Architect John Simpson on Sir John Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery

Editor’s Note: The ICAA is pleased to commence a new blog series, “My Favorite Building,” highlighting examples of classical and traditional architecture, art, and design that inspire leaders in the field. The inaugural post in the series was written by John Simpson, Principal at John Simpson Architects and upcoming speaker at the ICAA’s 16th Annual McKim Lecture on March 1st.


Joseph Michael Gandy, Preliminary Design by Sir John Soane for
Dulwich College Picture Gallery: The West Front

One building that has always greatly fascinated me is Sir John Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery.  Built in 1812, it contains an unusual combination of picture gallery, almshouses, and a mausoleum for its benefactors Sir Peter Francis Bourgeois and his friend Noel Desenfans (who left their valuable collection of 360 paintings to Dulwich College). In his will, Bourgeois requested that ‘some little nook of the chapel be set apart’ for the body of his friend Noel Desenfans and that of Mrs. Desenfans. In addition, he specified that his friend Sir John Soane should be the architect.

Mausoleum Exterior

Dulwich Picture Gallery, Mausoleum Exterior

Judging by the number of drawings, sketches, and perspectives that survive in his Museum at Lincoln’s Inn, Soane clearly approached this commission with a great deal of enthusiasm — enough to overcome significant difficulties with the College Governors who rejected eight of his schemes before they settled upon a design. The project was also nearly abandoned due to a lack of funds, which put enormous pressure on Soane to provide value for money.  The Dulwich Picture Gallery, which Soane described as being designed  “in a plain and substantial manner,” was built largely of brick; this was a very courageous choice of material at a time when it was considered  that a public building, as this was, should be built of more lavish materials such as stone.

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Gallery Interior (Image: Flickr)

These issues seem to have honed Soane’s skills all the more to produce a building, which as it turned out, is one of his great masterpieces and a building well ahead of its time.  The Dulwich Picture Gallery was the first art gallery in Britain to be built as a public building and its long lofty top lit spaces with their octagonal skylights remain, even today, the model that continues to provide inspiration for the design of most gallery buildings worldwide.

Most significant of all, however, is the skillful way Soane manages to reconcile the conflicting uses inherent within his brief into a composition that works so well combining the formal and architectural with the practical and functional so that each element complements the other in a juxtaposition of the elements adding to the richness and picturesque quality of the overall design. Remarkably, despite the tight budget, the building appears to contain and reference so much that is unique and architectural.


Dulwich Picture Gallery, Mausoleum Exterior (Image: Wikimedia)

Unfortunately the almshouses have long since gone, having been converted into more gallery space, but the clever way in which Soane combines the gallery and the mausoleum is still there for all to enjoy.  Instead of the mausoleum being a sombre affair at one end of the building, he turns it into an enticing architectural feature around which the composition of the exterior architecture and the internal organization of the building revolves. It is visible as you enter the building defined as a rotunda (or tholos) by eight Greek Doric columns and naturally lit from above by a large lantern using one of Soane’s favorite architectural devices – amber glass – so as to be a space brightly lit and one in which the sun always shines.

Mausoleum Interior

Mausoleum Interior


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A Fresh Look at the Tuscan Order

Drawing the Tuscan order After Gibbs with Martin Brandwein


Martin Brandwein drawing an example

Eighteenth Century Architect James Gibbs’ book, Rules for Drawing the Several Parts of Architecture, guide today’s interpretations of Tuscan columns. In February 7th’s Drawing the Tuscan Order After Gibbs, taught by Martin Brandwein with assistance from Alexander Morley, students studied and reproduced elements of the Tuscan Order. The opening lecture explored Gibbs’ guiding inspirations, his sensibilities were drawn from Palladio, but his technique from Carlo Fontana under whom he studied.

Though Gibbs was an eminent architect during his time, his legacy was solidified by the enduring popularity of his publications. Brandwein pointed out that one facet that has made Gibbs’ treatises accessible and attractive to following generations was its liberation of the reader from having to deal with fractions. The title page of the treatise declares, “In a more exact and easy manner than has been heretofore practiced, by which all fractions, in dividing the principal members and their parts, are avoided.”

Students taking notes during the presentation

Students taking notes during the presentation

The Tuscan Order is considered the most masculine order for its simplicity and its broadness when compared with the other classical orders. The class proceeded with a step-by-step explanation of how to draw the base, capital, and entablature of the Tuscan Order. Brandwein identified and described the individual components of the column and their functions while demonstrating how to draw the Tuscan Order, providing a comprehensive view of the Order itself and, through his lecture, James Gibbs’ relationship to the Order’s history.

Students working on a drawing exercise

Students working on a drawing exercise

To learn more about the ICAA’s upcoming classes, please visit

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The Elements of Classical Architecture: The Corinthian Order

Mason Roberts leads the opening lecture

Mason Roberts leads the opening lecture

On Saturday, January 28, architects and non-architects alike had the opportunity to try their own hand at drawing elements of the Corinthian Order. Instructor Mason Roberts began the course by sharing slides and explained the history of the five classical orders. He explained how each evokes a different character and detailed how the columns tend to align with the spirit of the building they support.

Mason discussed the specific identity and origin of the Corinthian Order, which included an origin myth by Vitruvius. Central to its design and historical narrative are the acanthus leaves on its capital. There are instances in which standard elements of the Corinthian Order are modified for the sake of reflecting a building’s character or function: one prominent example is the Capitol in DC which features Corinthian columns that incorporate tobacco leaves and corn cobs, two important American crops, instead of the acanthus.

Michael Mesko assists the class by drawing an example

Michael Mesko assists students with an example

After the opening lecture students the drawing exercise, which  consisted of three separate drawings. First was the layout of the Order which included the base, column, and capital. Next was a detailed drawing of the base. Finally, students were asked to tackle the intricate capital and its famous acanthus leaves. Both Mason and Michael Mesko, who was assisting, helped students at their desks as the tutorial progressed and the exercises became increasingly challenging. The class was accessible to all skill levels and students with little to no experience had no difficulty keeping up. It was a great success and everyone left more knowledgeable about one of the Orders of the classical canon.

A student’s final drawing

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Winter Intensive 2017

January 7 – 14, 2017

The Winter Intensive group standing outside the ICAA’s building to admire nearby architecture

Among the ICAA’s most impactful and enduring education models is its Intensive Program in Classical Architecture – an 8 day course of study that introduces participants to the ICAA’s core curriculum through coursework in the classical orders, composition, proportion, drafting, observational drawing, and the literature of classical architecture.


Students at a Private Club in New York

On January 7th, the ICAA began its Winter Intensive 2017 session featuring a group of bright students, incredible instructors, and peculiar New York winter weather. On the first day, students were welcomed by a light dusting of snow and a lively brunch social. The day began with the program’s introduction lecture on Architectural Literacy which was presented by Calder Loth. Calder also led the subsequent walking tour to the University Club of New York and lectured for the remainder of the day.


The class completes a drawing exercise in the ICAA’s building

The subsequent days were packed with lectures and classes led by instructors that catered to a range of learning styles. The instructors took advantage of the rich classical details in and around the ICAA’s headquarters: students enjoyed creating measured drawings in the hallways of the landmark building The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York. The material covered throughout the course of the Intensive ranged from Observational Drawing: Light and Shade, to lectures on the Elements of Classical Architecture.


Students hard at work during one of the week’s many drawing courses

The students were both focused on their work and eager to become better acquainted with one another during breaks and lunch hour. The diverse group hailed from all across the U.S., from Denver, to Miami, to Atlanta, each coming from different vocational backgrounds as students and established professionals, practicing interior design and other disciplines in addition to architecture.

A few students find a good spot to work on an exercise

A few students find a good spot to work on an exercise

Near the end of the week, the students were tasked with a final project –to create plans for a new pavilion in Park Slope’s Grand Army Plaza. By the final day, each work was hung on the wall to be presented to a distinguished panel of architects and designers.

The panel attending a final presentation

After the panel completed their review, the group went upstairs to enjoy a goodbye brunch with them at the Coffee House, a private social club. Students had the chance to continue their conversations with the panel and toast to the success of the 2017 Winter Intensive. The ICAA truly enjoyed hosting such a spectacular Winter Intensive session and would like to thank the inspirational students and dedicated instructors that make the Winter Intensive a rewarding and enduring program. The ICAA also extends its sincere thanks to LaPolla Designs & Inspired Flooring for their support of student scholarships to the Winter Intensive, and to our classroom sponsors, Uberto Construction and Rusk Restorations Inc.

The Winter Intensive 2017 group

The Winter Intensive 2017 group



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Jon Brogie Selected as ICAA Alma Schapiro Prize Winner

The ICAA is pleased to announce Jon Brogie as the winner of the 2017 Alma Schapiro Award. Jon received his Bachelor’s degree in Painting from Arizona State University in 2011. Inspired by the rigorous training of the growing atelier movement, grounded in traditional drawing and painting techniques, he moved to New York City to study under Jacob Collins at the Grand Central Atelier. After graduating in 2016 with a focus in painting, he is now a resident artist at the Grand Central Atelier in Long Island City.

Portrait of Pat, Jon Brogie

Portrait of Pat, Jon Brogie

The Alma Schapiro Prize will give Jon the opportunity to “study the techniques of the great figurative artists of the classical tradition, as well as the lexicon of visual language which they used to translate an idea or narrative into a composition.” According to Jon, “This vocabulary encompasses technique, symbolic representation, composition conventions, and many other considerations.”

The Alma Schapiro Prize is a biannual affiliated fellowship at the American Academy in Rome for distinguished American students or professionals with demonstrable commitment to the classical tradition and its contemporary practice in painting and sculpture.  Its purpose is to advance the career of the artist recipient and to foster the continuity of knowledge of the classical tradition as a vital aspect of contemporary culture around the globe.

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Selling the Dwelling

When you consider the process of designing and building a house today most likely you don’t imagine flipping through a catalogue and selecting a ready-made model. It’s amusing to imagine that people once shopped for architectural plans as we do today for gift baskets and linens. Richard Cheek explained the mail-order home phenomenon in addition to many other stages of domestic literature. Cheek’s lecture covered material from his book, Selling the Dwelling: The Books that Built America’s Houses, 1775-2000, chronicling the evolution of the domestic architectural design book.

Cheek is a collector of architectural and domestic books in addition to being a historian on the topic. Many of the books mentioned in his lecture were on display for students to peruse and get a firsthand feel for how the books have changed over time. In their early stages, architectural books were designed for builders and craftsman. The books included sections, elevations, and plans as well as technical drawings of features. Such books allowed people to pick and choose individual elements for their homes, which a local builder could then create without the aid of an architect.

Richard Cheek speaking

Richard Cheek speaking

Cheek spoke to the incredible influence the builder-oriented reference books had on the course of American architecture as they enabled the development of many self-made architects. American architecture books also reflected the patriotic desire for a national style of building to emerge that differentiated American homes from European homes. The selling point of many American books highlighted the American-ness of its contents and the fact that the designs were adapted specifically for American soil.

The lecture covered the observation of trends in these books such as Greek orders, English Gothic, and Tudor. The most important shift in the publishing of architecture books was the perception of who the audience was for such volumes. In the 1840s, the books began to cater to clients rather than builders, and they started to resemble guides. These guides include color images of the home from various angles with the intent to encourage the client to imagine him or herself living in such a picturesque home. The technical drawings were eventually dropped and the guides began to look more similar to the coffee table books we are accustomed to today.

Various architectural books

Architectural books

To further glamorize the domestic architectural books additional frills were added, such as fine bindings, tinted lithographs, oversize dimensions, and monthly issued guides. These vanity books were designed with an upper/middle class audience in mind. Cheek pointed out that the architectural books did nothing to address the urban housing crisis, and very few guides included small homes for the average family on a laborer’s budget.

Shelter magazines emerged from the evolution of the domestic architectural book (some of which are still around today House Beautiful, for example) as did mail-order catalogues. The homes advertised in these catalogues were part of such an efficient process that every supply and material needed to build the house was already pre-cut, sitting in a warehouse, waiting to be called upon.


The ready-made home catalogs were a topic of great interest in the lively discussion that followed Cheek’s lecture. Many of the students were architects and, thus, had informed opinions about the problems inherent in Levittown-esque developments that use unvaried architectural plans and, by and large, do not require architects. The discussion raised an interesting question: if people are content living and buying cookie-cutter homes, how is the architect supposed to react? How should we deal with the contention between what the client wants and the architect’s creative integrity?

Through the lens of domestic architectural design books, Cheek offered an interesting perspective on the history of American architecture. The students were able to trace a path that saw technical elements of design married with the commercial interests.

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