Michelangelo’s Lesson: Specialization in Architecture is Not The Only Way

A recent exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum in New York, Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer, provided a thrilling glimpse into the mind and methods of a true polymath. The exhibit has just closed, so I offer this selection of images. Photography was encouraged, and the intimacy of the presentation allowed insights and realizations.

I’ve been studying or practicing architecture for 45 years, and the exhibit clarified how architects can think about what they do. It probably meant similar things to everyone feeling its resonant beauty, but I saw the complexities of a creative life in mid-application.


Curator Carmen C. Bombach makes Michelangelo Buonarroti’s sprawling, complex and interweaving intellect transparent and bracing. There is a mockup of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. A huge 16th century architectural model used in the design of a chapel. A study for a fresco is fully exposed. And of course there are paintings, sculptures and architectural drawings arrayed in a gentle flow I could see before the hordes arrived. If I were a historian, I could expound on the intricacies and lyric joy found in “Disegno,” the Renaissance theory that all beauty was found in nature and the foundation of all art.

But it is more than that.




The effortless confluence of words, drawings, music, humans, buildings, carbon lines and sepia ink revealed a reality that we’re losing in the avalanche of technology. As our knowledge is collected, filtered and coordinated in huge new databases, the human impulse is to master the technology, so that it becomes your slave: no CAD monkeys, just turn the Artificial Intelligence into your monkey, the largest and latest puppet to be mastered. That may yet happen.


But the effective reality is that every profession is splintering into specialization. There are now hundreds of types of doctors. Scores of lawyer specializations. Where architects were once, like veterinarians, just “Large Animal” and “Small Animal,” building has now spawned any number of architect-trained consultants that focus on roofs, curtain walls, lighting, sustainability, energy conservation, insulation, security, development, information management, HVAC systems, graphics, universal design, interiors, as well as any and all pecularizations of building function: cities, prisons, libraries, transportation, commercial, judicial, academic, multi-residential, hospitals, assisted living, retail, religious, and on and on and on.

The balkanization of architecture into constellations of independent operators of exclusive expertise wrecks the simplicity of conception, natural elegance of thought, and effortless coincidence of architecture, words, music, bodies and things that danced through the rooms of the Met.



One-hundred-thirty-three small drawings were set to bright light, many with both sides exposed as the precious 16th paper was used twice, front and back. The metaphor is obvious: why not use both sides? Why not be simultaneous and not sequential? Why not think of all things, not some things, when we design buildings?

Why copy when you can invent? Using the only architectural language available to him, Michelangelo created sparkling new out of old.

Why exclude history, the ways of reflecting the memories and uses that are woven into those who use the buildings?

Why speak in tongues, using language that makes clarity impossible?



Why relegate materials to  categories—all white, wood or stone, as space, solid and void—without recognizing movement, time, water, gravity?

Why design for the screen: the perfect image frozen in two-dimensions when the experience of movement is how we humans use all buildings?

Why not both/and, using Both Sides Of The Paper?

One drawing shows the sepia ink of a portico’s design on one side, and on the obverse the muscled study sketch for a sculpture. The sepia ink bleeds through to the backside of the paper and then carbon is applied over that: instant synergy. Body and Building: overlapping, combining, being a singularity in the mind of their creator, not the distinct, separate, distilled denial of each other.

Other drawings actually show the frozen evolution of architecture from detail to line to shape and back again, as the length, form, trim and detail evolve on one sheet of paper: simply because there was no trace to layer over layer over layer, removing the past in the layer under the current one. I think he saw the value of the last drawing as he sketched over it – the drawing as a living, growing thing.

Architects naturally think this way: all things at once, a stew of thought, but many want to offer up a finished product of pristine distillation.

Why present a polemic when we can have a conversation?



We can limit our language to the coolly distilled, but sometimes less is, well, just less. Sometimes more does not dilute or obscure, it enriches, not everything, all the time: but far more than what we’re often taught. And now, the profession is shifting to where the default setting is simply “less.” But that could preempt what you see here. Instead, the machines can be used by humans, who strive to overlap, recombine and weave anything they want them to.

Michelangelo created music, prose, poetry, muscles, eyes, fingers with walls, roofs, trim with color and light and material and shape. All in small drawings. All at once. Just the way we think.

Look at these drawings, listen for the 400 year old explosion of creativity.



Technology has always changed us. We have surfed the media and the media has changed the way we think: from wood, to animal skin, to tracing paper, to pixels and electrons. How we create is always changing, but now we can rediscover what makes our minds think spontaneously, or we can choreograph what we agree is prudent

We can remember the value of creating, or we can be safe in our defendable use of the tools we should control. Control or be controlled, it is up to us.



Photos by the author. 


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