Coffee table books have bad press, but these two volumes deserve attention. Drawing Architecture gathers almost 300 drawings, from a Sumerian sanctuary floor plan engraved over 4,000 years ago on the sculpture of the architect-king Gudea to H&deM’s Elbphilharmonie. The author, Helen Thomas, a British architect who after teaching in London and collaborating in the drawing archives of the RIBA and the V&A became a researcher at ETH Zurich, offers an informative, intelligent write-up on each of the drawings, two-thirds of which are 20th- and 21st-century and include all the leading modern masters, among them the Fuller who illustrates the cover with a geodesic sphere. The presentation, however, is not chronological (although a useful timeline is included at the end of the book), but juxtaposes drawings of different periods to stimulate the reader’s imagination; an exercise that proves convincing when Kahn is put in dialogue with Palladio, or Moneo with Choisy, but is harder to grasp in other cases.
Equally dazzling in the visual aspect is The Minard System, a publication of the statistical graphics of Charles-Joseph Minard, a French civil engineer who after retiring in 1851 from a distinguished career serving the State devoted the almost two decades that remained of his life to the visualization of data, producing 61 extraordinary drawings preserved in his alma mater, the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées. These are now presented by Sandra Rendgen, a Berlin-based editor and author whose interest in the graphic representation of statistics was manifested in her two previous books, Information Graphics and Understanding the World. We were already familiar with some of Minard’s mythical drawings – such as the one of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps and Napoleon’s Russian campaign, reproduced on the cover – through the classic books of Edward Tufte, a Yale professor who has been a pioneer in the field of data visualization, but a complete collection of Minard’s graphics is a bibliographic gem.
Architects and engineers seem to use different visual languages, but many drawings of the former obey exacting technical and structural laws, while those by Minard deserve to be admired like works of art. The Sumerian who in an exact diagram depicted a sanctuary with walls reinforced by buttresses and narrow entrances protected by towers gives an exemplary lesson on the wisdom of merging artistic appeal and technical precision.