Architectural drawings were once signature pieces that told us a lot about those who did them. Now the RIBA has a great scheme to save them from extinction
This is a good time of year for chucking stuff out. I look at a bulging file and think, "my client has died, the builder has gone bust, the property has been sold … Do I really need to hang on to all this paper?" The answer of course is NO and has been for the past five years, yet somehow it's still staring up at me. Holding on to stuff is counterproductive. A former client rang up asking if I had a copy of a planning consent drawing we'd done in 1989. He makes his own arrangement for Building Control submissions so it is not as though I am suddenly going to have some fee-generating work to do. I should have said we chuck everything away after 10 years, but of course I didn't, and spent about four hours looking for the thing, when I could just as easily have sent him off to the town hall. There must be an eternally optimistic boy scout in every architect. Usually when I open an old file I'm reminded of how a client has not paid for some work, or has taken some other liberty that is now spoiling my day – and would have been better forgotten about.

  Sometimes when I do this sort of trawl I find drawings that I'm happy to remember. After the initial "My God, that must have cost me a fortune", I recall assistants who really knew how to draw. Sometimes they drew beautifully when they didn't need to, but occasionally I have had an assistant whose every item of graphic work was a delight. Not just sexy perspective stuff, but truly authoritative working drawings. Lutyens used to pore over his assistants' work at night and would leave little notes for them for the next day. One, who'd spent weeks drawing a septic tank layout had added a border line around his finished A1 sheet. He found an arrow pointing to the line and a note saying: "What is the builder supposed to do with this?" He was rather hurt and went to see the great man who pointed out rather sharply: "This is not a pretty picture designed to seduce some fatuous client, it is a letter to the builder telling him what it is you want him to do." The point being that drawings have the quality of an autograph. Or used to.

Since computers came along, all drawings have begun to look the same. The drawing is as good as the CAD operator. The quality of the presentation camouflages the content. At least when you used to get a drawing prepared by someone with little experience, you looked at it more circumspectly. You used to be able to tell surveyors' drawings because they always stencilled "up" and "dn" on the stairs with a Helvetica template so you never knew which way up it was. Now drawings have too much information, and you don't automatically know who executed it. Architecture has become even more of a process and less of an art form, and in about 10 years hand drawings will probably disappear altogether.

Usually when I open an old file I’m reminded how some client has not paid for some work I’d done

The RIBA has arguably the world's most amazing collection of architectural drawings, and these are shortly to be exhibited at the Victoria & Albert. In an effort to raise some of the matching funding required for this £10m venture, and as part of its Architecture for All programme, the RIBA has set up an "adopt a drawing" scheme to encourage people and organisations to support the collection. For example, you can adopt a Soane drawing of the Bank of England and have your name attached to it for evermore. Adoptees can use the image, by agreement, on Christmas cards, writing paper and so on, and get a life-size facsimile to hang on their wall. Perhaps this would be a good time for London Transport, for example, to get on board by stumping up £5000 for Charles Holden's drawings of its headquarters at St James's Park, or for British Airways to adopt the original sketches of the London Eye.