06 March 2013

Precedents in Architecture

Roger Clark and Michael Pause began collaborating on developing a systematic method for analyzing architecture in the 1980s. I was first introduced to the book in one of my design studios that involved first doing a detailed analysis of a building along the lines suggested by Clark & Pause, but in addition we were documenting a classic work of architecture and creating cut-away axonometrics the revealed the layers within the building. Each student had a different building to analyze and none of them were shown in the First Edition of Clark & Pause. In this way, we could get some kind of idea what this "analysis" was supposed to be about, but the intention was that we were to seek out our own individual understanding of these buildings.

The pages from Clark & Pause I've included below represent two buildings from over one hundred included in the book. For each building, there are facing pages with a simplified documentation of the building (site plan, floor plans, elevations and sections) at a small scale. The idea is to indicate the overall formal concepts, not to deal with details, connections and materials.

The first example is Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House from 1945-1951. This building is an absolute classic of mid-century modern architecture and is located near Plano, Illinois (south of Chicago). I would highly recommend that you make the pilgrimage to visit this building which is simultaneously perfect and flawed. Mies created an idealized composition that is beautiful, sublime and affecting. He treated the project as the creation of a perfect work of art and sought to remove any and all unnecessary details.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth House. Documentation.
In the documentation drawings above, I have added the light blue tone to indicate where the physical enclosure of the building is located. Without this color, I believe the drawings can be confusing unless you're already familiar with the building and its configuration.

Below is the formal analysis of the house which appears on the facing page. The categories they use in analyzing each building represented are: structure, natural light, massing, plan to section or elevation, circulation to use-space, unit to whole, repetitive to unique, symmetry and balance, geometry, additive & subtractive and hierarchy.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth House. Analysis.
For the sake of providing visualizations of the Farnsworth House that offer some visceral and emotive qualities, I'm providing the following images which are virtual reality renderings of a high level of sophistication. They were created by Peter Guthrie who has posted them on Flickr with a Creative Commons copyright so they can be shared. You can find the full set of thirteen renderings of the structure here.

These virtual photographic representations offer a very meaningful mode of analysis and formal presentation, but one that is highly subjective and individual.

One of the dangers of only relying on a simplified objective analysis is that the diagrams can be overly simplistic and lacking in nuance. Clark and Pause have updated their work several times, with the most recent version published by Wiley in 2012 (Fourth edition). Their decision has been to come down on the side of objectivity, clarity and consistency. This makes their work a very useful reference, however it has the potential danger of seducing you into thinking that "now you know all you need to know" which could not be further from the truth.

A personal interpretation of a work of architecture is based on beliefs, ideas and feelings that cannot be entirely rationally explained. Clark & Pause leave the reader with the impression that this is a scientific and perfectly rational process. For them, that may well be the case, but I think their rigid categories reveal important information is some cases and in others, nothing at all of interest.

My personal take would be that any given building that is a masterpiece will have a multitude of possible readings. Perhaps an infinite number of interpretations (at least theoretically). I would argue that the most important categories and analytical tools should emerge from your immersion in the building's design, form and experience. In other words, I would argue that some structures might be most meaningfully analyzed by means of cut-away axonometric views, while others might require focused analysis of their facade.

Below is a second example from the book: Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building located in downtown St. Louis. This is one of the most important buildings in American architectural history for a variety of reasons: aesthetic, technical, formal, symbolic, representational, etc. You should make a point of visiting this building regularly whenever you're in the area of the Gateway Mall / CityGarden.

I've added the light orange tone on the documentary drawings to highlight the building itself. One of the things missing here is any real sense of the context which I think lessens the value of this analysis since it focuses on the building as if it were a free-standing structure isolated and apart from its urban context. There may well be good reasons for this decision, but I think it is unfortunate.

Louis Sullivan, Wainwright Building. Documentation.
In the analytical diagrams which appear on the facing page, I've restrained myself from applying color. I believe these kinds of diagrams can benefit from color, texture and other means of differentiating form beyond simply lines and half-tone.

If you spend some time looking at the building, the diagrams and attempting to develop your own understanding, reviewing these diagrams can be terribly instructive. I believe this is true particularly if your are actively drawing and analyzing the building yourself rather than simply passively viewing the results of their analysis.

Louis Sullivan, Wainwright Building. Analysis.
The two photographs I'm providing of the Wainwright Building present something that is just as invisible and unattainable in reality as the above virtual reality renderings. These two historic photographs present the building as it existed in 1933 when it was the subject of a HABS documentation. HABS is the Historic American Building Survey. The second image is even more inaccessible to us: a photograph of the Wainwright under construction. One of the key facts that this photograph demonstrates is that the actual structure of the building appears as steel columns that occur inside every other vertical pilaster represented on the facade. This detail is one of the keys to understanding Sullivan's genius in working in this new situation of high-rise buildings accessed by elevator.

Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building. HABS photograph, 1933.

Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building. Construction photograph, c. 1891.

Below is a key to the line weights and symbols used in Clark & Pause's book.

Precedents in Architecture. Key.

Finally, here are the front and back covers. Keep in mind that Clark & Pause offer just a beginning for considering the analysis of architectural form. In a follow-up post, I'll offer a range of alternative approaches that should help to widen your outlook on what is possible for your particular building.

Clark & Pause: Precedents in Architecture, Third Edition. Cover.
Clark & Pause: Precedents in Architecture, Third Edition. Back cover.