Drawing Inspiration

Drawing Inspiration

A Keuffel & Esser walnut-cased set of drawing instruments, late 19th Century.
Dwight Primiano

Catalogue of the Andrew Alpern Collection of Drawing Instruments
Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University
Distributed by W.W. Norton

It is a reasonable conjecture that no artistic endeavor in history has changed as radically in terms of means to end as architectural design over the last generation. The student of, say, 1982, with her compass, protractor, triangle, ruling pen, and straight edge, turns out to have had more in common with 16th-century predecessors than with her successors of less than a decade after. Five hundred years of traditional eye-to-hand manipulation of precision drawing tools gave way globally to Auto CAD software and its related digital representations to create the visual schemes now required to build.

Elliott brass and ivory drawing instruments in a fine silver-mounted tortoise-shell covered wood étui, 1855.

Such rapid change provides the unsentimental backdrop to this well-illustrated catalog by attorney and architectural historian Andrew Alpern, whose eponymous collection of European and American instruments from the early 18th to the mid-20th centuries has been donated to Columbia’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library. An upcoming fall exhibition there heralds the catalog as an historical record not only of the tools themselves, but also as a guide to how the overwhelming share of Avery holdings, whether books or drawings, were made.

As Alpern explains in his tender foreword, most students today have had no introduction to these instruments, so understand less than they might about past conception and the roots of their profession. Even CAD’s digital yield is to some extent a simulacrum of inherited techniques made manifest by the catalog’s contents. (Let’s hope that Avery is also collecting all pioneering design software, as it too will someday give way.)

A 20th century charm bracelet depicting drawing tools.

The book’s arrangement is chronological, demonstrating the ever-growing sophistication of technical precision and craft excellence, including the sublime composition of contents in the various cases that served as an essential hallmark of skill. James F. O’Gorman’s introductory essay, entitled “Instruments, Architects, and Portraits,” describes to what extent the instruments were almost literally worn on the sleeves of their owners, thus measuring the necessary rise of the architectural profession distinct from the work masons and skilled builders preceding it. A sort of coda brings the collection forward to a more disposable, mass-produced age, to the tools that the proverbial 1982 graduate would have known and used. Alpern’s connoisseurship is more didactic than aesthetic, per se.

Nonetheless, there’s great beauty in these pages, and a sensuality of means that bears appreciation. This book will prove encouraging and even essential to anyone who seeks to understand how architectural practice landed where it is today.

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