The Power of Perspective

This story traces how perspective in architectural drawing has been used across 500 years.

By Royal Institute of British Architects

This narrative is based on a RIBA commission with Sam Jacob Studio, displayed at the RIBA Architecture Gallery in 2018.

Hans Vredeman de Vries, Perspective, part I: plate 28 (1604) by Artist: Hans Vredeman de VriesRoyal Institute of British Architects

Linear Perspective

Perspective is a drawing technique that manipulates and distorts our visual senses to create an illusion of space. Since the Renaissance, linear perspective has been used as a constant in architectural writing and illustration, employed to evoke illusory architectural spaces.

Examples of perspective delineation (1800) by Artist: James MaltonRoyal Institute of British Architects

Although linear perspective is a complex and rigid mathematical construct, it provides the most accessible and popular representation of a design in three dimensions.

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence (1860) by Photographer: Fratelli Alinari and Architects: Arnolfo di Cambio (c. 1240-c.1302), Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446)Royal Institute of British Architects

Perspective was evidenced and formalised in Italy around 1415, but of course existed long before this time. Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), best known for designing the dome of the Duomo in Florence, discovered the principles of linear perspective through a simple experiment.

The Experiment

He proved the accuracy of linear perspective by positioning a measured perspective painting of the Florentine Baptistery in front of the baptistery. With a hole drilled through the back of the painting, a mirror placed in front,  the viewer could look through the hole, see the painting reflected by the mirror and observe how the measured perspective merged seamlessly with the reflection of the real world.

Page of text from Alberti's 'De re aedifactoria' (1485)Royal Institute of British Architects

But it was the humanist and artist Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72), who first described the principle of perspective in his book De pictura (1435). However, Alberti wrote in Latin so only the most distinguished scholars and noble men were able to understand the principle. 

Portrait of Sebastiano Serlio (1830) by Artist: Vincenzo Raggio and Architect: Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554)Royal Institute of British Architects

Ten years later, in 1445, Italian architect Sebastiano Serlio (1475–1554) published the first book dedicated to linear perspective with the apt title On Perspective. 

Perspective diagram depicting houses and an archway (1551)Royal Institute of British Architects

Serlio’s educational use of woodcuts alongside vernacular text differentiated his accessible approach from Alberti. It made his book the leading exemplar for two centuries and theories of ‘one-point perspective’ widely available across western Europe. 

Section of an entablature drawn with perspective lines to an infinity point (1700) by Artist: UnknownRoyal Institute of British Architects

The Vanishing Point

This drawing introduces the vanishing point – the great invention of one-point perspective. The vanishing point is the dot we are looking towards. It is very powerful and organises the space of the drawing. According to the rules of perspective, the lines close to you disappear into the distance as they travel toward the vanishing point. 

Disappear Here', RIBA Architecture Gallery, exhibition designed by Sam Jacob Studio (2018) by Photographer: Andy Matthews and Designers: Sam Jacob StudioRoyal Institute of British Architects

Disappear Here

In 2018, RIBA commissioned Sam Jacob Studio to redesign the Architecture Gallery into a space of representation in which original drawings and Renaissance treatises on perspective were arranged within and alongside deceptive murals and cunning architectural structures. The exhibition was titled Disappear Here – a homage to the vanishing point.

A technique for projecting a polyhedron from Book II, a treatise on perspective, 1551, From the collection of: Royal Institute of British Architects
Disappear Here', RIBA Architecture Gallery, exhibition designed by Sam Jacob Studio, Photographer: Andy Matthews, Designers: Sam Jacob Studio, 2018, From the collection of: Royal Institute of British Architects
Design for an eight-sided fortress for an ideal city: half-plan and section, Architect: Vincenzo Scamozzi (1548-1616), 1651, From the collection of: Royal Institute of British Architects
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The displayed collection items demonstrated the many guises in which perspective has been applied by architects: from sketches and working drawings to topographical records; from technically exquisite exemplars to flawed realisations. And here in the middle: furniture shaped from amalgamating 1960s Superstudio’s conceptual, gridded showroom pieces, a polyhedron by Serlio (left) and a 17th-century fortification (right).     

Disappear Here', RIBA Architecture Gallery, (2018) by Photographer: Andy Matthews and Designers: Sam Jacob StudioRoyal Institute of British Architects

Set against a deceptive trompe l’oeil mural, perspective drawings – traversing style, politics, and pictorial qualities – were hung according to the logic of vanishing points and perspective lines. 

A highlight of these are represented here.

Design for a metropolitan cathedral (1782) by Architect: Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728-1799)Royal Institute of British Architects

Interior Perspectives

French Enlightenment architect and master of perspective drawing Étienne-Louis Boullée dreamed up idealised public architecture. This design demonstrates his belief that beauty of form lies in the quiet and ordered principles of classicism. 

Yet the drawing’s strict axial view, the striking use of light, shadow and scale attempt to overwhelm the viewer. Boullée’s ostentatious use of linear perspective suggest sublime immensity and grandeur within the confines of the page.

Design for a conservatory for a property in Cadogan Square, London (1979) by Architect: Max Clendinning (1924-2020)Royal Institute of British Architects

Contrasting with Boullée’s vast public spaces, this intimate drawing by Max Clendinning presents an enigmatic view of a private London residence: a reclining woman, holding a fan, contemplating a Japanese-style garden. 

Clendinning often declared his boredom with straight lines and right angles, favouring abstract and organic forms by artists such as Picasso and Arp. This preference is evident in the drawing’s disobedience to strict linear perspective rules.

Unexecuted design for the Memorial to the Missing, St Quentin, Nord, France (1923) by Architect: Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869-1944)Royal Institute of British Architects

The Perspectival Sketch

Edwin Lutyens designed in perspective. With a background in fine art, he conceived of buildings ‘in the round’ without topographical context, much like a sculptor. This perspective illustrates the uniqueness of Lutyens’ casual drawing style. 

His favoured ‘worm’s eye’ rendering is used here to capture the complex system of interlocking geometrical compositions while emphasising the memorial’s grand monumentality.

Design for a house with a castellated wing: perspective view (1610) by Architect: John Smythson (1535-1614)Royal Institute of British Architects

A strange likeness exists between this perspective by John Smythson and that by Lutyens: both portray solitary buildings on a blank page, to varying degrees of accuracy. However, Smythson’s perspective lines rarely align, which creates a sense of flatness and irregularity of composition. 

The lack of shading leaves an impression of buildings and features oddly divorced from one another, such as the projecting porch and castellated wing. 

Design for a stage set and proscenium arch for a performance of the opera 'La Clemenza di Tito' (1755) by Architect: Giovanni Carlo Galli Bibiena (d. 1760)Royal Institute of British Architects

Two-Point Perspective

For four generations, the Bibiena family monopolised and revolutionised European stage set design. Serlio’s book, On Perspective, had popularised one-point perspective in theatre design since the Renaissance, but by introducing multiple vanishing points at a shallower angle, the Bibienas’ could create far more imaginative illusions of distance and space. Here it is Giovanni Carlo Galli Bibiena creating a design for Lisbon Opera House.

Design for a stage set depicting a Baroque arcaded hall (1700) by Architect: Giuseppe Galli Bibiena (1695-1757)Royal Institute of British Architects

Giovanni Marie, Ferdinando, Francesco, Alessandro, Guiseppe, Antonio, Giovanni Carlo and Carlo are the first names of the eight Bibiena family members, who created baroque set designs across Europe from 1680 to 1780. Their drawing style was so constant that their whole work looks as if it might have been done by one man at one time. This drawing by Guiseppe Galli Bibiena demonstrates their flair for creating the illusion of vast spaces on a very small piece of paper, smaller than an A4.

Design for a ceiling with columns and coffered arches (1700) by Artist: UnknownRoyal Institute of British Architects

The construct of Perspective

The Bibiena family were trained at the Bolognese school of painting along some of the most renowned baroque painters to influence architects and architecture. This unfinished trompe-l'œil student drawing is an exercise in the technique of perspective. 

Traces of the perspective ruler indicate the central vanishing point and fragmented gradations of light and shade delineate the depth of the object, exposing the drawing as an illusory concept.

Unexecuted design for the 'accepted' scheme for a Trianon pavilion at Thames Ditton, Hampton Court Palace, Richmond upon Thames, London (1699) by Architect: William Talman (1650-1719)Royal Institute of British Architects

Topographical Perspective

This bird's-eye view by William Talman is highly radical for its time. Formerly, this method of elevated perspective had almost exclusively been employed by topographical artists for making ‘estate portraits’, rather than as impressions of an architect’s proposed design. 

Despite its crude and somewhat naïve execution, the landscaped garden sets out clear lines to the vanishing point in the far distance beyond the scope of this paper.

Design for Wilton House, Wilton: perspective view of the house and grounds (1719) by Artist: Colen Campbell and Architects: Isaac De Caus (active 1623–55), Inigo Jones (1573-1652), John Webb (1611-1672)Royal Institute of British Architects

Unlike Talman’s aerial view, this typographical perspective by Colin Campbell is unrelated to the design process. Despite its refinement of detail and impressiveness of scale, it struggles to perform as a realistic three-dimensional representation. 

The left side of the topographical drawing seems to lack depth with no clear horizon.

Design for a cornice: perspective (1560) by Architect: Andrea Palladio (1508-1580)Royal Institute of British Architects

To round off the journey through perspectives, here is a drawing by the architect, who never designed in perspective: Andrea Palladio. The stonemason turned architect disliked the use of artist’s impressions so much that very few in his own hand. Yet, this is a drawing of a cornice from his student days demonstrates the power of perspective: how a few lines on a paper can create a sensation of depth and imitation of the world around us.

Credits: Story

Explore more from RIBA Collections here 
All images are from the RIBA Collections unless listed.    

Images: Installation shots of Disappear Here, The Architecture Gallery, 66 Portland Place, commission by Sam Jacob Studio. Rights: Andy Matthews

Curation and Interpretation by RIBA Public Programmes

Lead image in the form of a special edition collage and exhibition interior is designed by Sam Jacob Studio. Disappear Here - On Perspectives and other kinds of space was shown at the RIBA Architecture Gallery from 2 May to 24 November 2018. 

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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