Kathleen Franz, guest curator of a new exhibit at the National Building Museum, described him during a recent tour as an “innovator of perspective” who “foster[s] imagination,” an artist whose drawings are works of “historical fiction” and “visual narratives of built environments.”
“He can show the industrial history of New England in four illustrations,” Franz said, pointing to panels beside her as evidence. She, on the other hand, insisted it would take her hundreds of pages to write the same story.
Who could Franz, a cultural historian and American University professor, be speaking of with such high praises?
The answer is the celebrated children’s book author and illustrator David Macaulay, whose aptly titled exhibit “David Macaulay: The Art of Drawing Architecture” opens Saturday. Best known for his meticulous and masterful perspective renderings of buildings — from their inner structures to how they look from 50 feet above — the show illuminates the fascinating process behind Macaulay’s work.
Macaulay’s 23 books are popular with curious children at the stage where they are eager to take apart and reconstruct everything in sight, as well as with adults who wonder with envy how someone can draw so precisely with pen and ink. The stories Macaulay writes alongside his illustrations are whimsical vehicles for explaining the processes by which cathedrals, skyscrapers and pyramids were built; the people he places in and around the structures contextualize the spaces in which castles and mosques existed centuries ago and still stand today.
It is easy to become absorbed in Macaulay’s world of levers and gears, the ribs and belts that form the famous Capitol Dome, and the sweeping towers of Rome. But how does he execute these images?
The exhibit is set up to take viewers step-by-step through the artistic process. This turns the exhibit into an interactive experience for visitors meandering through the gallery. A number of Macaulay’s sketchbooks are on display; in one case, the curators arranged to have a particular sketchbook reproduced so viewers actually can flip through the pages. And, because Macaulay wishes the readers to imagine themselves within the world of each drawing, large reproductions are pasted to the floor, suspended from the ceiling and printed onto transparent glass panels.
The distinction between preliminary sketches and finished illustrations also are done in such a way as to indicate the ongoing process — while the latter works can be found in finished frames, the former are found in wood boxes, mounted onto cardboard with magnets resembling thumbtacks.
The most compelling examples of Macaulay’s arduous course from an abstract concept to a polished illustrated manuscript are seen in the first section of the show, which focuses exclusively on the production of Macaulay’s most recent book, “Mosque.”
“‘Mosque’ is his response to [Sept. 11, 2001],” Franz explained. “He wanted to build respect for Islamic culture through architecture.”
For this particular project, as with his other projects, Macaulay began by conducting extensive research, which Franz said involved a great deal of reading and conversations with experts in the field. This was followed by a trip to a mosque in Istanbul, which he documented through sketches and with a hand-held video camera. Select footage of this excursion is on display at the exhibit, complete with Macaulay’s narration as he settles the lens on children kicking a soccer ball in the grass and the mosque’s majestic arches and domes.
Back in his studio in Rhode Island, where he teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design, Macaulay constructed a three-dimensional, small-scale paper model of the Istanbul mosque, which he then photographed from a variety of perspectives; these photographs became the subjects for further drawings that ultimately made it into the finished book.
“Mosque” is the only portion of the exhibit that provides step-by-step instructions to writing and illustrating a book David Macaulay-style, but that is not to say that the remaining drawings on display do not also give unique insights into the process behind his work. The show, as a whole, seeks to educate and engage viewers of all ages, echoing the way Macaulay himself challenges his audience to consider the value of learning through observation-based exploration and artistic creativity.
In fact, throughout the gallery are work stations where visitors can sit down in front of large blank sketchbooks and try their hand at, say, one-point perspective, and on the walls are thought-provoking questions people can ponder on their own or use as jumping-off points for discussing art with their children. There’s also the family-oriented kickoff event on Saturday called “The Big Draw,” at which Macaulay will be present to lead drawing demonstrations and facilitate a community mural.
“I think [Macaulay] is definitely a proponent of the connection between drawing and seeing and how important a tool it is,” said Chrysanthe Broikos, the coordinating curator of the exhibit alongside Franz and a full-time staff member at the museum. “There’s this whole idea of visual literacy … drawing can help you understand things just like reading can. He encourages you to activate another part of your brain.”
“David Macaulay: The Art of Drawing Architecture” will be on display Saturday through Jan. 21, 2008, at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. Admission is free. For hours or more information, visit www.nbm.org/Exhibits/current/macaulay/ index.htm.