CONNECTED 2010 – 2ND INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON DESIGN EDUCATION 28 JUNE - 1 JULY 2010, UNIVERSITY OF NEW SOUTH WALES, SYDNEY
The discipline of architectural composition: the elephant in the room
Andrew Hutson University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia
Within the spectrum of skills required for design, composition is the elephant in the studio; its presence is profound but often unacknowledged. Within the practice of design, composition is the medium for expressing ideas but for such an important aspect the teaching of composition as a discipline has been largely ignored within the studio. The tendency has been to discuss composition in a loose reactive manner after a student has presented an outcome. Composition is perceived as a qualitative and personal endeavour, difficult to assess with ill-formed criteria. Within 19th century academies, the rules of composition for the application of accepted architectural language and parti were explicit. This compositional rigour rightly faded with the move away from neo-classical/historicism but was not replaced; a compositional void remained. This paper will discuss studios undertaken with senior students to establish a framework for understanding composition as a discipline with an explicit relationship to architectural ambitions. In this studio students looked to processes of analysis that distilled design into range of irreducible compositional operations. These are not expressed as singular applications but as a series of dualities incorporating varying degrees of engagement between which the design elements were positioned. In this way aspects of existing or proposed design intentions were plotted against an elaborate compositional matrix to create a unique visual mapping for the piece and a framework for understanding the tactics employed. When understood this matrix could enable insights into design tactics that are rigorous and organic, simple and complex. The approach has the potential to be a sophisticated compositional aid. This paper will outline the development of this matrix as a unique design tool. The value in this is not in trying to discover a universal compositional approach for all contingencies but rather the value lies in the act of conceptualising and describing design through a compositional matrix. These investigations may reinvigorate composition as a discipline.
express their design intentions. It is much in the manner in which writers use vocabulary, literary techniques and the structure of grammar to express ideas. Similarly, composition should be seen as a distinct craft within the broader delivery of architecture. While it is straightforward to see composition as a set of techniques it is difficult to provide a comprehensive description of the skills to be applied as the range of approaches is wide and the extent of a designer’s engagement with compositional tactics is inherently idiosyncratic. It has been particularly problematic in relation in the teaching of architecture in that, while the importance of composition is imperative to the design process, it is difficult to create an effective pedagogical structure how it should be employed as a tool. Teaching of composition generally relies upon analysis of the works of others to try and discern the techniques the designers used to create particular expressions. This is a useful as it exposes students to the means employed by architects and enables them to gain understanding of how composition delivers desired ends. But this approach to compositional analysis is limited in that, while providing insight into various techniques of particular architects, it does not in itself provide the tools a student may require to achieve their ambitions unless they correspond with those of the studied works. This is not to say that there is no value in the approach for it provides students with an analytical eye that can be turned onto any project to aid in extracting techniques that can be applied in their own work. What is missing is a consistent framework for analysis that can be constructed through analysis of others but applicable for designers in pursuing their own intentions. This paper will describe an approach to understanding the role and value of composition within the creation of architecture. The proposal involves devising a framework for compositional activities that while direct in incorporating compositional tactics is fluid in its constitution and assessment of a designer’s engagement with those tactics. This framework is described as a compositional matrix, the development of which provides a method for both analysing the compositional lessons found in the works of others and as a useful tool to enable the designer to translate ideas into the stuff of architecture. The deployment of the matrix with senior students has revealed a number of positive outcomes and exposed directions for future development.
Composition within architectural design has been, since ancient times, the subject of attempts to describe the endeavour as an acquired craft. This attempt is reasonable as the discipline of composition is a tool architects use to
It provides a useful filter to get a reading for particular analyses but as it is a broad brush it is value as a tool for designers is limited. first wrote on the issue of appropriate arrangement of the elements of architecture in the hope that architects would then. avoid poor design (Morgan 1960:102-126). geometry and additive and subtractive approaches to the parti of the design. Vredenburgh van Pelt 1902). There are many similar examples of establishing grammar for architectural application (Hanson 2009) but as a tool for design they were constructed around ideological positions that defined the rules and as such are limited to acolytes. Clark and Pause in their Precedents in Architecture take a different approach to Baker in proposing a fixed set of compositional attributes against which a wide range of buildings are analysed. The inherent lesson in the writings is in promoting the endeavour of analysis to try and draw out the actions employed to achieve types of expression. Example from Design Strategies in Architecture (Baker 1996: 178) The value in such analysis is that it proposes insight into compositional generators through specific examples. In short the treatise was a defence against the unskilled designer. diagonals.
Fig. The limitation is the lack of consistency in how the analysis is undertaken that restricts the value of the exercise in being transferable for the designer.I. set down appropriate rules for composing (Curtis 1926. in effect. These included the fractured whole. New York. The means were separated from the ends in that composition became the technique used to achieve architectural ambition rather than the ambition itself. stabilizing elements. through prescribed means.). The rules of composition were generally both the means and the end. THE RULES OF COMPOSITION The application and instruction of compositional techniques was easier when the elements of architectural language were limited and the rules of architectural grammar proscriptive. Baker analysed the Saynatsalo Town Hall by Alvar Aalto (1950-52) through a number of compositional approaches (for example fig. symmetry. The drawings explained the analytical filters but just as the building itself is idiosyncratic the analytical inquiries were also tailored specifically to Aalto’s
design. This process is consistent but lacks the ability to analyse deeper into the techniques to discern any compositional priorities of the specific work.2. A contemporary example of this approach can be seen in Rob Krier’s. transformation of the box and dynamic energy (Baker 1996:159-185). Vitruvius. Example from Precedents in Architecture. while broadening the elements of the language. The characteristics tested include massing.1. Recent commentators have looked to extract these compositional devices from works of architecture to examine the tools used by designers. Techniques of composition were presented as actions without inherent value that could be employed to achieve a raft of various architectural ideological positions.
. were still concerned to restrict the compositional directions to a set of rules. Robinson 1914. pedestrian flows. architecture was composition. proportion. writing in the Vitruvian tradition. Architectural Composition (Krier 1988) which was in some ways a return to prescription and rules of engagement. the Roman Engineer. (Clark1996: 9). spiral configurations. The theme was taken up by writers in the 15th and 16th centuries such as Serlio and Alberti who. CONTEMPORARY ATTITUDES TO COMPOSITION The development of different expressions of architecture that were less constrained by the historical conventions challenged the understanding of composition from one of working within stylistic mores to one of active design strategies. This general method is repeated with other projects but the compositional devices investigated differ to suit the project. Established in these treatises was the concept that composition was about understanding and applying accepted conventions. Where it differs from the historical writings on composition is in its incorporation of what he has called ‘form giving operations’ which describe abstract actions applied to architectural form and space (Krier 1988: 44).
Fig 1. II. As examples of the some recent approaches we can look at the publications of Baker (Baker: 1996) and Clark and Pause Clark: 1996). This understanding of rule based composition held sway into the 19th and early 20th centuries when numerous authors.
the Shrine in Melbourne demonstrated engagement with expressive mass and as such would be located to the mass side of the duality with a high degree of engagement (5). In an attempt to try and deal with complexity it was found that the tactics were better represented as dualities. Architecture is created by intentions that grow from the cultural contexts of project and designer. The matrix was not intended to be definitive and dualities could be added as appropriate.Both these publications. For example a work of architecture may contain a tension between mass and lightweight composition which would not be illuminated through singular analysis but which provide value compositional lessons. static-dynamic. The key was the construction of a compositional matrix as a tool for design. The next variable to be considered by the students was the degree to which an architectural example being analysed demonstrated engagement with the tactic. The other test was that the duality should not be value laden such as for a duality of good-evil. Example of a duality matrix The test as to whether a duality could be included was that it was irreducible as a tactic into smaller actions and therefore considered essential in an architectural sense. subtraction-
addition. fail to overtly explore the connection between compositional tactics and architectural intentions which drive the choice of tactics. which are typical of contemporary writings on the subject. COMPOSITIONAL DUALITIES The approach explored with the students was to look at how compositional analysis could be better positioned as a tool of the design process and less as a review of techniques. by virtue of the stone facing used. But this endeavour may select overt examples of incorporated mass to best extract the techniques. The students were required to establish a matrix of such dualities with a scale between two extremes. being at either end of a compositional scale. The approach described in this paper attempts to establish a means for analysis that while looking at compositional strategies does so to establish a compositional framework. tactile-smooth etc (as can be seen in fig. they all guide the act of composition. As previously mentioned. These compositional tactics can be described as singular approaches but such a description can be problematic. Intentions can be small or grand. Concepts in architecture are expressed through compositional operations or tactics. This connection between ideas and the means of architectural expression is crucial and presented a worthy starting point in proposing a different tack to composition and analysis. rather it appears as a consequence of materiality (one example of how the degrees of engagement can be illustrated on the matrix can be seen in fig.
.3). if we look at the compositional tactic of expressing mass in a design projects that have a demonstrable expression of mass could be analysed to illustrate the techniques used. 4). The compositional tactics are the medium for expressing values and intent these reasons not the message itself. In the previous instance there would be a duality with mass and it’s opposite. For example. subtle or extravert but they have one aspect in common. As an example. As an example the matrix included mass-lightweight. there is value for designers in looking at the means employed by others but it has limitations because lessons are restricted to the individual case studies. But works may incorporate the tactic of expressed mass to varying degrees which would imply a scale between the full deployments of through to only partial inclusion. lightweight ness. The Shrine also. These intentions are not always explicit and are often un-stated but they remain positions nonetheless.
Fig 3. When located within the duality scale students would have to posit on a scale of 1-5 what degree of engagement with the duality the piece demonstrated. would be located close to the tactile end of a tactile/smooth duality but while located here does not demonstrate a high degree of engagement with this duality. The problem is that such an approach is that is prioritises extreme examples. How should these be analysed? Other factors not easily exposed in such a singular analysis would be complexity or sophistication in the level of engagement with the tactic. they are the language of design. III. The scope of these dualities was concocted from the explorations of the previous year and from other tactics students wished to test. symmetry-asymmetry.
IV. B. Illustrate how the duality and degree of engagement may appear with the matrix Fig 5. (City of Melbourne and Designinc. When applied the students found that a number of tactics were evident within a work and that there was the opportunity to map these against the matrix. Second Exercise The second exercise was for students to take the matrix as it existed and apply the compositional tactics as an analytical filter against a single work of architecture. First Exercise Students were allocated a specific duality and were required to find architectural examples that filled in the scale divisions between the extreme while also filling in the ‘z’ axis of perceived engagement. 5. An example can be seen in the analysis of Council House 2 in Melbourne (figs. Council House 2.
Fig 6. 6 and 7). The purpose was to find a range to comply with a set criterion. the implication being that examples can be sourced to illustrate compositional approaches that have been tightly focused.Fig 4. 2007). Student analysis of subtractive-additive duality for Council House 2
. Also mapped was the perceived level of engagement the work demonstrated against the tactics. ANALYTICAL EXERCISES A.
The student’s outcomes are personal interpretations against a consistent rigorous process. a designer of a parliament building may wish to express democracy through clear public access. and to convert their design ambitions into a series of compositional tactics. These matrices also offer the opportunity for students to interpret designer intent from the work or to test stated ambitions where known. If one is saying something and doing something else then intent and outcome should be re-appraised. 7).
Fig 7 Student compositional matrix of dualities and engagement of Council House 2 The student looked as various aspects of the work and interrogated it against compositional tactics. These matrices for a range of works by the students form a shorthand summary of the tactics employed and were a comparative tool to group works that exhibited similar tactics. For example. In the case of Norman Foster’s remodelling of the Reichstag in reunified Berlin one of the tactics was the expression of literal transparency with a glazed dome giving accommodating mirrors that allow vision down into the assembly chamber. Architecture relies on ideas but they do not have design currency until they can be interpreted through compositional operations. Two students may stress
. Third Exercise The third exercise required students to look to their own projects. In the example below the student had two matrices expressing ambitions and the current state of their design. For example Council House 2. additive form making and tectonic expression which would support the willingness to display services and devices that served the client’s stated ESD agenda of the building. in progress in the design studios. The resultant matrix was like bas-reliefs with each example offering an interpretation of the compositional story. These could then be tested to see if they were essential tactics or compound operations. as analysed. Students were required to provide sketches to illustrate how the architecture presented the tactics and to distil the expression of constituent operations (fig. platonic form.different dualities or degrees of engagement and come up with different matrix topographies but the value to the student is that while the analyses may be idiosyncratic they are compelled to test them and apply them consistently. They were to translate their stated intentions into a duality matrix and create a compositional topography. The purpose of the exercise is ultimately as a tool for the individuals design processes which was the theme of the third exercise. Here the intentions are converted into compositional operations. indicated a predilection for the tactics of assembly. The premise for the framework of analysis is that it would be a tool for design and that there was the link between idea and outcome. The example shows the analytical sketches in regard to the duality of additive – subtractive approaches to the form (fig. C. When applied to a range of dualities the result is a topographical image for the work with the darker zones in the matrix indicating where the student thought the ambitions were manifested in the dualities (fig. while expressing weightlessness. The student then reflected on the gap between ambition and what they had achieved to reflect both on the efficacy and appropriateness of the tactics address and also on the validity of the ambitions. 5). The value in this task is in the acceptance that the method of using the matrix is robust without expecting absolute answers. They were to do the same exercise against their design at whatever stage it was in at the time and compare the design matrix against their matrix of intentions. Students were asked to explore this connection and analyse their own design outcomes and intentions through the framework to test efficacy and consistency. 6). The latter was constructed from careful assessment of the parts of the design against dualities. In this instance the student saw the form as being weighted toward the additive end of the scale and that the nature of the elemental addition indicated to them an engagement in the expression returning a four from a scale of 1-5. The design also played with the concept of the symbol of governing permanence with the dome working with the tactics of symmetry.. Students were also encouraged to add dualities to the matrix if they perceived compositional tactics that was not covered.
Once a compositional matrix is posited it can provide the basis for investigation into precedents to source techniques from others (as was initiated in the fist exercise). The test can be a fluid process where not only are the means of composition questioned against intention but that the intentions themselves can be challenged against architectural outcomes. the degree of engagement of each compositional tactic and the nature of exploration of the operations are largely personal interpretations around an accommodating framework. The matrix also can provide the means of interrogating the design as it can be used to test propositions to see if they do fulfil the ambitions. The Next Step This process for compositional analysis described in this paper is still in its infancy. having been tested in senior student seminars for two years. CONCLUSION Composition remains a vexed area within the pedagogy of architecture schools as it is difficult to teach in a manner that provides a basis for designers. The potential for the process of compositional analysis proposed in this paper is that it establishes a methodology which can be employed to enable designers to translate their concepts into the language of architecture through a systematic understanding of compositional tactics.Fig 10. The value for the designer is that it is an explicit process. Designers are encouraged to break down their ideas into a matrix of operations. ‘As Is” analysis of student project
. Results have been
Fig 9. The method itself does not create design outcomes or act as a rule based generator for architecture. Profile of Student Design Intentions Fig 8. A. V. It offers some rigour and clarity in what is being pursued architecturally. one that they must acknowledge and work with. As discussed the extent of the matrix. Analysis of parts of the design against dualities.
These in turn have implications regarding compositional tactics of how to use colour. Architectural Composition.
Robinson. The designer would look to what such a manifestation may express and determine that vibrancy. Compositions in Architecture. are intended to be the core of how designers express architecture but it appears that a leap from what can be abstract concepts to the tools of design may be too great. Krier. New Jersey.
Baker. 1960 (1914). London. Architectural Composition. 2009.
Morgan.encouraging in outcomes and student motivation. Nathaniel Cortlandt Architectural Composition. Clark. John A Discussion of Composition. New York. This is a concept that does not equate to an architectural language.
. as described. Roger and Michael Pause. Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture. Cleveland. 1988. New York. Morris Hickey. energy and warmth are characteristics that to them express a sense of happiness. John Beverley. 1926. Rob. What appears to be problematic is the distance between intentions and the compositional tactics. The latter. What may be needed are interim steps to manifest abstract ideas into image that can then be interrogated by tactics. 1996. dynamic form and planning and the visual penetration of daylight which are tactics that can be investigated through propositions and precedents. Geoffrey.
. 1914. Design Strategies in Architecture. London. As an example let us presume a designer wishes to express happiness in a work. New York. In test driving the process aspects have emerged regarding deficiencies in the process. Precedents in Architecture. Don. Curtis. 1996. Hanlon. The next step for this topic will be to look at the interim phases as a stepping stones in the framework. Vredenburgh Van Pelt. London 1902.