Chris Johns, managing partner of our Boston office, was invited to lead a workshop on Architectural Diagramming at the Northeast Quad Conference held at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design last month. We decided this would be a great opportunity to share how we use diagramming to form concepts in our rigorous design process.

diagramming02What is a diagram? The word “diagram” (literally “marked out by lines” in Greek) refers to any simplified visual explanation of an idea or how something works. Diagrams take advantage of the differences between how our minds process language and how they process images. Diagrams are reductive by nature and we are able to understand complex spatial and nonspatial ideas when distilled into a simple and powerful visual statement.

In architecture today, the simple formal diagram is circulated in the media as an iconic representation of a building because it is easy to imagine and aids in branding projects. This is however distorting the public’s understanding of architectural conception. An effective diagram doesn’t equal timeless Architecture. Great Architecture is created by a nuanced and collaborative design process informed by analyzing and re-analyzing relationships, program, client, context, environment, etc. Diagramming is the primary tool we use to drive this process.

For us at CUBE it is less about creating a singular iconic diagram that clearly represents an idea but more about making diagrams to generate ideas. Diagramming allows us to experiment and take imaginative leaps.


Taylor Metcalf diagramming

Taylor Metcalf Lock / Key Concept



















Simple sketches, photographs and also physical models can be diagrams to represent ideas.


We are in the business of problem-solving and selling those concepts that achieve solutions. These concepts have to be thoughtful and respond to many factors and are formed through an iterative process of exploration. Diagramming is the stimulant and catalyst for generating those concepts that help us solve the toughest design challenges.  Critical to concept formation, diagramming also provides clarity, guidance and communication of our design process.


1. CLARIFICATION. The information gathering stage on most projects produces a substantial amount of data. City & state codes, covenants, site parameters, and understanding local culture, climate and context. Good diagrams clarify the hierarchy found in ordering this chaotic information. When analyzed with intention, the layering of various sets of information through diagramming can inform the formation of concepts. Even documenting existing information or experiences in an analytical way can also inform the design process as seen here in a variety of diagrams documenting our research for the Hayden Building.

hayden timelineHayden reading RichardsonHayden Facade - Thickened Edge








2. GUIDANCE: As the process of design becomes more comprehensive, the amount of information can become overwhelming. The initial concept diagrams are always a good reference point of the most important aspects of the project that should be the focus for decision making.  CUBE and the folks at Real Thread kept coming back to the concept diagram that represents the goal of improving interaction between the office and production personnel to guide our decisions.

Real Thread Concept









3. COMMUNICATION: The process of design is intricate and multifaceted. Along the way, architects have to make a lot of decisions some of which are in their own heads. These decisions are for the benefit of the project, but the path of design still needs to be described and communicated to the client. We think of diagramming as a way to communicate the design thinking behind developing concepts and executing those ideas.

Fort Erie Lake House Organization ConceptThe organization of the main living level in this lakefront home was developed with the client to first connect to the lake; second, use the kitchen and flanking staircase as the activity hub; and lastly, extend the rear portion of the house to the more private wooded portion of the site.

Taylor Metcalf View FinderWe created a sense of openness and connection to nature while maintaining privacy for this small addition in a dense suburban neighborhood by thinking of the intervention as a viewfinder in a camera represented here.


The economic impact of architects. FYI – there are only about 105,000 licensed U.S. architects.



creative-work-ira-glass-imageThe Creative Gap – a short clip by Ira Glass.


Van Gogh’s Chair – via our friend Frank Harmon:



With the rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of H. H. Richardson’s Hayden Building now complete, we would like to share more of what we learned through our research and how we exhibited the building’s storied past.

We set out with the premise that not only were we rehabilitating this historically significant structure but we were also preserving the ideas and time periods that shaped it.  We began the project with extensive research on the evolution of the neighborhood over the last 140 years and even traced the building’s commercial occupants as seen here.

The character of a place is established by the people that inhabit it regardless of the building, which for the Hayden Building shifted radically.  Because the neighborhood centered on the production of textiles during the end of the 19th century, its occupants were mostly clothing and hat shops.  After a mixture of businesses during the 20th century, the Hayden Building became a focal point of adult entertainment in the 1960’s as the neighborhood turned into the Combat Zone, Boston’s red-light district. On the edge of Chinatown and the Theater district, this Nationally Registered Historic Landmark was gutted by fire in 1985 and remained vacant until its reuse today.

We endeavored to create a symbiotic relationship between new and old, telling the visual story of past and present at the same time.  Contrasting old worn elements with layers of new refined elements heightens the awareness of both.  It is in these relationships that emerges the richness of place and understanding of time.  HBI afforded us the opportunity to visually tell this social history of the Hayden Building within its common spaces combining traces of history with modern living.



Entry / Lobby

The Hayden Building defines the beginning of Richardson’s exploration of how Read More…

Reading Richardson

In all of our projects, we seek out the inherent qualities of the project site and context and strive to enhance the awareness of those qualities through our architecture. When our projects involve an existing building, our approach is no different. Rather than beginning with land topography as we would with an empty site, we consider the existing building as another type of topography. For our conversion of H.H. Richardson’s Hayden Building in Boston’s Chinatown, we interpreted the building and studied its newly defined relationship with the urban context. We made use of multiple resources to better understand the historical context of the building. A thorough analysis of the Richardson archives at Harvard University provided an insightful view into the mind of the architect. Another invaluable resource was the Stonehurst Residence in Waltham, MA which is one of only a few remaining residential projects by Richardson. We also took advantage of many of the historical societies that offered information about the building, the City of Boston, and its neighborhoods.

The research not only uncovered a bit of the Hayden Building’s eclectic past, but it also revealed Richardson’s design tactics that would ultimately serve as a precedent for our work: The Activated Edge, Sequence of Thresholds, and the Horizontal Datum.

Left: Historical photo courtesy of Historic New England | Right: Historical Sanborn Map images

Left: Historical photo courtesy of Historic New England | Right: 1814 & 1883 Historical Sanborn Map images

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The Fate of Neutra’s Cyclorama at Gettysburg Has National Implications


The National Park Service has published their environmental assessment report outlining options for Richard Netura’s 1961 Cyclorama Building at Gettysburg. Their recommended fate for the building: demolition. This comes after two decades of argument and a three year lawsuit between preserving the building in place and removing the building to rehabilitate the battlefield beneath it.
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Historic Char

Buildings suffer many fates over the course of time. Physical markings, renovations, and the stresses of time all take their toll on materials. The Hayden Building suffered a huge fire in 1985 that burned out the upper floors and roof completely; leaving it in an abysmal state until Historic Boston stepped in years later. While cleaning the interior brick some areas proved more than stubborn. The images above show how fire has marked the building and why we have the codes and regulations we have today.

MATERIALS – Image One: The area of brick to the right is clean to the touch, but the brick itself has turned black from the overwhelming heat of the fire. The area to the left looked very similar before cleaning. The black area most likely had a flammable wall covering material that raised the temperature of the fire and chard the brick more deeply – like putting it in a kiln. Today interior materials are classified by the degree with which they propagate fire and how fast it spreads. There is a whole industry around this from your bed sheets to the insulation in your walls.

CONSTRUCTION – Image Two: On a lower floor the charred pattern is indicative of a previous stair along the wall. The fire most likely started here. To the right you can see a recessed shaft in the brick – a nineteenth century chase for plumbing pipes. This area has also been cleaned to the touch. Note the charred brick in the shaft – this is where the fire spread from one floor to the next. Today we have strict regulations for the construction of all shafts and equipment that span from floor to floor or connect dissimilar rooms to avoid fire from quickly spreading throughout a building.

It’s all yet one more layer of legible history in the Hayden Building.

Social Media and Social Space

I recently read an article in Metropolis on Social Media by Andrew Blum.  Andrew states that within the last decade our social media has gone from one-way (the video wall) to two-way (the facebook wall) and notes: “Architecture has yet to acknowledge the impact of social media on our experience of physical space.” He cites a number of architects who are experimenting with this interface, including some in Boston, but I’d agree we have only scratched the surface.
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Agrarian Architecture

We have a thing for old barns, sheds, silos, and all objects in the landscape. On a trip to Iceland I photographed many of these structures. CUBE’s work is heavily rooted in the building site. Many of our ideas arrive from a thorough reading of the land itself: its shape, its vegetation, its views, its light, each place is very unique. Two of us grew up in rural parts of the Southeast which may have something to do with it.

Unlike architectural styles, these structures normally arise out of utility in response to a basic agricultural need. Every part has a job. They are pure, simple, expressive structures that use what is available. They are by definition a response to their place, and in many ways they are what contemporary architecture ascribes to.