“OBSESSION IS THE SINGLE MOST wasteful human activity,” Norman Mailer once said in an interview with the fabulously named Divina Infusino for the in-flight magazine of American Airlines. “With an obsession you keep coming back and back and back to the same question and never get an answer.” That might be an unfair summation of architect Edward R. Ford’s career, though it gets pretty close to indicating what may have happened with his latest book, The Architectural Detail.
Since 1990, Ford has published four books which hint at a theme: The Details of Modern Architecture (1990); The Details of Modern Architecture: Volume 2 (1996); Five Houses, Ten Details (2009); and now The Architectural Detail. The first two are noted tomes, required reading for understanding modern architecture. These serious books are replete with hundreds of hand-drawn details from noteworthy buildings and, should you desire to stash them in your check-in luggage while flying, they will require precisely one fourth of your allowed baggage weight. The third is from the Writing Matters series, published by Princeton Architectural Press, and it pulls us further down the rabbit hole as Ford presents a dizzying array of design options and details for what turns out to be not five houses but one: his own. Ford’s obsession is such that even his home, the space that shapes and surrounds his daily life, becomes a relentless design project exploring the idea of the detail, complete with quirky steel joints and a built-in, exterior glass table.
The study of details is Ford’s life’s work, and one would expect a book titled The Architectural Detail to be something of a magnum opus. Nevertheless, there is something odd about an architect encapsulating his life’s work not in a building, nor even in the design of architectural details but in a book. I could imagine a similar dissonance if Philip Glass sat down and decided to pop out a masterpiece and, instead of beginning to tap away at a piano, he began to tap away at a computer keyboard in order to produce a book titled “The Musical Note.”
The Lawn University of Virginia Charlottesville by Frances Benjamin Johnston
I am being a little rough on Ford. In the course of any good architect’s career, amidst all the building that is hopefully going on, they somehow find it incumbent upon themselves to Write, or at the very least Produce A Monograph. Unlike some of his peers, Ford comes by this desire to write honestly: at one public lecture he obligingly revealed that, while his life’s path took a decidedly architectural turn, he had held writerly aspirations in college. Well, fine. The Architectural Detail — a book made up of fragmented musings from Ford’s mind and scattered quotations from a variety of other figures — is no magnum opus, but it’s certainly worthy of discussion.
The Architectural Detail begins with a big, fat chapter heading: “What Is a Detail?” This is the question that keeps Ford up at night, and it is the question that the book attempts to definitively answer. He laments the fact that there has been no writing or theory about architectural detail, which to some degree is true: architectural writers and theorists tend toward writing about Bigness itself (see Rem Koolhaas’s writing on “Bigness or the problem of the large” , or the even bigger “Junkspace” ), or Big Subjects like cities (again, every Koolhaas piece, ever), monumentality (Alexander D’Hooghe’s recent book, The Liberal Monument ), and infrastructure (InfraNet Lab’s Pamphlet Architecture book, Coupling ). Architects, a proudly self-aggrandizing group, tend to write about the very large rather than the very small. The detail, that most fundamental block from which everything else is held together, tends to go missing from their discourse.
Yet, somehow, Ford manages to find snippets and quotes about details from writers and theorists the world over. As much as one wants to ding Ford for writing a book that is at least half composed of quotations, the breadth of sources quoted and the obscure places from which the quotes are culled make The Architectural Detail an invaluable archive of factoids, evidence, commentary, and ephemera on the detail. The ever-contemporary Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid is channeled — her blunt opinion on details: “if they are done well, they will go away” — as is Gothic Revivalist Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin from all the way back in 1841: in claiming that “your modern man designs a sofa or occasional table from details culled out of Britton’s Cathedrals,” Pugin praises furniture that “is crocketed with angular projections, innumerable mitres, sharp ornaments, and turreted extremities,” suggesting quite the domestic atmosphere. And Ford finds a doozy of a quote from Los Angeles’s own Thom Mayne in discussing the door handle he designed for the 80s-era Kate Mantilini Restaurant in Beverly Hills:
Architecture is understood as a series of intimate engagements, as something experienced haptically, by operating or moving through it, rather than via an intellectual or visual conceptualization. A large amount of our work for a number of years comprised these discrete objects: a door handle that dealt differently with entry and exit, a hand-operated window/door that juxtaposed a large-scale architectural piece with the scale and strength of the human hand … These fragments afforded us the opportunity to express an intensity that couldn’t be captured in the totality of the work. Within a generic building, one could insert moments of singularity.
Keep in mind that Mayne is talking about a door handle. Ford’s strength and weakness as a writer is that his own voice avoids this sort of jargon-laded “architecture-speak,” although perhaps he leans too far in the other direction: while his tone is steady and clear, it is too often dull and didactic. For a writer who is all about defining detail, Ford too often leaves us out of the inductive ride of discovery and deposits us right at the moment of normative declaration. For example, after exploring what is called “motific detail” — the appropriation of cultural symbols as built, architectural motifs — in relation to Aldo van Eyck’s stunning and seminal Amsterdam Orphanage, Ford abruptly ends with this: “However suspect this strategy of instant cultural appropriation may be, we should be grateful that it has yet to return as a wholesale strategy for detailing.” This is a clear, expert, sensible opinion, but it also disappointingly deflating.
The brief personal recollections and rambling anecdotes are a spoonful of sugar on this otherwise dour bowl of Cheerios. Ford prefaces the book with a Thoreau-esque diary entry, comparing the green at Cambridge’s Downing College with the University of Virginia’s Lawn, and right up until he gets to the punch line (both have the objective of imitation) you are drawn into a strange, somehow dated, almost endearing space of wonder. “The Lawn was begun nineteen years after the founding of Downing in 1800, and there are remarkable similarities between the two landscapes …” Ford begins, as he discusses the details of their built form in relation to contextualism, human universality, and the structure of the world. “There is a deeper structure below the surface that gives the Lawn its significance … one had to get beyond the familiar and find what Louis Kahn calls ‘its point of beginning.'”
Another anecdote deals with the mystical development of that great American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, in relation to the detail. On the topic of “detail as motif,” Wright saw architectural forms through the Japanese quality of edaburi — the arrangement of the branches of a tree. He heard musical motifs of Beethoven in his head as he designed, and Goethe, Thoreau, and Emerson rear their heads:
You are listening to a builder. You are seeing him take a theme, a motif, and building with it… . So slight a thing as a willow wand, for instance, will find fullness of expression as a willow tree … with that absolute repose which is of destiny fulfilled. Inevitably, the secret of the acorn is the glory of the oak. The fretted cone arises as the stately pine … We walk in the cool, calm shade of the trees, and they say to us as they said to Emerson long ago, “Why so hot my little man?”
While Wright’s prose is a bit stilted, one gets the point. And while Ford again pans the notion of “motif,” he correctly cites its exceptional use in the Hollyhock pattern of the Aline Barnsdall House in East Hollywood. Wright, a master of design despite his overwrought phenomenological musings, went so far as to design and detail a set of Hollyhock dining chairs to match the house. (Ford, ever the critic, expertly draws and diagrams the chairs, then captions them as “most uncomfortable.”)
Another recurring figure in Ford’s account is Italian architect Carlo Scarpa. Scarpa was a believer in “truth of materials,” as is Ford. I am not entirely sure what truths, say, concrete can whisper into your ear, but if anyone knew them, Scarpa did. He was noted for architecture that was steeped in the culture of his home city of Venice, while also taking elements from Japanese culture and numerology (he was known for his curious repetition of elements in sets of eleven, as this was the number of characters in his name). In the same vein as earlier judgments, Ford seems to both simultaneously adore the detail-oriented Scarpa at the very moment that he deplores his propensity to scale motific elements up and down without regard to their “ideal” size (an ideal whose existence Ford unconvincingly presumes). One travesty cited by Ford is Scarpa’s use of an “L” motif both in the huge structural columns in his Borgo Condominium as well as in a small door support in his Brion Cemetery. I say, why not? (It should also be noted that Ford is here standing on the shoulders of one of the giants of architectural discourse, Kenneth Frampton. In Studies in Tectonic Culture , Frampton goes into great detail about what he calls Scarpa’s “Adoration of the Joint” — essentially, the same territory that Ford here traverses.)
In the end, Ford’s grand definition of The Detail fails to materialize. He acknowledges what we knew all along: this mystical thing that transcends the material of which it’s made, The Detail about which Ford has obsessed about for the past forty years, will not submit to definition. No matter: the didactic bits of explicit definition are the book’s least interesting passages. On the last page, however, Ford returns to his University of Virginia Lawn, offering a reflection that brings us full circle to his wondrous outlook on a world made up of details:
At its best, the detail is the result of the conscious act of creating the inconsistent, imperfect, or exceptional part… . The good detail is not consistent, but non-conforming; not typical, but exceptional; not doctrinaire, but heretical; not the continuation of an idea, but its termination, and the beginning of another.
Here, perhaps poorly expressed, seems to be the definition for which Ford was looking. The detail is no small thing: as it mediates between two essences it is, by nature, the perfect political act; it is the end of one thing and the beginning of another.