Exploring the architecture of Somerset House

Somerset House, constructed between 1776 and 1801, has provided the setting and backdrop to many of our young people’s events, and the Insights day on Saturday 9th March provided an opportunity to piece together the building’s fascinating architectural, political and cultural histories.

In a seminar room, with original 18th-century decoration still in place, students participated in a discussion about the evolution of classical architecture. While students noted how certain features (pediments, columns, symmetry etc.) connect classical examples across the centuries, most agreed that each generation of architects has been able to adapt the language of classicism to varying contexts and needs. Art historian Francesca Herrick presented projects from recent decades that have engaged with classical proportions and forms, including designs by Zaha Hadid and Eric Parry.

We visited the Courtauld’s Conway Library and discovered rarely seen photographs that offer an excellent opportunity to trace the history of the Somerset House site. We could better appreciate the challenges that William Chambers, architect of Somerset House, faced, including demolishing a crumbling Tudor palace and working with a site that slopes down 12m from the Strand to the River Thames.

Following lunch, we warmed up for an active afternoon of walking and drawing with some ‘architecture yoga’, inspired by the shapes, structures and forces that are key to architectural construction. This light-hearted activity helped us to focus on the functional qualities of architecture that make it distinct from fine art disciplines.

Our tour began underneath the Strand entrance arches. The North Wing of Somerset House, currently leased by the Courtauld, was originally designed to house the Royal Academy of Arts. Students pointed out elements likely to have been inspired by Chambers’ time in Rome and by the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which sparked a craze for a ‘new’ classicism in the second half of the 1700s. Contemporary artist Alexandra Blum showed us an engaging approach to drawing architectural forms that encourages close inspection of features and their relationships to each other.

Our next stop was the beautiful Nelson Staircase in the South Wing of Somerset House; the grandest spaces here were designed for use by the Naval Board. Students made sketches to better appreciate the innovative cantilevered forms of the staircase and the ways in which Chambers created movement within his design.

What followed was undoubtedly a highlight for the students as we were granted special access to the lightwells (open air corridors that run around the courtyard at basement level). These atmospheric spaces have been compared to the fantastical prison scenes of Giovanni Piranesi, who was a neighbour of Chambers in Rome. They provided rich inspiration for further sketches, with students honing in on selected shapes and forms, rather than attempting a full perspectival sketch.

There was just time at the end of the afternoon to visit the stunning Miles Staircase by contemporary architect Eva Jiřičná and to go out onto the terrace of Somerset House for one last drawing activity. Alex asked students to select two features (one of them moving!) from the river scene in front of us and to sketch them in relation to each other using charcoal. The artistic results were some of the most confident and expressive of the day.

We returned to our seminar room for a final discussion and display of work. It was an impressive output that encompassed a great variety of personal styles. Alex encouraged students to reflect on their experiments and to return to the techniques that they found both challenging and enjoyable.

Special thanks to Alex for sharing her practice and for giving us the confidence to break away from more traditional approaches to drawing architecture.