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Architecture is Made in the Details

Jul 01, 2017 10:37PM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

Recently, I made a presentation to a prospective client interested in building a new home. After an initial meeting to learn what his family was looking for in a custom-designed and built house, we set a date to meet again four days later, when I would have a preliminary conceptual design ready for their review.

In addition to the usual floor plan and exterior renderings I typically prepare for such a meeting, this time I also brought a pair of Google Cardboard virtual reality goggles, so the family could experience the design as if they were standing inside the house, turning their heads to look around each room, walking about virtually to take in every view. It was the first time they had put on a VR headset and needless to say, it made quite an impression.

Later that day, while recapping the meeting with an architectural student interning with my studio this summer, she asked how I managed to prepare so much material in such a short amount of time. When she would work on a design in school, she often found herself spending too much time on a particular detail to get it just right, then found herself scrambling to complete the rest of the work in time for the presentations.

I assured her that in architecture, there is never enough time and learning to prioritize the multitude of things; to effectively manage your time is a hard-earned skill that only comes with practice. In the case of my own client presentation, I pointed out several items that I wanted to work on but had to omit. Otherwise, the final presentation would have never been completed in time.

That said, I also commended her attention to detail. The mid-century architect Charles Eames, whose furniture set the standard for precision in design, once stated, “The details are not the details. They make the design.”

There is no denying that one of the common threads within the architectural profession—a trait that nearly every architect practicing today exhibits—is an obsession over the details. Material transitions in particular; for example, how a window jamb meets a plaster wall or the way a bolt engages the hinge of a door. These are the things architects live for, the things that really matter to them when working on the design of a building.

But, are these details what make good architecture?

Last month’s article summarized my exploration into the essence of architecture with a conclusion: Architecture is layering meaning in experience. In the abstract, this makes sense. However, an illustration might serve best to address this issue of detail and how it relates to meaningful experience.

In my 20+ years of designing homes, I have come across only one homeowner that did not like stone as a building material. Stone is as close to a universal preference if any such thing exists, which is no surprise as it has been used as a building material ever since humans started building.

Architects think about materials in many different ways, including their structural qualities, durability over time, thermal capacity to moderate temperature, porous nature to absorb and filter water—not to mention the aesthetic beauty of materials visually, tactilely, and acoustically. An architect must consider characteristics like these in the construction of a house; however, I believe it is the emotional aspect of a material that is at the heart of architecture.

All of the physical qualities of a material converge together into a subconscious perception of that material. This perception is simply a feeling we have that takes into account all of its physical characteristics like texture, color, and warmth, but also metaphorical references such as a romantic ideal or past memories. For example, the stone steps in a backyard might remind one of stepping stones in a secret garden from one’s childhood home, creating a sense of playful magic and mystery to their current home. All of this happens in an instant—the materials that define the spaces we inhabit create emotional impressions influencing what we think and feel.

These impressions are the key to designing meaningful spaces; rooms that have a desired feel, a sense of comfort or shelter. I use these to craft an intimacy into a home. Like the fit of a tailored suit, these materials inspire confidence by how they feel. Most architects don’t get this; they think of building materials only mechanically or aesthetically. However, it is the emotional resonance of a space that defines architecture, the intangibles that are not so easy to put a finger on, but have the greatest influence over how a home becomes a backdrop for life.

And to craft these experiences, which is the true work of an architect, is only done by taking great care in the nuance, the subtleties of perception. Only through an awareness and study of the slightest differences in physical details can we shape the emotive sensations that define our experiences within a space. When an experience is meaningful, resonating deeply in a memorable way, then you have created architecture.

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.

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