The Architectural Detail / by Dustin Altschul

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I was quite eager to read this book. My eagerness was attributed to the often discorded, and ambiguous, definitions that are associated with declaring precisely what a detail is in the context of practicing architecture. Majority of this discord is attributed to the severed indifference between technology/function and aesthetic composition/effect. Other writings on architectural detailing exemplify this point quite well.

On one extreme we have books such as Architectural Detailing: Function - Constructibility - Aesthetics by Edward Allen and Patrick Rand, which is a fine technical reference for understanding the purpose and functional needs for particular detailing scenarios. But falls short in illustrating the association of the detail to the greater design concept (or scheme). Then in the other extreme we have books such as 1000 Architectural Details: A Selection of the World's Most Interesting Building Elements  by Alex Vidella, Julio Fajardo, and Serji Duran, which focuses and defines the detail as the end product that of which is intended to be seen. Declaring the detail then as an aesthetic treatment with the capacity to exist independent of  technical/performative needs.

Perhaps the difference could be justified by stating there is a difference in intended audience. The technical focused books are for the practitioner (the architect), and the more aesthetic focused books are for the general public to appreciate works of architecture.But I do not find this argument savory, because it creates two separate definitions of what exactly a detail is. Which in my experience causes further confusion for the terminology of detail can mean both the activity of working out tectonic issues, and the intentional effect that is achieved with a particular detail;  even among the culture of students, professors, and practitioners of architecture 

Edward Ford argues the above is a nonsensical to view the architectural detail in these two ranges. Instead he provides a succulent argument of how the architectural detail is really confound to both the  performative and the aesthetic. Which I found refreshing since the true practice of architecture is working to satisfy both "sides of the coin". 

The book as a whole has some shortcomings. Perhaps the over use of lengthy quotations, makes reading the book feel choppy at times. And I always find annoyance in books that force me to flip multiple pages to view an image that is referenced in the text; which this book does a lot. But I believe these shortcomings are forgivable because the author does a reasonable job at providing us with a comprehensive definition of what an architectural detail is.  

The author achieves this by providing both historical and topical references to make his two primary points. The first major point is that we can organize details into types. He classifies these types as motif, representation of construction,  joint, and autonomous. From the onset then we have a vocabulary of discussing details that are not solely bound to the two camps mentioned above. I found the authors definitions rather inspiring. If anything it rang home the fact that every design decision that is made in the design of a building has a physically expressed implication; an interest point lost at times when we become concerned only with resolving the technical (water tightness, joining, etc..). The provided definitions also indicate that the truly skilled architect is the one who can find resolution to both the performance need, without sacrificing conceptual ideologies. 

The second major point the author makes is that the architectural detail can not be universally defined. But instead we can universally define the activity of detailing. He proceeds to support this claim by indicating every detail goes through the same decision making process with the same considerations. Therefore we can come to understand the detail really as a universal design process that the architect has gone through with precise considerations, that are characteristic of all details. And the chief characteristic being the need to find mediation between materiality and abstract form. At face value this appears to be a rather benign conclusion. However, the final chapter of the book provides a much richer explanation of what a detail is vis a vis process. 

Overall I recommend this book to anyone who cares to "nerd" out about architectural detailing. But is looking for something between dry technical rhetoric, and just pretty pictures. I believe by reading this book my mental definition of what precisely a detail is much firmer,  and I also found some inspiration of how I should approach my own design work.