An exhibition about Summerhall, at Summerhall: Edinburgh’s popular and busy arts centre continues to mount engaging and thoughtful displays, and this one might be termed an ‘introspective’, in that it is a record of itself, the recorder being Glasgow-based artist Will Knight. Born in 1988, Knight studied at Glasgow’s School of Art, turning his hand and eye to investigating and recording domestic, commercial and civic buildings, by drawing by hand.
While the ink drawings, many with watercolour, reflect a forensic approach in almost atomic detail, Knight nonetheless seeks to convey ‘the lived-in experience’, as he puts it – the tacit implication of 100 years of human activity given away by furniture, finishes and other ephemera, shown in plan, section or elevation (the building was formerly the University’s veterinary school). In other words, revealing the life and character of the environment in its details, which is arguably what a building does.
Having exhibited widely, and taught architectural drawing, Knight was awarded the RSA’s Summerhall Award in 2018 and engaged to spend nearly a year at Summerhall getting to know the building and its residents, and drawing the interiors.
The exhibition divides into two: the meticulous survey-drawings, complete with annotation and measurements, are displayed on the walls of the venue’s busy Café, while the War Memorial Library has been specially modified to present the results of his artistic survey, in spreads from his workbooks behind the glass of its cabinets, and on its walls in enhanced, worked-up drawings with watercolouring. These are where the qualities cited by Knight, of the building’s true character as context and facilitator of all kinds of human creative richness, is most strongly communicated, in fine black lines of ink that he has drawn to 1:20 scale, on lightweight draughtsman’s paper – although skeletal, his markmaking is highly precise and positive, not at all sketchy.
Achieving the desired effect though depends on the viewer to invest time in contemplating what the details mean in practical terms. For instance, the functional-looking large blueish doors depicted are, one imagines, for conveying horses, yes, into the Dissection Room – there’s a lot there to take in, literally. And the Demonstration Room watercolours – the bilious green of the walls hovering over the terraced decks of seating, suggest that whatever was demonstrated there probably wasn’t very nice – hoists, pipes and cold brickwork add a spartan, functional ‘honesty’.
Other pieces are more convivial – the Royal Dick bar, part of the body of Summerhall buildings, is depicted in warmer colours, and in a companion piece showing Barney’s Brewery there’s an attractive shine in the metal vats (coincidentally the site was originally a brewery, pre vet-school). But here, again we can see the mechanism of pipework, lighting and cabling, depicted in cool orthogonal elevation, reminiscent of the tortuous lines of (20th-century English illustrator) William Heath-Robinson.
Knight has asserted that his background in architecture has instilled in him ‘the importance of people and place, and the impact environments have on our understanding of community and creativity’, and while these are essentially architectural drawings, the story they tell is of a human history – particularly the arc of transformation in nature from veterinary school to vibrant cultural centre. He understands that architecture is as much about spaces, and what people do with them, as the form of the building; and while function defines form, by presenting the form to us, he’s inviting us to consider the function, going back a century.
With all things so precisely and dispassionately depicted, it’s in carefully considering the minuscule details in front of you, that you realise what’s happening – the building and objects within are doing the talking, and the desired effect of telling a human story through objects, is being achieved, through being recorded and related with precise fidelity.
Image: Will Knight – Spiral Staircase, Dissection Room, Section Drawing