Here’s Why Architectural Details Are Vital
Have you ever heard a piece of music and thought, Wow! This is amazing!” There is plenty of great compositions out there, so I’m sure this has happened to you at least once in your life, and when it does, it is usually impossible to understand why it sounds amazing, it just does. This phenomenon is similar to architecture in the way that when you see a beautiful structure, you might think again, “Wow, that building feels really good to look at, I don’t know why, it just does.” We like to think that when an architect achieves this, it is because the materials, space, proportion and light all come together perfectly and are sealed with precise and sensible detail.
Details Live in “The Small”
I like to think that strong architectural solutions are built upon three foundational points — let’s call these the Big, the Medium, and the Small. The Big encompass the whole of the object, the entire building or architectural solution. The Medium is made up of the constituent parts of the whole, the rooms, spaces, walls, planes, and voids that make the Big. And the Small is where the parts of the medium come together, touch and interconnect to become the Big.
Each foundation point relies on the other two for purpose and meaning, and only when they are all brought together can one see how valuable each is. I’ve found that a thoughtful architectural solution will have those three in balance, supporting each other, while also yielding one to the other where appropriate.
Details live in the Small, and they are the forces that bind together an architectural solution, giving separate things a way to communicate with each other. This is most often evident where different materials, textures, or colors come together – steel to glass, wood to stone, floors to walls, etc.
Between the two there ought to be thoughtful connection, one of harmony, or strategic dissonance, such that the value of each is made greater by the adjacency of the other. That’s where good details come from, and why they’re important.
Evidence of the Designer
Once you understand their role as the binding elements between larger parts it becomes easier to appreciate the details around you. Look for where two or more materials, textures, or colors come together and you’re likely to find evidence of the designer – either in a thoughtfully detailed resolution, or (as is too often the case) in a jumbled mess that seems to lack purpose. The details are the signature of the designer, and an easy way to see if they understand the principles of strong architectural solutions — the Big, the Medium and the Small. Unfortunately, many do not.
What many fail to realize is that details don’t need to be complicated to be effective. In fact, it’s more commonly observed the other way around. The most elegant details are the ones that appear effortless, natural, and resolved. We see those kind of details in nature all around us. Our own skeletal structure is a great place to see that. Simply look at where two bones meet – such as the bones of the fingers, and you’ll see some of the simplest, yet most effective detailing. The two bones widen slightly at the ends, to create a place for the other to connect. They acknowledge each other, but remain independent. They accept each other, but remain individual, they become a larger structure by their joining, but maintain an identity as themselves. Simple, elegant, and essential detailing at its best.
Understanding the power of detail can open a whole world of richness, both of the natural, and the built!
Good Work May Go Unnoticed
Simply knowing what good details are, what they do, and how they do it can elevate your understanding of architecture a thousand fold. Sadly, many architects never come to that understanding, and fewer still actually put it into practice. However, we’ve noticed that our clients really appreciate the level of thought we put into their projects, and the details that result from our considerations. They don’t often notice them at first, but it’s not uncommon for me to get a call years after they’ve moved in to let me know that they discovered a particular details we included, that they just then realized why we chose to mate those two materials in a particular way. That’s a wonderful experience, to hear about someone’s discovery of the power of details.
Architectural Detail is the Art of Communication Through Space, Material and Volume
Details are fundamentally the places where separate things communicate with one another to become something greater than their worth as parts. This communication is what strengthens the individual part, and gives the assembly meaning and worth. Similarly, I like to think that communication with my clients, my colleagues, and others who are working on my projects are part of the details that make for great architecture. By linking people with ideas, with each other, and with the tools they need to create meaningful spaces I feel are making our buildings better places in which to live and work. Communicating this meaning is the primary goal of all we do, and the root of every detail we consider.