A Beginner’s Guide to Architectural Design
I’m not an architect. But I love architecture in a very big way. And I work with architects. So in order to sound informed in the office and also to satisfy my need for at least basic knowledge on the topic, I took a few courses and did some reading on my own. Hey, even Frank Lloyd Wright had to start somewhere!
So here are some absolute basics you will need to know to wrap your head around architectural designs, even the simplest ones.
Positive Space vs. Negative Space
Space is called positive space if it is occupied by the main subjects of the work (i.e. the placement of figures: buildings, shapes, sculpture, even pieces of the landscape).
Negative space is what remains after figure placement and is also known as "unshaped."
“We move through negative spaces and dwell in positive spaces. Positive spaces are almost always preferred by people for lingering and social interaction. Negative spaces tend to promote movement rather than dwelling in place.”
A space is implied when something is not there, but has been designed to indirectly suggest that something is supposed to be there, or take place there.
Elements are implied when no element exists, but we can still “see” them. They are still clearly apparent.
Figure-Ground Theory vs. Solid Void Theory
Figure-ground theory states that any space resulting from the placement of figures should be considered as carefully as the figures themselves.
Solid-void theory is essentially figure-ground theory, but in three dimensions. The "contents" of spaces shaped or implied by the placement of solid objects are as important as (or more important than) the objects themselves.
Incidentally, if a three-dimensional area has a definite shape or sense of boundary between in and out, it is considered a positive space. Boundaries can be characterized by points, lines, planes, and solids such as a flagpole, the edges of buildings, the line of a roof, trees... pretty much anything you can think of.
- Use light guide lines under your heavier lines.
- When drawing a line, begin and end it with some kind of mark, like a kickback, a small "x", or a heavy dot. This will anchor the line and keep it from looking wishy-washy and like it will float off the page.
- Where lines meet, overlap them slightly to avoid looking rounded
- If you can't use a straight edge, draw one controlled line instead of shorter ones linked together.
- When drawing, do it hierarchically. Draw from the most general aspects of the design, across the whole sheet. Then add in the details, checking your proportions and alignments the whole time. Drawing is like cooking in this regard... a chef constantly tastes and readjusts their seasoning, as an architect, engineer, or drafter constantly drills down to the tiniest detail.
Elevations vs. Plans
An elevation drawing is a geometrical projection on a vertical plane that shows the external head-on parts of a building. For example, walls are drawn as if you are looking directly at them.
A plan drawing, also known as floor plans, is a horizontal view as if from above. Imagine floating above a building, with the top cut off. That's the view you get with a floor plan.
Design For a Reason (or More Than One, if Possible)
Finally, design for a reason – for example, to provide a certain experience or for a particular program. Examine the programmatic needs, imagine what will actually happen in those spaces, and then design directly around those needs and experiences. Justify your design in at least two ways… and the more, the better.
Suggested Reading (or Watching)
Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions, by Edwin Abbott Abbott, one of my favorite books.
This satirical novel is worth reading for fun, but it also helps with understanding dimensions. In short, it tells the story of geometric figures and the adventures of a square finding its way in Flatland, Lineland, Pointland, Spaceland, and beyond.
Flatland: The Movie - Official Trailer
Get a set of Tangrams and knock yourself out figuring the many ways they can fit together within a contained space... or the way they don't.
Alternatively, remove them from the contained space and see how you can create positive and negative spaces and implied elements.
Quick Architectural Definitions Table
The space of the page, poster, board, canvas, or other medium. Also known as space, residual space, white space, or field.
Any shape, element, or frame that is placed on the page (ground). Also referred to as objects, forms, elements, or positive shapes.
A point is a position in space, but has no dimension. It can be marked, but has no length, width, or depth on its own. It is static, centralized, and directionless.
A line is created by extending a point. It is contained by a point on either end.
When a line extends past its natural direction, it becomes a plane.
Space contained or enclosed by planes.
In architecture, this term does not refer to hardness of matter. It refers to a three-dimensional geometric figure.
Frederick, Matthew. 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, Cambridge, MA. MIT Press, 2007.
Ching, Frank. Architecture: Form, Space, and Order, New York, NY. Litton Educational Publishing, Inc., 1979.