Designing at all scales

Episode 2 of the lessons of architectural design II held in 2012:

Most designers work starting from small scales and proceeding progressively towards the large ones. At this stage – I’m talking to students of the second year of a three-year program – you have certainly met the scales of representation: if I say that a drawing is scaled one to x I mean that a unit of measurement (meter, millimeter, inch) on the drawing is x times the same size on the object represented. We go from geographical scales, from 1 to millions or hundreds of thousands, up to 1:25,000, the urban scales, 1:25,000-1:1,000, the architectural scales, from 1:500 up to 1:50, to the technological detail, up to 1:1, ending with the industrial design or precision scales, in which the drawing is larger than the object represented, 2:1, 5:1 and so on. If the denominator is large it is said that the scale is small, and vice versa.

casa Lina, Marmore, Terni, 1964-67, finestra

Well, a designer who doesn’t have much time available begins from the plan of the parcel, which logs all planning rules appliable to his project and any other constraints, and places there his piece of work, shaped from the program of the developer or – more often – trying to maximize the buildable volume according to urban plans, thus studying at that scale all the relations with the surroundings. When he’s satisfied with the result, he copies his design to a larger scale and begins to organize the rooms, the paths, the lights, the structural grid. At a still larger scale he draws the doors and windows, stairs, structures, pipes, floors and ceilings. If he has a lot of time to spend, at a certain point towards the end, he begins to draw the handles, frames and sills and light fixtures, but this rarely happens; if everything goes well, all the latter will be chosen from a catalog, according to the available budget.

The fact that in Autocad he can represent whatever he wishes in a 1:1 scale doesn’t change anything: the process is in the brain and the real scale is given by the level of detail of the object represented, not by how big things are seen on the PC screen.

The buildings designed this way are easily recognizable as you enter and, if you’re trained, from afar. The technological solutions are highly standardized and not related to the whole. Beams and pillars emerge randomly in the rooms and floor tiles, especially in small rooms, start from one corner and are cut oddly at the other.

2a      4_2

On the other hand one can also proceed in a different fashion: from the constraints and the program, changing the scale often, and moving many times from the smallest one to the larger and vice versa, each time with a more detailed level of definition of the design. I’ll give an example: while analyzing the functional program, for instance an office, we shall begin by drawing a standard desk in the center of a white sheet, with a side table for the printer, a chest of drawers, a chair. Got papers? A closet. Receives public? Two more chairs in front. A coat rack, a waste bin, perhaps a sofa, perhaps a small meeting table. Then we have to turn these furnishings around: 60, 90, 120 cm as much as we want to make us feel comfortable. Then we put in a window, oriented in the right way, and a door. An open space for twelve people? Same approach. A room for a restaurant? Equal. Classrooms? Shops? Bathrooms? Still the same.

Now we go back to the small-scale, say 1:200. We assemble our squares as we like, let them become triangular or round, then go back and check what happened.

Now we decide the structural technology: reinforced concrete, steel, brick, straw. Every way of building has its own rules. We have to learn them BEFORE we draw the building plan, because some materials prefer a uniform grid, some not, some have great thicknesses and small holes, others the opposite. Wood structural panel has its specific constraints, completely different from those of the raw soil. Draw a small stretch of the wall to scale 1:10, a window, a door – plan and section. Then we return to the small scale and re-design the entire building with the right thickness and the rules we have just set.

And so we go on: equipment, finishes, elevations, back and forth until the project is defined at the level that satisfies us. Surprise: this doesn’t take more time, because we can stop at any time or go on forever.

Buildings that are designed this way can be recognized from the distance: the edge of the floor ends aligned with the pillar, the framework recalls the piers, the lamps make a harmonious design with the beams, tiles finish even at both sides of the bathroom.

I’m not saying that this way is better than the other; but I like it when my eyes run around and meet the thread of thought of the architect. At that moment it is as if it would create an understanding between him and me, almost a complicity. So I feel that the place belongs to a united whole, of which I am part. Not bad.

casa Lina, Marmore, Terni, 1964-67, finestra (3)

Images:  Mario Ridolfi, casa Lina, Marmore, Terni, 1964-67 copyright  Accademia di San Luca, Fondo Ridolfi-Frankl-Malagricci,


About paolo ivaldi

Architetto, lavora presso il Ministero degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale. Ha insegnato progettazione e storia dell'Architettura presso Sapienza Università di Roma. Impegnato in una personale ricerca sul rapporto tra arte e scienza in architettura.
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One Response to Designing at all scales

  1. Slawek Porowski says:

    Paolo, this is wonderfully insightful! One of my teachers held a theory that, when designing well, with the end result in sight, it would not matter whether you start with a door handle or street layout, the trouble being that few of us would bother to do it well…
    Significantly, the drawings you posted are all hand-drawn, showing the connection of soul, eyes and hand, even in mundane window sill details. I am moved by this call to thoughtfulness and thank you for getting this conversation going. Happy New Year to you and yours!

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