FCBS Life Drawing 02

Further to Charlie sharing some of our (ever improving) life drawings, I wanted to consider the body’s relevance to architecture in a little more detail.

I am deeply interested in the sensibilities behind architecture, and in particular how these relate to the human figure. This is something that my good friends Alex Bank and Sam Casswell have studied in detail in their book Urban Figures, and here I’d like to set out some of my reflections on the topic.


This is not an approach limited to historic architecture. Its logic pervades all periods. Similarly, it need not look like a person. Rather it requires an understanding of front, back, side, top and bottom. This is a distinctly anatomical reading, and one that permeates through architecture:

“…the building faces west, its wings spread out to the north and south…”

Likewise, hearth shares its etymology with that of the heart. It is a frame of mind that can be applied to all scales. Michelangelo thinks about architectural mouldings whilst he thinks about the human profile. This is at the small scale. Robert Adam clearly had a figure in mind when he drew Kedleston Hall- so clear are the limbs and body of the beast. This is building at an almost urban scale.

Profiles of the bases of columns for the Laurentian Library


Those at the medium scale are too numerous to mention, but can be clearly seen in the Erechtheion’s Caryatids, or their male counterpart, Atlas. Myth has it that classical orders derive their proportion from the specific physical properties of people (Doric: male soldier, Ionic: woman, Corinthian: girl).

Montpelier Walk, Cheltenham D0gwalker

Collectively, architectural ensembles, can join one another across the piazza, as in Henri Matisse’s Dance.



Today, Alvaro Siza’s Porto School of Architecture looks out from its vantage point like the heads of Easter Island.



Peter Markli’s Museo La Congiunta reclines in its hilly meadow. Working in the opposite direction, Anthony Gormley begins to mass his figurative works in a manner that one may more readily read as a city scape.

Museo La Congiunta Kalle Soderman.jpg

Antony Gormley's Contract, 2011

What excites me is that as with sculpture, these figures have grown to be more choreographed over time. Classical, static mass begins to relax and flex, first in a gentle manner similar to sculptural contrapposto, then growing into more dynamic movement found in more contemporary dance.

This is an intoxicating way to read architecture, and one that cannot be fully explored here in a few hundred words. Perhaps the most appealing thing about the urban figure is that it engages with us in one of the most fundamental, visceral ways possible. We each have within us the innate ability to read figures and faces in the abstract, and this makes it an architecture for every body.



2 thoughts on “Urban Figures

  1. Mattise’s Dance is a reminder that architecture should also contain movement. The building may be frozen music, but the inhabitants must listen to that music and move with it. More use of video in documentation can help us see and understand that!

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