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Glimpses into hidden worlds

Will Wiles

Will Wiles wonders what makes our childish delight in cutaway representations of the world persist into adulthood

Credit: iStock

The art made by young children might not be ‘realistic’, but it does exhibit a paradoxical kind of reality. Children are naturally abstract – they go directly and concisely to the meaning of a subject. They paint and draw what they know to be there, rather than reproducing what they see. This helps explain why they are so fond of cutaways and cross-sections. In adulthood – and especially in architecture – we mostly encounter sections as a form of technical drawing, and so they become associated with intricacy and precision. It’s easy to lose track of how magical they are. That’s why it’s handy to have a child around to remind you.

Drawing a room and its contents, a child will often reach for the section, showing the room as a frame and everything in it side-on. So the chair is a lower-case ‘h’, the table a simple horizontal line with two supporting legs, even a plate on the table will be neatly cut through, a line curved up at the ends to suggest its lip. This all takes a degree of insight into the form of things but it is simpler to compose than an immersive, perspective-ruled interior. Once they learn that this can encompass a whole room on the page, cutaways through whole buildings with multiple rooms are the next step.

Perhaps, though, there’s some fundamental connection between the section drawing and childhood. The dolls’ house, with a front that opens to reveal the dolls and furniture inside, is a cutaway made real. The delight that a dolls’ house can provoke, even in unlikely adults, comes partly from a sense that a hidden world has been revealed; the same is true of a cutaway drawing, in which we feel we are outside looking in, unlike a more realistic interior which includes the viewer.

There’s an obvious delight in the cutaway that goes far beyond making life easy for the junior artist.  Once I stated thinking of examples of cutaways in the books I enjoyed as a child, it was hard to stop: Shirley Hughes’ Up and Up, Raymond Briggs’s Fungus the Bogeyman, Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s Cops and Robbers, Richard Scarry’s Busytown and Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge books. Today, Stephen Biesty and Dorling Kindersley have made a cottage industry out of catering to section-hungry children.

How far does this enthusiasm for sections and cutaways carry through to adulthood? They remain enchanting, but possibly because of their relationship to childish fascination. In 1930 Eric Ravilious painted a mural called Life in a Boarding House, a slice through shared lodgings showing widely varied activities in each room, such as playing musical instruments or communing with ghosts. In its elegant symmetry and Queen Anne details it is a consciously dolls’-housey image, and was sadly destroyed during the war. And the cross-section has been a favourite excursion of the comic artist from Heath Robinson to Viz. Certain kinds of technical or explanatory drawings, such as the slices through cross-Channel ferries, or those illustrations of Underground stations that peel back the earth to reveal their intestinal tangle, are engrossing.

I wonder if the cinema screen may be where the cross section really lives on in adulthood, the cutaway filled with life, like an ant farm behind glass. The split screen and the pan through solid walls are sectional devices. Wes Anderson has made the cross section one of his trademarks in films including The Life Aquatic: there, the thrill of the doll’s house is compounded by its magical restoration to full scale. These delights suggest even the dullest section could be a slice of life.


There’s another popular cross-section in media: the side-scrolling computer game, such as Super Mario Bros or Castlevania. Do these games have any architectural influence? It’s doubtful, although I do often think of them when passing Google’s ‘groundscraper’ headquarters at King’s Cross, designed by BIG and Heatherwick Studio.