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.
What 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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
We 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.
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.
We love working with clients who are as inquisitive as we are. Rather than relying on what has been done over and over, Historic Boston and CUBE put together a market survey and design exhibition to gather data. Over 100 people came out for the event. Check out the results!
While digging into the Hayden archives, we stumbled upon this famous portrait of HH Richardson wearing a robe in his studio. The image has been both a source of humor and inspiration for us these past few months. We couldn’t help but wonder the story behind the photo. We’ve determined that the architect used the robe to mystify the architect/client relationship.
According to lore, Richardson’s clients would make the trek from Boston to his Brookline studio to meet with him. When they arrived, Richardson’s assistant would sound a gong and the architect would appear from the back wearing his monk’s getup. In her book H.H. Richardson: the Architect, His Peers, and Their Era, Maureen Meister claims that Richardson wore the robes (and regularly disseminated the portrait to his potential clients) to reinforce his medieval and gothic design roots.
Richardson was prolific and successful early in his life, unlike the typical trajectory of an architect. Although unusual, one must assume that this unique marketing tactic actually worked. To Richardson, the architectural experience extended beyond that of buildings: He wanted your experience to begin when he entered the room.
Stuff-We-Find-in-Historic-Buildings #2: On Preservation and Pornography at the Hayden Building
This is the second in an occasional series that chronicles HBI’s growing collection of found items in the historic buildings where we work. We launched this series in February with a focus on the Roxbury Action Program’s years at the historic Alvah Kittredge House. This post looks at Chinatown’s Hayden Building.