Cyanotype (Architectural)

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Boiler seam blueprint.jpg

The role of the blueprint is startlingly simplistic: to copy, reproduce, or duplicate an image that already exists. Given the finite and elementary function of the cyanotype in architecture, it becomes interesting to consider how a medium with such a banal purpose impacts design. Architectural cyanotypes can be seen as a kind of bottleneck in the fabrication of the structural environment.

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Derived from the Greek word meaning deep blue impression, the cyanotype process was discovered in 1842 by Sir John Herschel, only three years after Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot had proclaimed the invention of photography. Also called the blue-print process or the Prussian-blue process, Herschel’s discovery was often looked down upon and underutilized. It wasn't until 1872, one year after Herschel's death, that the commercial possibilities of the apparatus were exploited. The process became popular with photographers, as it presented them with an inexpensive and relatively easy way to proof their negative. Still, the cyanotype really found its niche in the office when it became the standard method for copying plans in drawing companies.Marion and Company of Paris began marketing “Marion’s Ferro-prussiate Paper.”(Marion) Marion and Co. was also based in London’s Soho Square, and their brand of cyanotype paper had evidently made it across the Atlantic: as early as 1875 there is evidence of MIT mechanical engineering students learning the cyanotype process. (Ware) The Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 included the first commercial blueprint machine, manufactured by a Swiss company. (Ware)


Sir John Frederick William Herschel (1792-1871)

Sir John Frederick William Herschel wore many hats as a mathematician, astronomer, chemist and experimental photographer. He discovered in 1819, that thiosulfates had the ability to dissolve silver salts and suggested to Daguerre and Talbot that the solution be used as a photographic solution, thus changing the future of photography. He is also credited with coining the photographic terms, "negative" and "positive". His very detailed paper on the his cyanotypic invention was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in September of 1842. The paper was entitled, "On the Action of the Rays of the Solar Spectrum on Vegetable Colours and on Some New Photographic Processes."


The actual process is similar to developing a photograph, the final result is a “print.” Cyanotype paper is coated with a light-sensitive solution of potassium ferricyanide. The final sheet is usually first drawn in pencil, then traced in ink on tracing paper or “tracing cloth.” Then the tracing is laid on top of chemically coated blueprint paper, usually in a frame-like device, and exposed to sufficient light to turn the blueprint paper blue in areas without any ink lines on the tracing paper. Then the paper must be washed in cold water and hung up to dry. This is the final document handed over to the general contractor, responsible for actually fabricating the design.


Since the invention of the cyanotype, it has been used for many purposes other than for the creation of architectural blueprints. The process was most commonly used by botanists for plant illustration. Anna Atkins, who is, arguably, the most well-known and prolific artist in this medium, published a huge collection of her prints in a series of three volumes called British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.


The application of the cyanotype in architecture can be seen as influencing current design workflows. In the current version of Autodesk’s AutoCAD (the industry standard) there are two workspaces, the model view, and the layout view. One can draw (virtually) in actual scale in the model view, and then create a page layout with boxes acting as “windows” into the model view. This is important because tender documents must always be drawn to scale (i.e. 1”=1’, ¾”=1’), therefore the model view/layout view dichotomy allows for flexibility in the final layout and scale of detail drawings that was impossible with the cyanotype process. Yet the vestiges of the cyanotype medium can be seen today in the conventions of construction document sheet layout necessary for preparing a cyanotype.

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The cyanotype process was prevalent until the mid 1950’s in England, and early 1970’s in America, when it was largely replaced by diazo-type printing machines, which in turn was replaced by “advanced technology” (Bellis) invented by Xerox. The process used a lot of paper and, according to some, the prints had a tendency to fade when exposed to light. Computer aided design (CAD), and specifically the release of AutoCAD by Autodesk in 1982 extinguished the cyanotype process in the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industries. The purported next generation of computer design methods and construction documents is Building Information Modeling (BIM), first released as REVIT in 1997, currently in use in larger corporate design firms and firms with a focus on parametric design.

More modern CAD workstation.


“In 1918, a 30-foot roll of cyanotype paper a yard wide could be purchased for as little as 1s 6d” (Ware)

“The plans for a battleship…consumed 11,000 square feet of the material” (Ware)


Bellis, Herbert and Schmidt, Walter. Blueprint Reading for the Construction Trades. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company; 1978). p4.

Berg, Edward. Mechanical Drawing. (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company; 1958)

Earle, James H. Drafting Technology. (Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley Publishing Company; 1986)

Marion and Co., Practical Guide to Photography, (London: Marion and Co., 1887), p215-217

Ware, Mike. Cyanotype: The history, Science and Art of Photographic Printing in Prussian Blue. London: Science Museum; 1999. p32.

Zakia D, Richard; Stroebel, Leslie D. The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography 3rd Ed. Boston: Focal Press; 1993.