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U.Va. Architecture Professor Examines Concepts of Architectural Detailing in New Book

November 28, 2011 — What is an architectural detail? And what does it say about a building? University of Virginia architecture professor Edward Ford sets out to answer, or at least probe, these questions in his new book, "The Architectural Detail."

"Essentially, architectural detail is a concept that gets used a lot, but is rather nebulously defined” in terms of what people mean," said Ford, Vincent and Eleanor Shea Professor of Architecture. "This book was about establishing a definition and surveying theories that have been provided over the years."

The book, published this month by Princeton Architectural Press, examines the predominant definitions of architectural detail. By picking apart the merits and weaknesses of each concept, Ford attempts to use these qualified definitions of detail to approach a more comprehensive understanding. He writes, "Details are the basis for, not an accessory to, understanding a building."

Ford formulated the idea for his book in 2004 while a Thomas Jefferson Fellow at Cambridge University's Downing College. As he explains in the book's preface, both Downing and U.Va. have created a "historicist prison" for their institution by designing new buildings, built as an "afterthought" around a historic green, in the style of the original buildings, despite a gap in time, space and technological advances. A comparison of these schools inspired him on his return to Virginia to co-write an open letter to the University and community at large, arguing "that Jefferson's architectural legacy was not one of literal symbols, but rather of a set of larger principles."

Ford took interest in how the many calls for a change in the status quo of U.Va.'s architectural philosophy drew from diverse individual principles of what architecture and detailing should be.

Often, he uses negative examples to define architectural detail. A closer look at U.Va. and many well-known contemporary and modern buildings helped him conclude that "details are necessary for architectural coherence, even for architectural meaning to be conveyed, but it is more often than not by means other than unity, consistency or abstraction."

Ford's book was originally part of a larger work that now exists as its own entity, called "Five Houses, Ten Details" (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), which deals mainly with Ford's own work as an architect on his home and other structures. Though both books can stand independently, Ford said they also work together. He has also written several editions of "The Details of Modern Architecture," volumes 1 and 2, and was consultant to the 1992 American Heritage Dictionary.

One of the more challenging aspects of his latest book was the artwork. Ford made all of the drawings and took many of the photographs himself. "Because of the economics of publishing, page size, color, it's a big challenge to try to get as much information as you want into a book without it turning into a $500 book," Ford said. In his opinion, "the drawings are as important, if not more important, than the writing."

He said he views his teaching experience at the University as instrumental to his writing. His course "Concepts in Detailing" parallels the book fairly closely, and, like his writing, has evolved over the years.

"The book and the course grew together; as one developed, the other developed," he said.

Jennifer Lippert, who earned a master's degree in architectural history from the University in 1997 and studied under Ford, now edits his books at Princeton Architectural Press. Lippert said that her favorite part of Ford's latest book is that he puts everything in historical context.

Ford received the Virginia Society of the Institute of Architects' Prize for Design Research and Scholarship for "The Architectural Detail." The institute called it "a unique, accessible treatment of a topic that has seen a lot of writing but little clarity," adding that "its ambitious scope and thorough analysis make it an important study that has implications for how detailing is taught and executed. Its conclusions are provocative, and they will likely create much-needed debate and reflection on a subject that is often taken for granted or overlooked."

Lippert said the book may appeal to a wider audience. "It's very much an academic book, but the writing style is very accessible. If you have an interest in architecture, it's a great book to pick up."

— By Kate Colwell

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