Art – The Technique Of Architecture

AN intelligent appreciation of a work of art in any kind presupposes some knowledge of the processes by which it was brought into being. Those processes are not miracles, even though the building, the picture, the symphony, the statue, should seem to have been miraculously created, so beautiful it is, so hidden the means. I will give as clear an idea as I can of the steps an artist follows in the conception and completion of a work of Architecture, of Sculpture, or of Painting. The practice of every individual varies; therefore it is only possible to state those general methods most men follow, and it is necessary to omit, for the general reader, many of those more recondite points of technique that would be of interest only to one who is intending the practice of an art.

At the outset we must define this word, Technique, heard so frequently as part of the jargon of art. It simply means the way in which a thing is done. There is a general way to paint a picture which may be described as the Technique of Painting; every painter has his own way of going about it, and so we speak of his technique, of the breadth of his technique—meaning a free, broad handling of his pigments, color masses, light and shade—or of his dry, or tight, technique, qualities the reverse of free and broad. Of the sculptor and his work, for dry or tight would be substituted such terms as hard or tinny. In the case of the architect we must distinguish between the means and the result, the means being the drawings and the result the building; the term technique is applicable to his drawings, which would be qualified or described as the painter’s drawings or paintings are described; we speak of the architect’s executed work as big in feeling, or as broken up, or fussy; we call the building dry if it lacks richness of form or light and shade; but we seldom refer to the architect’s technique and we call his designs by a host of names which, as the slang of the office or the atelier, need not concern us here.

The technique of architectural drawing and of general office and drafting-room practice is not of special interest to the layman, although architectural draftsmanship is an exquisite and difficult craft. Suffice it to say here that an architect’s drawings are made on various kinds of paper, in pencil, ink, and water-color. Free-hand sketches are made in black-and-white, or water-color or pastel. By black-andwhite is meant a drawing in various shades of black, gray, and white, whether produced by pencil, pen and ink, or brush work.

Before we tell how an architect does his work, let us under-stand how he becomes an architect. He either attends a course in architecture at some technical school, a college, or university, and receives a degree or not as the case may be; or he enters the office of a practising architect, sometimes as a boy of high-school age or younger, sometimes after the usual college or university education; before he enters practice on his own account he should have, and frequently does have, a trip abroad for sketching and study of the architecture of the Old World, that he may see how the masters of the craft have solved the thousands of problems that will sooner or later confront him; not that he may copy these solutions, but that he may master the underlying principles which led to them. Sometimes he enters such schools as the School of Fine Arts in Paris, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, which has been so generously hospitable to foreign students.

An architect’s office is in many ways like any business office, but with a drafting-room, where the drawings are made, as the important unit. There may be a large and complex, or a small and simple staff of assistants, controlled and directed by the architect to carry out his conceptions. Frequently he has a partner or partners to relieve him of the details of administration, or to supplement or complement his own talents.

The first step toward the creation of a building is an interview with the client, who describes his needs. The client may be a private person or a building committee. The architect takes notes of the requirements and makes a little free-hand sketch of the plan, the elevation—a front of the building—and a section, which is like a slice through the building showing the interior. From these are elaborated more careful sketches drawn to scale—that is, at a size in which a fraction of an inch on the drawing represents a foot in the future building; these are revised in consultation with the client until all the general dispositions of the rooms, doors, windows, staircases, elevators, and the like, in plan, and the general character of the exterior and of the principal rooms, are tentatively established.

The next step is the Working Drawings, which are accurate geometrical drawings in line, which show only two dimensions on each drawing—in a plan, length and width are shown ; the elevations and sections show the third dimension, the height, with one of the others, either length or width. By a convention the eye is assumed to be exactly opposite every point in the object drawn, so that every part of it may be exactly measured. All relations of Scale, Balance, Pattern, Rhythm, and Proportion are established by these drawings, which are made, when finally developed, on trans-parent tracing-paper or linen, from which duplicates are made, by the action of light on sensitized paper, for the use of the builder. These blue prints are often spoken of by the innocent as though they were the original rather than the by-product; current fiction teems with scenes in which the sunburned hero and the blue print play roles of almost equal importance. These Working Drawings show all the items of construction of the building; during the course of assembling, arranging, and adjusting all this vast mass of information and putting it down on paper in a clear and understand-able form, the idea contained in the preliminary studies, or sketches, receives many modifications to make it workable and buildable and to refine and perfect every proportion of the exterior and interior.

Accompanying these Working Drawings are the Specifications, which constitute a written description of all the materials to be used in the structure in minute detail, with directions to the workmen as to how the work is to be done. When the Working Drawings and Specifications are finished they are issued to builders for estimates of the cost. A Contract is then entered into for the construction of the building. The architect draws up this Contract, of which the Working Drawings and Specifications form a part.

The architect then proceeds to make Detail Drawings. In a properly designed building by a conscientious architect there is not a detail the eye may fall upon that has not been carefully studied, practically and aesthetically, and a drawing, sometimes several, made of it. While the building is proceeding there are frequent visits by the architect or his deputy to see that the work is being executed in accordance with the drawings and specifications ; also to modelling shops where the ornamental work of stone, plaster, wood, or metal is being modelled and to distant quarries, kilns, and mills where work is being fabricated.

Throughout there has been a probably voluminous correspondence between the architect’s office, the client, and the contractors, and numberless interviews with them and with the manufacturers of all the thousand and one materials and appliances which enter into the construction of a modern building. Besides this, if the building has any pretensions to importance, the architect has been in consultation with painters and sculptors, determining the character and scale of mural paintings and sculpture, and the colors and finishes of walls, ceilings, and woodwork. A building, how-ever beautiful in itself, is not usable without furniture, and its beauty is impaired unless the furniture, which includes hangings, lighting fixtures, rugs or other floor coverings, is not only beautiful itself, but harmonious with its setting, the building, and the several units harmonious with each other. The average house or building furnished by the client looks, to the practised eye, very much as a fugue of Bach would sound if it were performed with “variations by the band-master.” The simile of a fugue is excellent in connection with a work of architecture, for, in both, voices enter one by one into the composition and are woven into an intricate web of beauty to which nothing more can be added and from which nothing can be subtracted without mutilating the fabric. Architecture was once described as frozen music, and the world has gone on repeating the phrase like Pretty Poll ; architecture is no more frozen music than it is frozen mud; there is nothing frozen about good architecture; it is warm and human, full of the movement that is Rhythm, full of color and springing life.

The building designed, there remains another function of the well-rounded architect—the landscape work. Trained as he is in the disposition of forms and of masses of color, to that supersense of the third dimension by which he imagines himself as being actually within the picture he is creating, walking about in it and seeing it from a thousand changing points of view, he is usually qualified to carry out what he had conceived to be the appropriate and beautiful setting for the building he has designed. This work entails a series of steps similar to those in the creation of the building itself.

This is a mere outline, a sketch, of what is done, with many details omitted. And one may well wonder how it is possible to hold fast to the vision of the building as it first presented itself, how to get it executed by other hands, often by no means sympathetic and frequently unskilled, and how at last, in spite of the complexities, the distractions not merely of the business details of one commission, but of many, the months and years of work first in the office and then at the shops and in the building, and the interposition of so many personalities between the designer and his finished work, it is possible to have the building infused with the personality of the architect.

He is only enabled to hold his vision fresh and clear, and endure the long, slow processes, the endless delays, the terrible tedium of many of his duties, by what may be described as a kind of passion for the creation of beauty, and this sees him through. The training of the eye, the mind, the taste, and the constructive and executive faculties of the architect are never completed. It is one of the compensations of the laborious life of the conscientious artist that there is always something more to learn about form and color, light and shade, character and style.