 hours kept coming up as the average time spent sketching a building.

If you’re an urban sketcher and not an architect like me, then you’ll be coping with arches and domes and columns every time you work on a building. Whether it’s a cathedral, church, art gallery or town hall, at least several of these elements will come into play. Even in non-Western architecture (Far East pavilions and Near East churches, mosques and synagogues), the same applies.

Where to start? The logical place is the Pantheon in Rome: a dome on a supporting circle. The problem for architects coming after was how to add to this, how to elaborate. Elaboration is difficult when you’ve got a dome on a cirle, but adding aisles and rooms and (apses and chapels in the case of Christian churches) is easy once the engineering problem of putting a dome on top of a square is overcome.

Enter stage right, the church of San Lorenzo in Milan. I’d never heard of it till recently, nor visited it when in Milan (apparently it’s a bit away from the central business district at Sant’Ambrogio), but here you’ve got one square inside another and a dome on top.

Don’t be mislead by the photos of it on Flickr. You’ve got to ignore several important elements:

* when looking at it front on, ignore the portico. Yes, it’s very imposing but its an add-on, an elaboration, which is not important to our understanding of the dome-and-square.

* ignore too the large piazza in front of it, with side buildings and a row of Roman columns (the colonne di San Lorenzo);

* ignore too the later chapels added on to the original church building.

So today’s doodles are about the square-within-a-square. The architect made it less of a fortress by creating curves of columns to balance any heaviness in the walls. Between the outer (strong) square, with its dominant corner “blocks” is the fan-shaped roof area on all four sides. The architect made an interesting foray into design by creating four columns in each curve, so from one perspective, it can look like a square superimposed on another square.

My subsequent next steps are as follows:

* examine the elaborate front portico, only because it’s so dominant for the urban sketcher looking up at the building;

* draw the front portico and facade wth this understanding of the structure underneath;

* draw the interior ( noting it is split into two parts: the upper dome with its tiny windows, and the lower dome shapes linked to the inner square of columns);

* move on to similar forms: domes-on-circles (Sta Costanza in Rome and Theodoric’s Tomb in Ravenna), domes-on-squares (SS. Sergius and Bacchus,Constantinople) and domes-0n-octagons (San Vitale, Ravenna). This will bring me up close and personal with squinches.

On Flickr and elsewhere, you will see some on-location sketches which show a less-than-perfect understanding of the building’s structure. But I sympathise because it’s easy to be seduced by the chapels added later. Speaking of which, once you get out of the square and the arcade of Roman columns, you can see the church a bit more clearly from the park behind. But unfortunately even here, the sketcher will get distracted by the fascinating bunch of chapels attached to the original building.


Why a wonderful example of Early Christian Church architecture in Milan? Because Milan was the head of the Western Christian Church at this time, roughly 3rd century onwards. This church of St Lawrence (known as a basilica, even though it’s not in the strict rectangular basilica style) dates from the 5th-century.  It’s a quatrefoil central-plan building (it stretches out four ways), with a double-shell layout (the square-within-a-square consising of an open central area surrounded by an ambulatory – a human parking area as well as useful for walking meditation by the religious). In drawing the interior, I must try and note the matroneum (a balcony for female worshippers) and try and imagine a polychrome interior decoration. I recommend sussing out descriptions of Early Christian church services to get a feeling of how busy the interior of this church would have been the 5th century.

Why is this building so important? It’s said to be the largest centrally-planned building in the Western World for its time. This central-planning aspect marks it out as one of the first Medieval buildings.


Campanario, The Art of Urban Sketching: drawing on location around the world.

Copplestone, ed. World Architecture.


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