Philippa Lewis mixes research and invention to tell stories inspired by the architectural drawings held in the Drawing Matter archive at Shatwell Farm in Somerset
You have to admire the ambition of Edith Carlson, a modestly-paid Wisconsin librarian sleeping in her mother’s living room who set her heart on commissioning Frank Lloyd Wright at the height of his success in 1938 to design her a house of her own. Amazingly, he agreed. The story of her determined – but ultimately unsuccessful – efforts to bring the project to fruition is just one of 25 delightful tales in Philippa Lewis’s Stories from Architecture, a collection of writings inspired by architectural drawings from the Drawing Matters collection at Shatwell Farm, Somerset.
The idea for the book emerged when Lewis was working in the archives of the collection. She started writing about drawings that caught her eye on the website, and the project snowballed.
‘My choices were whatever took my fancy,’ she says, adding that these weren’t necessarily the most visually gorgeous. ‘The ones I picked were the ones that viscerally appealed to me.’
Through a combination of careful research and vivid imagination, Lewis brought these drawings to life in colourful stories, adopting language to suit the characters and times to plunge the reader into the context of the drawings. Sometimes, as with the tale of the FLW saga, she was able to draw on documents from Edith’s private papers as source material to bring out what she describes as ‘a fascinating’ look at how architects and clients sometimes misunderstand each other. Her entertaining tale of the new bar in the genteel surroundings of the Great Octagon room at the Bath Assembly Rooms in 1961 is fuelled by minutes from Bath Spa Committee meetings of the day. After ditching Oliver Messel’s dainty design in favour of something cheaper and more utilitarian, the committee had to suffer the consequences from all directions.
She has a talent for the human story – real or imagined – behind the drawing, whether from the perspective of the client, the architect, the illustrator, or those depicted or involved in some way. A Thames Tunnel souvenir peepshow leaflet celebrating the engineering achievement of Marc and Isambard Brunel is the starting point for the bitter thoughts of a widow who lost her miner husband to a terrible accident during its hazardous construction, and is in no mood to commemorate its completion.
In some cases, Lewis simply had the drawing and nothing else, giving free rein to her imagination to create the characters and circumstance behind the image. A story inspired by the depiction of the perimeter wall of London Smallpox Hospital by George Coke, is told in the voice of a forward young woman who chatted up the artist as he sketched the drawing – and got herself included in the composition as she walked past carrying a basket of muffins.
The author’s enjoyment shines through. She entertainingly imagines how a 1957 drawing by Rex Savidge of an entrance to a civic building in Newcastle upon Tyne came to be populated by a collage of rather incongruous figures, some from a fashion shoot and other rather old-fashioned looking besuited City-types. The culprit was the architect’s young secretary, given the task of coming up with material overnight for a collage in an attempt to jazz up the otherwise rather austere image, after the rather staid architect was teased by a young upstart in the office. With limited resources, she obligingly snipped out a few figures from whatever magazines she could find at home, which seems a fair guess at what might have happened.
Inspired by an entry by Samuel Hardy to a competition for an All-British £1,000 House in 1932, she imagines the disappointment of the young entrant as he ponders his unsuccessful flat roof design and his horror at the more traditional winning entry. In another tale, she imagines the reminiscences of an architect at the end of his career, René-André Coulon, as he recalls his illuminated fountain designs for the 1937 Expo in Paris nearly half a century earlier.
Then there’s the enjoyable bemusement of the story of some young lads looking at the 1970 design by Robert Bray of a duplex penthouse in Playboy Magazine, clearly another world away – and more – from their more mundane existence in Northamptonshire. Why on earth, they wonder, as they pour over the gadgets and an entertainment wall with multiple colour televisions, would you want a computer in your home?
Stories from Architecture: Behind the Lines at Drawing Matter is certainly an antidote to more dry, academic architectural tomes. Lewis hopes that readers will enjoy her lively take on the drawings and the easy insight they give into the times that they were made.
‘I can’t tell you what fun I had doing it – I hope that comes across,’ she says. ‘It’s a sideways glance into bits of history.’
Stories from Architecture: Behind the Lines at Drawing Matter, Philippa Lewis, MIT Press