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A
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Drawing details – technical and poetic
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Drawing details – technical and poetic

Posted 11.09.2019
By Christian Schittich

Nobody will doubt the importance of the construction detail for a successful building.

After all, such details are not only about fulfilling technical requirements, but also about achieving a considered aesthetic consistency.  The work of the world’s most renowned architects is often made up of details that decisively shape the character and appearance of their buildings.  Details that can even be the defining factor in completing an initially strong design so that it becomes truly outstanding.

Like other components of a design, details are developed by architects mainly through drawing. They are also communicated through drawing to other members of the design team or those involved in the construction of the building.

Drawing is thus the elementary form of expression of the architect. It starts with the sketch, which is still an important tool for exploring and fine-tuning ideas and making these clear.

The importance of this process, starting often with pen and sketch paper, can be seen with some of the great architects, like Renzo Piano, who personally develops many key details of his buildings by hand. He does this on large scale, using felt pens and sketch paper and in a highly expressive way.

One could say that detail drawings reveal the innermost of a building and are thus akin to anatomical drawings showing what is hidden beneath the surface. What is particularly interesting about architectural details is that they are not just about design quality but also a high degree of technical expertise.

For major projects, however, hardly any detail is created today as the work of an individual or is built exclusively according to the plans of the architect. Modern construction and building processes are too complex for this. The more heterogeneous and differentiated the construction methods become, the larger the circle of those who are involved; in addition to the designers, there are usually different specialist engineers, and also, importantly, manufacturers and contractors. Particularly in the case of complex façade construction, it is these specialists who will produce the final drawings used for execution.

The execution plans intended for site which today are almost exclusively computer rendered, are   by in large subject to strong specifications and standards that limit the designer’s own potential for creative expression. In addition, these types of drawings are charged with multi-faceted information loads ranging from dimensions data to all kinds of data about materials and surfaces. As a result, the plans can appear heavily overloaded with information. This led Ansgar and Benedikt Schulz to put together a beautifully presented book called “Perfect Scale” that impressively demonstrates how contemporary plans for execution can become readable and how despite the abundance of information one can extract aesthetic qualities from them

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Ansgar and Benedikt Schulz. Perfect Scale. Munich: Edition DETAIL, 2015

Observing the line widths and distances used for certain scales in the printed version of such plans is one way towards a more artful approach to managing the data-laden drawings. The other is organising individual components in a strategic manner that does away with anything superfluous.

This does not only apply to content, but also unnecessary graphic elements. And so, even plans with technically complex information can become small works of art.

As a counterpoint to this, it is interesting to see how the explanatory detailed drawings of many Japanese architects show remarkable artistic qualities. Among some of them, a special form of representation has developed that deliberately dispenses with the exciting contrast between light and dark surfaces, and instead  covers the entire sheet with thin lines, usually of the same width, and over the entire surface. This is a highly poetic way of drawing that matches their designs. The fact that the details of small Japanese buildings in are often less complex is of course a key factor in facilitating this approach to representation.

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Kumiko Inui, House M, from The Japan Architect 106 / Summer 2017

Nevertheless, the examples mentioned here cannot hide the fact that the passion of many young architects for details is diminishing. This starts with teaching at universities, where design is usually given more attention than construction, and continues in practice when the architect increasingly loses influence in the execution process. Under these circumstances, it is especially welcome news that The Architecture Drawing Prize has extended its entry categories to include that of Working Details.

 

This post forms part of our series on The Architecture Drawing Prize: an open drawing competition curated by Make, WAF and Sir John Soane’s Museum to highlight the importance of drawing in architecture. Entries for 2019 close 27 September. Sponsored by William Hare Group.