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.”

“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.”

“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.”

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