Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Tell the Tale Detail

By Kyle Fountain

In his discussion on the Tell-The-Tale Detail, Marco Frascari explains that architecture is as much art as it is a profession.2 
“This is because of the understanding generated by the detail as joint.  Architecture is an art because it is interested not only in the original need of shelter but also in putting together spaces and materials in a meaningful manner.  This occurs through formal and actual joints.  The joint that is the fertile detail is the place where both the construction of the construing and the architecture take place.”2
Through Frascari’s conversation on details I will explore three fundamental ways in which details comprise a masterful piece of architecture through scale, coherence, and selection.
In architecture, details can vary in scale from the joint, the way it is connected to another detail, or a much larger detail as in the way a building is placed on site.  A detail can be philosophical, and technical at the same time.  For example, if a building is blended into the side of a hill top similar to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, as well as protecting the interior from the environmental conditions, it is achieving a great design in two very fundamentally different details.  However, the ability to achieve great details simply based on a vision is quickly fading as did the role of a true craftsman.
In early architectural design prior to the analytique graphic analysis of details (early architectural graphic standards), architects wouldn’t put together any detail drawings.2  The details were translated from designer to craftsmen through a vision.2  Today, the contractor requires a drawing on how to build every detail within a building, short of screwing drywall into a stud.  I believe this disconnect is one of the reasons architects are selecting off the shelf details to be incorporated into their designs.  Contractors today know that the more sketched details the architect gives them, the less responsible they are when something is built poorly.  I have had the good fortune of experiencing this first hand.  Nearing completion of a project, I was asked to produce a detail sketch of a “floating soffit” above the concierge desk.  Only a couple days after I had submitted this sketch, I had arrived on site to realize that it was conceptually built incorrectly, however, it was built according to the detail I had submitted.
            Architecture is the manifestation of a multitude of details.  Many architects write on the importance of details to produce a coherent composition.  For example, Frascari’s homage to Alberti explains the requirement of thoughtful selection of details to produce great architecture.2 
“Alberti sees architecture as the art of the selection of appropriate details whose result is beauty, which is a meaningful goal.  He defines beauty as ‘concinnity’ of all the details in the unity to which they belong; in other words, beauty is the skillful joining of parts by a normative by which nothing can be added, subtracted, or altered for the worse.”2
Alberti’s theory seems obvious, but all too often we come across a building which conveys an uneasy emotion and lack of careful detail selection. Masonry, for instance, is a common building material that can be incorrectly detailed thousands of different ways.             
            Today, we can work toward achieving designs that require no addition of good detail, or subtraction of poor detail upon a building’s completion.  This will require a proactive collaboration from architect to builder.

             1.  1.  Frampton, Kenneth “Rappel A L’ Ordre, The Case for the Tectonic.”  Architectural Design 60, no.3-4(1990): 19-25.
             2.  Frascari, Marco, The Tell-The-Tale Detail. VIA7: The building of Architecture (1984): 23-37.

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