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Why Architects Visit Rome in the 21st Century

The city of Rome continues to inspire architects and designers. Image © Mark Andrew Kelly

Last year, Gensler’s Mark Andrew Kelly spent several months in Rome as a Giles Worsley Rome Fellow in Architecture. The fellowship, which was awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects and the British Academy, is given to one architectural historian or an architect in practice per year. Recipients deliver an architectural exhibition in Rome and an architecture lecture in London. Kelly used the time to reflect on his chosen profession and gave a lecture at Germany's national academy Bibliotheca Hertizana on the topic, “Why architects visit Rome in the 21st century.”

We recently sat down with Kelly to discuss his fellowship, the research he conducted in Rome and why contemporary architects should spend time in old world cities.

What is the focus of your research in Rome?

My Roman research is into concrete construction in Roman barrel vaults, cross-vaults and modern lightweight dome construction. I am interested in ancient construction means, form-work and ingredients in pozzolana-based concrete domes. The Romans were the first to build with concrete, which could set underwater to form bridges, and this allowed the empire to expand. Pozzolana-concrete was the key to the Roman Empire’s expansion: without strong bridges and aqueducts the empire would be much smaller on wooden bridges which could not support large Roman armies and equipment. The study has taken me to see many domes, arches and vaulted spaces across Rome, the Bay of Naples, Veneto and Umbria.

Image © Mark Andrew Kelly

Can you explain your working methods?
  • On site sketches, as close to the original building as possible with a sketchbook, a pencil and a clipboard.
  • Measurements onsite from original structures, recorded in orthographic drawings with a tape measure.
  • Hand-sketching feeds into studio-based hand and digital drafting.
  • I am making a comparison between 2,000 years of model making techniques: Casting in lost wax bronze (before 1st century AD) versus 3D printing (21st century). The models will be placed next to each other: one with ancient lost-wax casting and the other with CAD 3D prints.
  • During hand-drawing, there is time to make observations about how people use public spaces: this helps to make public spaces function effectively for people.
How does your research feed into your general architectural practice?

The research focus is directly transferable to practice through:

  1. Construction methods to pour concrete into ancient form-work. This is transferable into contemporary practice in construction administration, where architects have an interest in how concrete shuttering is made and constructed. An improved understanding of concrete construction methods directly improves the building quality onsite.
  2. Hand-drawing has been very useful in Rome, to make onsite observations and record information. In practice, I use hand-drawings alongside BIM/CAD to work through ideas and explain space design effectively and efficiently.
  3. Model making with casting with form-work, molds and negative spaces is a transferable skill in concept design, where a three-dimensional understanding of positive and negative spaces is key. In construction documents, the same understanding of concrete form-work helps a contemporary architect to communicate how to build the form-work onsite with means and methods considered in the design process.
  4. Measurements of buildings made onsite (a dome shuttering patterns on the soffit), from a different era of construction helps a modern architect to understand conservation projects with a subtle sensibility for renovation, restoration and refurbishment construction practice.

Image © Mark Andrew Kelly

Can you explain your working methods? Why should a contemporary architect spend time in Rome?

Architectural experiences cannot be read in a book or taught. One has to visit a place, breathe the air, touch the surfaces, look at unexpected places and missed corners to form an opinion. If you read architectural criticism, the experience of holding open a door for the first time or peering through a window cannot be understood fully until you are standing there. Size, scale, construction techniques and design execution are difficult to comprehend without sitting quietly in a space and sketching. Hand drawing is a great way to examine and look closely at details which can be missed in a photo or somebody else's photography. I draw spaces when I visit buildings. Yet, only some of these drawings are for presentation purposes; the reason I make them is not for someone else's recognition or benefit, it is because I enjoy seeing and looking at overlooked areas. It was quite a surprise to learn in Rome that I became a subject, through drawing for visitors with selfie sticks, who would record me and photograph me drawing by hand. I started to take time-lapse videos of how people use public spaces during the time when I am drawing. This is when realised people were photographing me when I was drawing, in the recorded time-lapse.

In 54 days in Rome, I have made 197 hand-drawings from real-life and scaled up 14 of these drawings into large, measured orthographic drawings from the sketches in my sketchbook. After three months I have several overflowing sketchbooks and larger framed drawings which were displayed in a public exhibition in Rome. Sometimes buildings are much better than in real life or occasionally much worse than the publications say. It is highly important for contemporary architects to visit buildings and make up your own opinions before receiving interpreted news second hand from an architectural critic. There is a place for architectural criticism, but to experience buildings in Rome first hand is priceless. If contemporary architects do not learn from what has gone before, failures and successes, then contemporary architects can waste years repeating a mistake or re-discovering a spatial strategy or a parti diagram that has already been tested in the built environment. If the contemporary architect were to see the outcome first, the final result could be refined and improved. Visiting buildings forms a visual dictionary in your mind, which I personally will be drawing from in the next 30 years in practice.

Image © Mark Andrew Kelly

Can you explain your working methods?

Learn more about Mark’s fellowship experience by visiting his personal blog, and read notes from his presentation at the Bibliotheca Hertizana here. The December exhibition was also published in the UC Berkeley alumni newsletter, the BSR Academy Instagram feed, the online news journal 360 gradi, the BSR events calendar and on Wherevent Roman public events calendar. (Later this year there will also be a printed publication available for purchase.)

Mark Kelly
Mark Kelly is a Registered Architect with the Architects' Registration Board in Great Britain and a Chartered Architect with both RIAS and RIBA. Mark is also an internationally registered Architect with NCARB in the United States and the Netherlands. Mark started in the Architecture industry in 2002 in a small residential Architectural practice. He has 9 years of experience in the UK, India and California, USA. Mark is also a LEED Accredited professional in Building Design and Construction with USGBC. Contact him at mark_kelly@gensler.com.

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