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1) Plan. 2) Section. 3) Elevation

October 9, 2021

In the dim past, some sage architect looked at me and said:

“There is one way to describe a building, one sequence. Plan. Section. Elevation. In that order. One defines the other. Once you start there then they all change each other.”

I came to realize that is the way you build, too. Layout the plan to the site and to itself. Then build up. Then make the exterior.

We are trained to see outcomes, and those outcomes in a world that judges in 2D is found in what should be the last leg of describing, then making, the outside, the elevations. Or many find solace in looking at the abstraction of floor plans and spotting error or virtue. Or we see a cross section – a frozen moment in the spaces of a place, and say either “Cool.” or “Eh.”

In about my 40th hire of an intern, this person in their ’30’s with experience in larger offices and a graduate degree from a good school of architecture, I offered this person a sketch of a plan and a section, dimensioned, noted, and fully walked thru the connection I had just made on those drawings. I hoped that in my day away that the hard lining of my scribbles would reveal the intern’s understanding. It did. The two drawings were separate and unequal, drawn independently from one another.

So I repeated the bromide, with finger declaration: “1) Plan. 2) Section. 3) Elevation.” In that order, one defining the next. Then noted that if drawn in that sequence, one drawing projected from the other, there could be no error, but discovering those errors that I had made in making my sketches.

After this calm description, a deer at 2am faced me.

After a full redlining of the process together, the results were still at 2am, in the dark.

No demeaning, no commentary, just explanation.

The intern resigned the next day “To take the licensing exam.”

The creative process learned in school was simply “IDEA!” In any manifestation, then description of the “IDEA!”. Because it is not a building, it is an idea. Of course you start with ideas, but to make a place you have to understand what you are making. But rigor in translation is hard to accept. So the translation that enables those who build to understand your “IDEA!” is often not possible.

And the “IDEA!” suffers too, because in defining what is made, realities and opportunities are revealed beyond the “IDEA!” And what is made is better – and makable – versus the untold unbuilt things that architects lament, cursing others’ inability to see their gifts, because of profit, fear or, really that who makes what you describe is just not as smart as you are.

That disconnect sometimes happens, but many “IDEA!”‘s simply cannot be built without untenable cost compensation, or user adaptable, or simple construct-ability because the creator only understands the “IDEA!”.

This intern, mid-30’s did not, and would not see that buildings are made by description, not by ideas. That is why interns learn. Or not.

That intern will be licensed. That architect will not know what a building can be. That willful ignorance will make the others who do what I do less valuable.

There are doctors who are the first opinion that gets rejected. Lawyers who lose cases, even clerics who worship themselves first and who made them not-so-much. I have known them. And I have known architects who simply know ideas. And pictures. And defendable rationales, but do not, and will never, know how to build things. They often find terrific builders who do, and understanding clients and make things.

But those things are rationalizations. They will have a great idea, from an angle, frozen, and that may be enough.

But not for me.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2022 9:42 am

    Love this article and completely agree.

  2. December 14, 2022 6:13 pm

    A structural engineer I worked with once said: “If it can be drawn, it can be built” He didn’t say at what cost.

  3. December 14, 2022 11:54 pm

    I am always suspicious of buildings where the architects started with an abstract plan “diagram”. Modernist architects love “diagrams”. But diagrams can take on an abstract charm of their own, and often do. A fascinating diagram does not necessarily map to a good building. Architects need to start with an idea of what the building should be like, what it’s essence is. An esquisse. This is the ethos of the Beaux Arts education tradition.

    • December 19, 2022 10:08 am

      As with the exquisite plans of Beaux Arts buildings, the functional relationships start the esquisse, then the sectional ideation based on that, then unending back and forth to realize the exterior: without starting with the functional relationships uniquely considered in plan the exercise has a formalist/historicist basis: which can work…but no matter any style applied this sequence is the way to start, then define a building…

  4. December 14, 2022 11:56 pm

    Plan > Section > Elevation is a good recipe for properly understanding a building, but not necessarily a good strategy for conceiving a good building.

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