The Beauty of Detailing // Lucas Downes
Löyly Sauna - Helsinki, Finland
Avanto Architects Ltd
Abstract: Details are often thought of as a simple necessity when designing architecture; however, for designers like me, detailing is an opportunity to problem solve, express myself, and enhance the experience of the project.
"The Beauty of Detailing"
A detail is defined as a small part in relation to a larger whole. While this is a seemingly vague definition, detailing can take on a multiplicity of forms. Whether it is a construction detail, a small moment where two contrasting materials join together, or simply custom hardware on a door, architecture is essentially made up of details. Details are often thought of as a necessity in designing, but for the more creative architect, they’re countless opportunities to elevate the expression of a building.
The French architect Gustave Flaubert is credited with saying “Le bon Dieu est dans le detail”, or “God is in the details” in English. This phrase was later adopted by German architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, a designer who went to great extents to beautifully detail his buildings. Both of these architects realized the magnitude of impact even the smallest detail can posses.
Lake Shore Drive Apartments, Chicago, Illinois, Mies van der Rohe.
Photo by Damian Trostinetzky.
Detailing's history has maintained a close relationship with the history of architecture, constantly evolving as technology and styles progress. As building elements changed from wood huts, to stone, to steel, details have had to adapt to these materials. As society advanced and architecture became a profession, designers began to look at detailing as an opportunity instead of simply a piece of construction. Detailing has also been highly influenced by technology. Beginning with had drafting, or renderings on paper, the aid of computer programs has allowed detailing to become more accurate, unique, and functional.
Though detailing has evolved over time, its method of design hasn’t changed much. The process of creating a detail condition is an iterative one, a trial and error procedure. After centuries of this exercise, architects have a firm grasp of most necessary conditions; however, the more aesthetically based and experiential situations require a more inquisitive design approach.
A good detail is derived through sketching, modeling, and mockups. Sketching pulls the idea out of the designers head, putting it on paper for feedback, critique, and preliminary iteration. Often, the detail necessitates a mock up, or test to see if the plausibility of the detail holds solid ground. These mockups can test constructability, effectiveness, or aesthetic of a details intention. The effort that must be put into a good detail is extensive, but that effort is what makes a project exceptional rather than average.
Details can afford an architect moments of expression in projects that are intended to exemplify other objects, such as artwork in museums or a beautiful landscape. A good detail can provide an avenue to juxtapose a historical element and a new one, allowing the project to be respectful to the past while making its own statement.
Similar to this, two opposing materials can become one joined fabric with the right detailing. Clashing materials often prove difficult to place directly against each other, but with trim or a reveal these materials can exist in harmony. Regardless of its context or design intention, detailing has had a long history to prove its importance to architecture.
Casework Mock-up built by Dipen Patel and Amber Summers
Though detailing is often forgotten in today’s architecture, many architects, past and present, revel in the opportunity to create these moments. 19th century architect Carlo Scarpa is one the most notorious designers when it comes to details, saturating his works with countless features. One of his later projects, the Brion Cemetery is a perfect example of his detailing skills.
The project, primarily concrete and brass hardware, is a beautifully serene place, evoked through the subtle, yet powerful details found in every corner. Detailing can also be used to blend architecture with nature. Arizona architect Rick Joy masterfully hides his works in the beautiful scenery that surrounds them, using materials such as corten steel to merge built forms with natural forms. This materiality, combined with carefully selected views, results in profound pieces of architecture.
Desert Nomad House, Rick Joy.
Photo by Modern
Much like the delicate desert landscape Joy works in, the small town of Volland also holds a beautifully fragile landscape and culture. Building in such a unique context forces our studio to carefully detail our project. Renovating a historic piece of architecture requires careful thought and investigation into the way in which our intervention lives within such an important piece of Volland’s character.
Our studio implemented “rules” to ensure that what we build will be functionally while not imposing on the existing structure. Through mindful detailing, our project is able to possess its own unique character, while respecting Vollands history. For example, one of the primary rules we applied is a restraint from building up against the existing walls of the house.
This rule led to the difficult process of packing all the necessary program into a small core, all while maintaining spatial qualities needed for living, sleeping, and eating. While this rule has maintained its importance throughout the project, it had to be broken in a few circumstances. However, any deviation from this rule must be for the sole intention of exemplifying the surrounding context.
For example, the original porch was small and unusable, but through a contemporary intervention, we can allow the confined porch space to seem larger and more usable. Furthermore, by removing one nonfunctional window and replacing it with a larger modern aperture, we can connect the home back to the Volland store, the houses, and the surrounding nature. These departures from our rule, when thoughtfully detailed, allow us to create something special, all while respecting Vollands historic integrity.
The importance of detailing has been proven by countless projects, executed by architects that embrace the potential of a detail. However, it is just as important to understand the appropriate amount of time and resources a detail should be given, a lesson our studio is becoming quite familiar with. A designer must know when to thoughtfully create a new and interesting detail and when to use tried and tested details. Time frames, budget, and expertise all play a factor in this decision.
If scheduling puts too much of a constraint on a project, a designer may not have time to take advantage of an opportunity, resulting in standard details or pre-designed components one can purchase. If a projects budget is becoming too tight, a detail may be too costly to mock-up or have a professional manufacture. This again leads to prefabricated components.
Our studio experienced these constraints when we considered attending a concrete workshop that would teach us how to create furniture out of finished concrete. Though this could have provided an exceptionally interesting moment in our design, though schedule and budget became an issue as we struggled to find the funding needed. While our design will use many pre-designed and manufactured elements, our studio does plan to create quite a few of our own.
This provides the opportunity to improve our welding and shop skills. This allows us to elevate our level of expertise, a factor that can also be detrimental to detailing. Many designers and architects would love to spend years designing every moment in a project; however, working under real world factors can often make this impossible.
Though detailing can be thought of as a necessity, it should be thought of as an opportunity. Whether it’s a beautiful landscape, a place to remember lost ones, or an emerging community, the importance of detailing is immeasurable. It’s what makes a project unique without being imposing, it’s what makes a building comfortable for its users, it’s what designers like me live for.
Written by Lucas Downes