Design History

This second-year module applies a critical methodological lens to architecture of the past, asking:How have architects approached the task of design, how do we read their thought processes back from the finished work and how do we evaluate them?

The projects directly inform work undertaken in Design Tectonics and students’ Design Synthesis projects. For Design History, students produce a case study of a single building in London, rich in documentation and meaning, and appropriate to their own critical interests. They interrogate the influence of history, culture and theory on the spatial, social and technological qualities of that architecture.

Presented here is a selection of this year’s Design History students.



Design History

Alexandra Totoianu
An Institution of Memory: Deconstructing the impermanence of Denys Lasdun’s Royal College of Physicians

Through dissecting the ruin-like features of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), the essay speculates on what the life of the RCP as an institution could be, within a wider narrative of what the afterlife of a building is.

Within the context of architecture being a dynamic element, rather than a static one, the question is how this microcosm of rituals, protocols and habits of an Institution of Memory can be accommodated in the future or in its after life. Is the idea of a memory to be translated in a given time and space or can we extrapolate that memory in a distant future?

The paper explores the essence of the most important spaces of the College and speculates on whether in a future of climate anxieties and impermanence, this Institution of memories, rituals and protocols could become a ruin.


Design History

Aarandeep Sian
Dismantling the Coloniser’s Gaze

Dismantling the coloniser’s gaze aims to depict and decipher the way in which British colonial values, identity and perspectives are embedded into the built environment through collage, sketches and iconographic research. By analysis into the Old Indian Institute in Oxford, a building designed with colonial officials in mind as well as expressing the apparent ‘unified relationship’ between India and Britain, the visual essay expresses the way in which the British architect Basil Champneys, and client (founder of the institute) Monier Monier-Williams, influenced the design of the building, and particularly how the client’s role as a colonist expresses the colonial culture of late 19th-century Britain.

The ‘coloniser’ is framed as the client and architect, two entities which undoubtedly and naturally shaped the design of the institute. This essay intentionally aims to dismantle, to question and unpick the layered symbolism which exists in the building to form the basis of a decolonial dialogue. I have intentionally used collage to ‘rip into’ a western monument, and to give a new meaning to the Old Indian Institute as standing legacy of colonialism, telling a more truthful depiction of its history by delving deeper into alternative media, voices and imagery, through my own South Asian lens.



Design History

Sam Pywell
Civic Space: Codify or Contextualise

True civic space is no longer designed or constructed with the scale or ambition as was typical in the early 20th century civic centre movement. Its legacy has been watered down by the fading power of local government and the civic pride that once came with it. However, the pride of place that successful civic centres generated, along with the liberal intentions of transparent and representative local government, still live on.

This study analysed how the architects of Norwich City Hall, and the wider civic centre, sought to create efficient and representative civic space through balancing rigorously codified planning with appropriately contextualised designs. Although a study of historic methods, the lessons learnt aimed to provide guidance on how to successfully design contemporary civic buildings to restore local civic pride.

Through studying the architects’ sources of inspiration and analysing their drawings, a clear interest in how visual planning can integrate landmarks within townscapes was identified. When applied to the topographical context of Norwich these methods became a sophisticated means of expanding the city hall’s symbolic influence, as an attempt to indicate civic representation to citizens. The study concluded that successful civic space integrates designs within the townscape, whilst providing efficiently planned spaces to serve the city.


Design History

Emma Williams
A Matter of Time

This essay set out to learn from the theatre-inspired design process used by Haworth Tompkins at Battersea Arts Centre (BAC). It questions traditional architectural approaches and whether nostalgic architecture has a place in the creation of a resilient contemporary world.

The renovation was significantly influenced by BAC’s own theatre style, which is defined by ‘Scratch’. Scratch relies on feedback, improvisation, and time. Architect Steve Tompkins and BAC Artistic Director David Jubb coined the phrase Playgrounding, which applies the principles of scratch to architecture and uses real projects to test ideas temporarily before implementing permanent change.

The team admired E.W. Mountford’s building and wanted to allow it to evolve with the organisation over time, rather than having a ‘finished’ design. This idea of the building never being complete allowed for freedom of exploration and partially gave over design responsibility to those who used it. BAC was created through a level playing field of designers and those using the space, consequently creating a culturally equal and open venue.

The lengthy process of testing ideas was heavily reliant on the use of drawings, especially sketches and the confidence of the architect in their ability to produce these. The process brought the idea of art back to architecture and has left a building that is still not completed, but instead ready to change and evolve as it is needed in the future. The project suggests that a new type of ‘learning’ architecture could prove a successful way to work with both existing and new buildings.


Design History

Harriet Stride
The Nature of Ornament

A study of the terracotta mouldings at London’s Natural History Museum, exploring architect Alfred Waterhouse’s biases, intentions and strategy in order to reflect on the relevance of ornament in both a Victorian and contemporary context.

Completed in 1881, the museum is enriched both inside and out with three-dimensional sculpture, high-relief tableaus, floral and geometric mouldings and polychromatic blockwork, all moulded from terracotta. The life-like animals are an exhibit in themselves, with extinct species adorning the east wing and living to the west. Ornament was a symbolic investment and long-term commitment to the study and public display of natural history.

Research included analysis of Waterhouse’s original drawings and watercolour paintings, unpicking records of the project’s procurement and my own experimentation with moulding terracotta. I found the ornamental programme to be strategically indistinguishable from the architecture. A cheap, non-corrosive and malleable material, terracotta moulding simultaneously provided rich texture and fire-resistance, symbolism and a durable structural envelope.

The Ruskinian style was also intertwined with ideals of the time regarding ‘good taste’ and civilised society; the idea of architectural ornament as a public platform for raising up a particular style is powerful, highlighting the dangers of bigotry and cultural erasure, but also an opportunity to use ornament to preserve and celebrate meaningful imagery and pattern in context.


Design History

Peter Salman
The ‘Courtyard’ Motif

Does Alvar Aalto successfully blur scales from ‘piazza’ inspiration to ‘courtyard’ implementation in order to promote social instinct within the Säynätsalo Town Hall?

Amongst the catalogue of information surrounding the Säynätsalo Town Hall in Finland, the ‘courtyard’ often takes centre stage within the glittering architectural praise. However, the majority of studies on the civic centre quote inspiration from larger-scale, Italian precedents. In light of Alvar Aalto’s inspiration, in particular the Piazza del Campo, located in his much-adored town of Siena, Aalto found himself questioned by the Säynätsalo municipality in regard to the scalability and necessity of some of his design decisions. The elements in question varied from the choice of decorative paintings adorning the council chamber, through to large scale components of the scheme, as per the 17m-high council chamber and the central ‘courtyard’.

In acknowledgment of the consistent thread of research into Italian precedents, the thesis looks to compare the Säynätsalo Town Hall ‘courtyard’ with the Piazza del Campo and its historical influences against a series of design aspects that had become polished by Aalto toward his later career. These include the grander, volumetric planning elements, through to the more intimate relating to the technical and textural. With these in mind, there is an investigation into whether these elements have facilitated Aalto in transferring a social instinct from ‘piazza’ inspiration to the building scale of the ‘courtyard’ within the Säynätsalo Town Hall.


Design History

George Wallis
Breaking the pattern ‘In wet clay’: Philip Webb, Worship Street Terrace

The research questioned; how might alternative approaches to the authorship of construction, displayed by Webb, improve the literacy of the architect to navigate the challenges in the coordination of modern construction methods? The essay responds through an analysis of Webb’s relationship to his builders as evidenced in his drawings for a terrace of houses and shops on Worship Street built in 1862.

Webb’s drawings generally take the shape of simple and architecturally codified orthographic drawings in black ink with coloured washes to denote materials. Yet in their abstraction and brevity, the drawings rely on the assumed knowledge of builders, suggesting Webb’s degree of trust in vernacular knowledge. Furthermore, the abstraction breaks down into perspectival sketches in the margins, encouraging the builder to interpret and project the three-dimensional image. Significantly, a note on a drawing for a finial instructs the stonemason to prototype the carving ‘In wet clay’. This note suggests that Webb was willing to extend a portion of the authorship into collaboration with a skilled maker.

In summary, both brevity and three-dimensional drawing were essential for communicating construction effectively. Webb was able to break away from the pattern of architectural style while creating space to defer to vernacular knowledge where appropriate while using three-dimensional description to encourage collaboration through its inherent subjectivity.

In both instances, there is a slippage from a fixed professional and litigious approach towards an iterative process. We may be able to better navigate constructional knowledge and evolve modern methods of construction in response to contemporary challenges by following Webb’s example, who extended authorship to encourage collaboration and chased ‘reality’ in his varied approach to drawing by inhabiting the space between projection and production.


Design History

Shalini Tahalooa
The Natural History Museum by Alfred Waterhouse: Exoticism through tectonics

Completed in 1881, the Natural History Museum by Alfred Waterhouse has become a staple feature of London’s top attractions. Branded as a ‘cathedral to nature’, the museum captured the natural theologian Richard Owen’s vision of creating a space that is able to display and celebrate species from the colonies of the British Empire and beyond, essentially becoming a celebration of colonisation.

Waterhouse was able to further contribute to Owen’s ambitions for the museum through his ornamental design of living and extinct species carved throughout the building. This obsession and fetishisation over what appears to be ‘exotic’ is a running theme with the museum, seen with both the original intention of the museum and how the architecture places further emphasis for this to be a core element in its design.

The legacy of these imperialistic tropes remains till present day, albeit perhaps the grandeur of the building itself masks its darker side of history. The essay aims to critically examine the ways in which the tectonics of the museum contributes towards upholding colonialist views of the ‘exotic’, specifically considering the imagery and influences seen throughout the museum.