/ Paul Sutton / Creative Workspace

Making good architecture requires not only the culture that shapes our imagination but also the processes that lead to its delivery. The latter comprises the technique without which architecture is not possible. Anchoring technique are processes and disciplines we adhere to, such as those enshrined in health and safety legislation namely: good management manifested through a broadened sense of responsibility, competency and awareness; the safe delivery of the practicalities of buildability, usability and maintainability, and finally the application of common sense to what we do through a sense of proportionality, communication and documentation of the process. 

We may have formalised these techniques into our building processes but they were always there in the making of important architectural settings. There is a lovely story which shows all these qualities in Geoffrey Scott's ‘Architecture of Humanism’ quoting Ranke's History of the Popes. It describes the relocation of the great obelisk to the front of St Peters which architect Domenico Fontana undertook for Sixtus.V.

It was a work of utmost difficulty-to raise it from its base near the sacristy of the old church of St Peter, to remove it entire, and to fix it on a new site. The workmen, nine hundred in number, began by hearing Mass, confessing and receiving the Communion. They then entered the space which had been marked out for the scene of the labours by a fence or railing. The master placed himself on an elevated seat. The obelisk was covered with matting and boards, bound round it with strong iron hoops; thirty-five windlasses were set in motion the monstrous machine which was to raise it with strong ropes; each windlass was worked by two horses and ten men. At length a trumpet gave the signal. The very first turn took excellent effect; the obelisk was heaved from the base on which it rested for fifteen hundred years ; at the twelfth, it was raised two palms and a quarter and remained steady; the master saw the huge mass, weighing with its casings above a million Roman pounds, in his power.

'Seven days afterwards the obelisk was let down in the same skilful manner, upon rollers , on which it was then conveyed to its new destination. It was not till after termination of the hot months that they ventured to proceed to its re-erection.'

What permeates Ranke’s description was this sense of the practical deliverability of the project. What stands out is the care for men and horses. The skill and precautionary way in which they marked out the site, the repeated observations of avoiding working in the sun and the extreme care they took of the historic obelisk in all aspects. The quote continues describing the resetting on the stone with the Pope observing.

... as before, the workmen began by recommending themselves to God; they fell in their knees as soon as they entered the enclosure. Fontana had not omitted to profit by the suggestions contained in a description by Ammianus Marcellinus of the last raining of an obelisk, and had likewise provided the power of one hundred and forty horses. It was esteemed a peculiar good fortune that the sky was covered that day. Everything went well: the obelisk was moved by three great efforts and an hour before sunset it sank upon its pedestal on the backs of four bronze lions which appear to support it. The exultation of the people was indescribable and the satisfaction of the Pope complete. He remarked in his diary that he had succeeded in the most difficult enterprise which the mind of man could imagine.

And how do we know all this? It was well documented and not just simply then. Fontana took advantage of the Roman recording of its first relocation, whilst the Pope documented the project for our subsequent benefit and for those who have watched the lifting of the Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy, the parallels of patience, skill and care are quite remarkable.