101 Things I Learned in Architecture School

101 Things I Learned in Architecture School

by Matthew Frederick

Matthew Frederick presents 101 concepts in his “primer of architectural literacy.” Here is a sampling of his insights.

“Our experience of an architectural space is strongly influenced by how we arrive in it. A tall, bright space will feel taller and brighter if counterpointed by a low-ceilinged, softly lit space. A monumental or sacred space will feel more significant when placed at the end of a sequence of lesser spaces. A room with south-facing windows will be more strongly experienced after one passes through a series or north-facing spaces.”

“The more specific a design idea is, the greater its appeal is likely to be… Design a flight of stairs for the day a nervous bride descends them. Shape a window to frame a view of a specific tree on a perfect day in autumn. Make a balcony for the worst dictator in the world to dress down his subjects. Create a seating area for a group of surly teenagers to complain about their parents and teachers. Designing in idea-specific ways will not limit the ways in which people use and understand your buildings; it will give them license to bring their own interpretations and idiosyncrasies to them.”

Engineers tend to be concerned with physical things in and of themselves. Architects are more directly concerned with the human interface with physical things.”

“An architect is a generalist, not a specialist—the conductor of a symphony, not a virtuoso who plays every instrument perfectly. As a practitioner, an architect coordinates a team of professionals that include structural and mechanical engineers, interior designers, building-code consultants, landscape architects, specifications writers, contractors, and specialists from other disciplines. Typically, the interests of some team members will compete with the interests of others. An architect must know enough about each discipline to negotiate and synthesize competing demands while honoring the needs of the client and the integrity of the entire project.”

“A parti is the central idea or concept of a building.”

“As the design process advances, complications inevitably arise—structural problems, fluctuating client requests, difficulties in resolving fire egress, pieces of the program forgotten and rediscovered, new understandings of old information, and much more. Your parti—once a wondrous prodigy—will suddenly face failure… When complications in the design process ruin your scheme, change—or if necessary, abandon—your parti. But don’t abandon having a parti, and don’t dig in tenaciously in defense of a scheme that no longer works. Create another parti that holistically incorporates all that you now know about the building.”

“Frame a view, don’t merely exhibit it. Although a ‘wall of windows’ might seem the best treatment for a dramatic view, richer experiences are often found in views that are discreetly selected, framed, screened, or even denied. As a designer, work to carefully shape, size, and place windows such that they are specific to the views and experiences they address.”

“Beauty is due more to harmonious relationships among the elements of a composition than to the elements themselves… It’s the dialogue of the pieces, not the pieces themselves, that creates aesthetic success.”

In addition to aesthetic considerations, good architectural design considers traffic flow through the space.

“Square buildings, building wings, and rooms can be difficult to organize. Because a square is inherently nondynamic, it doesn’t naturally suggest movement. This can make it difficult to establish appropriate circulation pathways in a square floor plan. Further, interior rooms in square buildings can be far removed from natural light and air. Nonsquare shapes—rectangles, crescents, wedges, ells, and so on—more naturally accommodate patterns of movement, congregation, and habitation.”

“The best placement of a circulation path through a small room is usually straight through, a few feet from one wall. This allows the primary users of the room to be uninterrupted by through-traffic. The worst circulation through a small room is usually a path running diagonally through it or parallel to its long axis. Comfortable furniture arrangements are difficult to achieve under such circumstances, as persons dwelling in the space will tend to feel—if not in fact be—in the way of those passing through.”

“We move through negative spaces and dwell in positive spaces… A three-dimensional space is considered a positive space if it has a defined shape and a sense of boundary or threshold between in and out. Positive spaces can be defined in an infinite number of ways by points, lines, planes, solid volumes, trees, building edges, columns, walls, sloped earth, and innumerable other elements.”

“Suburban buildings are freestanding objects in space. Urban buildings are often shapers of space. When we create buildings today, we frequently focus our efforts on their shapes, with the shape of outdoor space a rather accidental leftover. These outdoor spaces, such as those typically found in suburbs, are negative spaces because the buildings aren’t arranged to lend the shape to the spaces in between. Urban buildings, however, are often designed under the opposite assumptions: building shapes can be secondary to the shape of public space, to the extent that some urban buildings are almost literally ‘deformed’ so that the plazas, courtyards, and squares that abut them may be given positive shape.”

“An appreciation for asymmetrical balance is considered by many to demonstrate a capacity for higher-order thinking. Whether a static or dynamic composition, an artist usually seeks to achieve balance. Balance is inherent in a symmetrical composition, but asymmetrical compositions can be either balanced or unbalanced. Consequently, asymmetry tends to require a more complex and sophisticated understanding of wholeness.”

“If you rotate or skew a floor plan, column grid, or other aspect of a building, make it mean something. Placing columns, spaces, walls, or other architectural elements off-geometry because you have seen it done in fashionable architecture is a poor design justification. Doing so to create a gathering place, direct a circulation path, focus an entry, open a vista, acknowledge a monument, accommodate a street geometry, address the sun, or point the way to Mecca are better reasons.”

The book provides a good survey of the subject for aspiring architects, HGTV fans, and others interested in architecture. The title not only refers to the number of items presented, but is also a word play (intentional or not) on the introductory course number Architecture 101.

Frederick, Matthew. 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2007. Buy from Amazon.com

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