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ABC of Architecture

ABC of Architecture

by James F. O'Gorman, Dennis E. McGrath (Illustrator)

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ABC of Architecture
James F. O'Gorman. Drawings by Dennis E. McGrath

"May be the best-written work on the subject."--New York Times

"Thank goodness for James F. O'Gorman, who has given us this refreshingly clear guide to the indispensable convergence of art and science we call architecture."--Forbes

"[O'Gorman's] mastery of the subject shows in


ABC of Architecture
James F. O'Gorman. Drawings by Dennis E. McGrath

"May be the best-written work on the subject."--New York Times

"Thank goodness for James F. O'Gorman, who has given us this refreshingly clear guide to the indispensable convergence of art and science we call architecture."--Forbes

"[O'Gorman's] mastery of the subject shows in his straightforward, lucid prose."--Publishers Weekly

"James O'Gorman's ABC of Architecture takes its rightful place among the few paragons this century of clear and direct introductions to the field."--Robert Venturi

ABC of Architecture is an accessible, nontechnical introduction to architectural structure, history, and criticism. Author James F. O'Gormon moves seamlessly from a discussion of the most basic inspiration for architecture (the need for shelter from the elements), to an exploration of space, system, and material, and, finally, to an examination of the language and history of architecture. He shows the nonspecialist how to read a design in plans, sections, and elevations, and how architects, like other artists, make creative use of space and light.

James F. O'Gorman is Grace Slack McNeil Professor of the History of American Art at Wellesley College and author of more than a dozen books on architecture and art history, including Connecticut Valley Vernacular: The Vanishing Landscape and Architecture of the New England Tobacco Fields, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

1997 | 144 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | 53 illus.
ISBN 978-0-8122-1631-8 | Paper | $16.95s | £11.50
World Rights | Architecture

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"May be the best-written work on the subject."—New York Times

"Thank goodness for James F. O'Gorman, who has given us this refreshingly clear guide to the indispensable convergence of art and science we call architecture."—Forbes

"[O'Gorman's] mastery of the subject shows in his straightforward, lucid prose."—Publishers Weekly

"James O'Gorman's ABC of Architecture takes its rightful place among the few paragons this century of clear and direct introductions to the field."—Robert Venturi

Library Journal
This volume represents a significant departure in terms of its intended readership, scope of subject, and depth of analysis for O'Gorman (art, Wellesley Coll.), who has written eloquently and with considerable originality on late 19th-century American architecture. Here he provides a brief primer on architectural awareness for the beginning student or lay reader. The text, which addresses the reader directly, closely approximates the tone of an undergraduate lecture. Structured around three central chapters, each corresponding to one of Vitruvius's defining elements (firmness, commodity, and delight), the lucid explanations focus on plan, structure, and style, respectively. The illustrations are the chief liability: heavy-lined drawings provide less than adequate visual descriptions of buildings rich in texture, shadow, and color. Moreover, lacking figure numbers and descriptive captions, they are much less useful than they might otherwise be. As an introduction to the topic, this volume does not eclipse Steen Eiler Rasmussen's timeless and original Experiencing Architecture (1962), but it may do well in larger public libraries.Paul Glassman, Pratt Inst. Lib., Brooklyn

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University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
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Chapter One


An ancient Roman architect named Vitruvius wrote that a building must be considered "with due reference to function, structure, and beauty" (Utilitas, Firmitas, and Venustas in his original Latin). This is an exquisite formulation; for all its antiquity it remains a useful framework for the preliminary analysis of a building. Vitruvius gave us the ABC of architecture.

Architecture begins when a person or an institution has a problem that can be solved only by building. That person—the client—states his or her needs in a "building program." The architect interprets that program in drawings. The builder translates those drawings into the finished building.

There are three basic types of architectural drawings. The plan diagrams function; the section (in part) diagrams structure; the elevation evokes beauty (let us hope it does, anyway). The plan represents the client's needs; the section tells the builder what structure to use; plan, section, and above all elevation demonstrate the architect's design, his formal solution to the building program.

Think of the Vitruvian factors as the corners of an equilateral triangle, or better, the legs of a tripod called architecture. None can stand alone; each is dependent upon the other two to form the work of architecture. In the same way, client, builder, and architect, plan, section, and elevation, are all interdependent. To understand a work of architecture is to recognize this mutuality, to learn as much as you can about all three interactive factors.

You must first ask what kind of building you are studying. What did the client want? What didthe building program require? The work of architecture is the result of the architect's interpretation of program in relation to the client's budget, the building's site, and the availability of materials and structural technology.

Next you must look at the plan as a diagram of the building's intended use, its function. If a drawing of the plan is not at hand you must reconstruct it from the building. This is as close as you can get to the building program—the statement of function—if it too is missing. The plan demonstrates the relationships between the items of the program that have spatial equivalents. A school, for example, will have classrooms, an auditorium, a gymnasium, corridors, restrooms, and so on.

Within the plan you will find that there are two kinds of spaces: primary and secondary. Primary spaces represent the main function of the building; secondary spaces make those primary spaces usable. For example, in the school, classrooms and auditorium are primary; corridors and restrooms are secondary. The architect will organize his or her diagram of function according to this hierarchy.

You will find that there are basically two kinds of plans: the additive and the divisive. The additive plan strings discrete rooms into a usually irregular pattern. The divisive plan separates spaces within a larger and usually simple perimeter. The additive plan is often asymmetrical. The divisive plan is often symmetrical. As we shall see, the one usually generates complex three-dimensional forms; the other, simple solid shapes.

Once the architect has diagrammed function, he or she begins to think in three dimensions. That means choosing a structural system. (In fact, although I must outline these procedures sequentially, the architect must consider all three of the Vitruvian factors simultaneously. As I said, they are interdependent.)

The architect and the builder have a choice between two basic structural systems: the trabeated and the arcuated. The former is based on a unit of two verticals (posts) supporting a horizontal (lintel). In three dimensions this becomes a rectangular frame. The latter is composed of wedge-shaped stones, or voussoirs, that arc between posts (if it is built of reinforced concrete there are no voussoirs, but the mechanics are similar). In three dimensions this becomes a vault or dome. The trabeated system creates a closed rectangle, although it can be opened by the use of cantilevers, or beams supported at midpoint with free or "floating" ends. The arcuated system generates diagonal thrusts, so it must be buttressed in one of several ways. Arch and buttress can form a pyramidal outline. As we know from the Golden Gate Bridge, there are also suspension structures. They occur less often, and so more dramatically, in buildings.

Whether trabeated, arcuated, or suspended, a structure seeks stasis by balancing forces in tension and compression. Tension pulls; compression pushes. They operate in opposite directions, and if they are not balanced they will destroy a building. You must ask, "In what way does the structure achieve stasis?" "What impact does the struggle of forces have on its plan, its overall form?"

Architecture first happened when someone thought it might be nice to get in out of the wet or cold, to create a usable interior space. Space is common to all the formal arts, but as a general rule painting represents space; sculpture displaces space; and architecture encloses space, usable space. Since structure creates space, the choice of trabeated or arcuated will determine the character of a building's interior. A room shaped by the post-and-lintel system will probably have a flat ceiling, for example; use of an arcuated system might result in a vaulted space. And of course, interior space (like plan) determines external form.

The architect creates beauty through formal design. Selection of structural system impacts upon plan (as the plan influences this selection), and it affects the form of a building's interior and thus its exterior as well. Depending on the architect's choice of plan type, additive or divisive, that exterior might be picturesque (irregular) or formal (regular).

A picturesque building is asymmetrical, dynamic, colorful, visually energetic. A formal building is symmetrical, quiet, usually monochromatic, decorous. Axial alignment plays no part in the picturesque work; the axis dominates the formal. In the former, doors and windows often assume irregular shapes and distribution; the skyline breaks into spires, towers, dormers, high roofs. Our usual diagonal approach emphasizes its irregularity. In the latter, openings of repetitive design occur evenly spaced, main doors are centered, a horizontal cornice or simple roof caps the building, and we usually approach it head-on so that its balance is obvious.

On the exterior—as in the interior—choice of materials is an important consideration in determining color, scale, weight, and other architectural values. Brick, stone, stucco, enameled metal panels, plate glass: each imparts its own effect upon the finished building.

The distribution of windows on the exterior is notable, as is their placement in relation to interiors. Color and light play important roles in the characterization of interior space as well as of exterior form. Direct or indirect, side or overhead, natural or artificial illumination determines the character of a design.

Beauty, architectural beauty, is the hoped-for result of appropriate planning and sturdy structure. But beauty is relative. The Vitruvian factors remain dependent on each other, but they change individually over time. We must now think of them in terms of history. Architecture and history go hand in hand.

Building types, and hence building programs, vary from era to era. The individual client represents society at large, and that means he or she represents the wants and wishes of a given period. The Renaissance wanted primarily churches and palaces. Not until the nineteenth century could a client order a railroad station or a public library; not until the twentieth might he or she need an air terminal.

The Greeks built with post and beam; the Romans added arches and vaults. These systems, the trabeated and the arcuated, were originally achieved in natural, masonry materials, and that meant a large investment of mass to create a relatively small amount of space. Ancient buildings look heavy, solid. With the coming of the Industrial Revolution and the production of lighter and stronger synthetic materials such as iron, steel, reinforced concrete, and plate glass, architects using the same systems could achieve larger spans and more spacious buildings. A Greek temple embodies a structural system in the same category as that of the Empire State Building; what differences they exhibit are functions of history.

Standards of beauty, or style, change over time. From the classicism of the Greeks and Romans to the Gothic of the Middle Ages, from the heavy-walled, sculpted forms of older buildings resting solidly on the ground to the delicate glazed buildings of the twentieth century that seem to dance over the earth on tiptoe, buildings have always reflected the society that ordered them, the technology available to build them, and the prevailing artistic theory that gave them shape.

Your study must ultimately tie the building into the historical era that created it. What style is it? To answer this you must read history: social, technological, and artistic history. No analysis is possible without the knowledge gained from such study.

Vitruvius tells us that the classical orders were modeled on the human body: the sturdy Doric a young man, the more delicate Ionic a young woman, and so on. He suggests that architecture takes on meaning through metaphor. Architecture is a language of metaphor. The pointed arches of the Gothic suggest a Christian church; the dome of the U.S. Capitol communicates political power. Those meanings have their roots in history. You must learn to read architecture by reading history.

Finally, no analysis of a building is possible unless you have the right vocabulary. "That thing sticking out of the roof" won't do. If it's a chimney, call it that; if it's a dormer, call it that. If you don't know the correct term, use a dictionary. The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture is a handy choice, but there are many of them, and they are usually illustrated.

The analysis of a building studies plan, structure, and style in relation to historical period. There is nothing prescribed in this book about beauty, which is ultimately a relative standard. I might not like what you like. Aesthetic preference comes from outside the Vitruvian triad. In your judgment of the visual success or failure of the architect's solution to the task ordered by the client, you are on your own.


You are outside on a treeless plain. It is raining (or snowing). It is hot (or cold). You want shelter. You want to go inside.

The first person to act upon that wish invented architecture. That person created the original building program, recognized the first of a list of needs that could be satisfied only by building, because, although most of our celebrity architects have forgotten the fact, architecture first and foremost provides us with shelter from the elements. Before everything else buildings (should) keep us warm (or cool) and dry. A yurt or a cave, you say, will keep us warm and dry. The yurt and the cave are architectural forms, I reply, although here I am particularly concerned with monumental, permanent, manufactured buildings. Architecture is an art that begins by creating habitable interiors.

Architecture is more than mere shelter; it rises to the realm of art. It shares certain characteristics with other concrete art forms, especially painting and sculpture: abstract principles such as design, composition, form, light, color patterns, and so on. The great buildings, the monuments we can all agree stand at the top of the architectural pecking order, are great works of art. Few paintings or pieces of sculpture offer the aesthetic wallop of the atmosphere of the Court of the Lions at the Alhambra in Granada, the soaring interior of the cathedral at Beauvais, or the distant profile of Mont-Saint-Michel shimmering in the early morning mist off the coast of Normandy.

Architecture can be distinguished from the other arts by its fundamental property, its usable interior. Light and space are formative elements common to all the visual arts. It is obvious that light shapes form, that we need light to see form. How the painter, the sculptor, or the architect manipulates light determines the character of a work of art. It is the element of space, however, that sets architecture apart from the other arts. Painting, sculpture, and architecture all exist in space; each has a primary character related to space. Painting represents space (whether two- or three-dimensional); sculpture displaces space; architecture encloses space. It is true that some painting reaches for the third dimension, and it is true that some sculpture—Henry Moore's work comes immediately to mind—encompasses space. It is also true that in recent years some artists have tried to blur the distinctions between the arts—as others have tried to blur the differences between the genders. May neither attempt succeed. All generalizations have exceptions, but special cases do not concern us here. Architecture is in general distinguished from the other arts because it alone is primarily concerned with creating usable interior space.

Painted or sculpted space is purely aesthetic; architectural space is first of all utilitarian. Architectural art begins physical and ends psychological. Buildings spring from a basic need, our need for overhead shelter from the pouring rain or beating sun, and lateral enclosure against suffocating heat and intense cold. That need calls for a structural solution. It is satisfied by means of architectural statics, the balance of forces allowing the walls to rise beside us and the roof to span above us. These form the masses that enclose usable interior space. What shape those masses, or solids, take depends on a variety of factors, not the least of which are artistic theory and style. This architectural triad—of need, means, and art—has since antiquity constituted the ABC of architecture.

A Roman republican architect and engineer, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, wrote what, through the accidents of historical survival, became the only book on architecture we have inherited from classical antiquity. It is the oldest, and probably the most influential, book ever written about the subject; it is the bible of building. It was once a standard text. I doubt that most architects read it now, but in its fundamentals it remains for the layperson a useful approach to the analysis of architecture.

A building, wrote Vitruvius, must be considered "with due reference to function, structure, and beauty" (Utilitas, Firmitas, and Venustas in the original Latin). These are the need, means, and art I have already introduced. Although there are other—and very important—factors to be kept in mind when discussing architecture, as for example economics (a building's budget), this is an exquisite formulation. It is by far the most succinct and at the same time most encompassing definition of architecture ever written, and it will serve as the backbone of my discourse.

Architects think geometrically, and so must we. Envision Vitruvius's definition as an equilateral triangle with one of his factors at each corner. Each is discrete, yet all combine to shape a larger whole. That larger whole, represented by our equilateral triangle, is the work of architecture. Architecture being an art, and therefore the result of human effort, such a work requires the participation of three types of individuals who personify Vitruvius's factors. Thus Utilitas, need, is expressed though a building program created by the client, the owner of the property or his representative. Firmitas, the structural and material means of answering the requirements of that program, is the province of the builder. And Venustas, the design or artistic arrangement of those systems and materials, is the responsibility of the architect. (An engineer might serve either the builder or the architect but his efforts are absorbed into their work.)

All three activities could be (and have been) performed by the same person, but, especially in the modern world, that is very rare. The poet Robert Browning thought it a distant dreamland indeed "where every man is his own architect." What is more cogent is that, like the three interdependent corners that join to form our equilateral triangle, or the legs of a camera tripod, each of these factors, each of these individuals, depends upon the other two. The trio of concerns forms a unit until the building is complete. Although many a critic and many an architect have neglected the fact, client, builder, and architect represent respectively Utilitas, Firmitas, and Venustas, and if the latter constitute the ABC of architecture, the former embody them.

Any building campaign in which these three individuals are not in harmony will prove difficult if not disastrous. Any analysis of architecture that aspires to completeness must recognize the mutual contributions of each. The architect is, however, the pivotal figure. There have been books and exhibitions dedicated to "architecture without architects," but they have merely failed to call a spade a spade, or to credit the designer, whoever he or she was, with the title I find comfortable here. Someone gives form to even vernacular buildings; I choose to call that someone an architect.

Professional or amateur, the architect usually directs the building campaign. The architect interprets the client's program and represents it to the builder. As designer, the architect gives shape to the client's needs and the builder's materials. This is usually expressed through geometrical diagrams, or architectural drawings. There are three basic types of architectural graphics: plans, sections, and elevations. As it happens, each of these directly relates to each of the three Vitruvian factors. Need, or use, is diagrammed in the floor plans; overall structure (among other things) is depicted in the sections; and the overall design is shown in the elevations.

Plans are horizontal slices through the building at each floor showing the lateral arrangement of rooms. Sections are vertical slices showing upright spatial relationships, the structure, and (in modern buildings) the mechanical systems. They also show the elevations of individual interiors. Elevations are drawings of interior or exterior walls undistorted by the effects of perspective. They show measurable areas and relationships. They are analytical diagrams rather than evocations of intended visual experience.

Supplemental drawings such as full-scale details, diagrams of mechanical equipment, or presentation perspectives enhance the package of architectural graphics, and many are required as part of the contractual process of erecting a complex modern structure, but they are not essential in shaping the basic building. A three-dimensional model costs money and when constructed often acts only as a promotional aid.

Architects in the recent past have usually drawn in pencil or ink on tracing paper or tracing cloth, then made copies for use as "blue line," "black line," or ozalid prints, although increasingly they now generate diagrams by CAD (Computer Assisted Drawing) programs, plot them by machine, and distribute them by printout. However they are produced, they are drawn to scale, usually, in the United States, a quarter-inch to the foot for plans, sections, and elevations, larger to full scale for details.

Multiple sheets of architectural drawings are the rule now in the creation of a building, but there was a time when such graphics were nonexistent, or minimal at best. Few construction drawings for ancient or medieval buildings survive. The drawings for venerable Independence Hall in Philadelphia, begun in the 1730s, consist of two rudimentary plans and an elevation on one small sheet of velum. This was possible then because the building was designed and erected in a period of universally accepted rules of classical composition and conservative structural technique. It was also designed without regard for any of our present-day energy-driven conveniences.

The difference between the minimal graphics needed for Independence Hall and the voluminous drawings required for a modern building brings up another controlling element that must quickly be recognized in our discussion of architecture: History. While the relationship among the corners of the Vitruvian triangle never varies, the triangle itself moves through time. As it moves, the possibilities of the client's needs, the builder's technologies, and the architect's formal inclinations all change. Before the age of air travel, no client asked for an airplane hanger. Before the Industrial Revolution, no builder erected a steel and plate-glass skyscraper. Before the Middle Ages, no architect designed a Gothic cathedral. Architecture is a discipline located at the intersection of social, technological, and artistic history.

The Vitruvian triangle moving through time creates architecture and its history. It might even be said that architecture and history are inseparable; that architecture is history. A building exists as a crystallization of a given moment of society, technology, and art. It is an event in the ongoing evolution of architecture, and it will probably show the accumulated results of much that has gone before. It is therefore essential that the client, the builder, the architect, and the architectural critic all have at least a basic understanding of architectural history.

Client, builder, and architect represent constituencies larger than themselves, and those constituencies are shaped by time. The client stands in for society as a whole or in its parts. A priest ordering a chapel does so for his congregation, and that congregation is the creation of historical forces. The builder embodies the current state of technology. The Roman engineer who threw up the great vaults of the Baths of Caracalla used structural potential unknown to (or at least unused by) the earlier Greeks. The architect stands in for the artistic community as a whole. Although much of the rhetoric around such "form givers" as the twentieth-century American architect Frank Lloyd Wright denies the fact, at any given time it would be impossible for a successful designer to break away from the social needs, technological possibilities, or stylistic expectations of his age.

Architecture, then, stands at the intersection of societal need, available technology, and artistic theory. Each of these is represented by the client, the builder, and the architect, but it is the architect who answers the need through the production of plans, sections, and elevations that make apparent the client's program, the builder's materials, and the designer's artistic inclinations.

Architecture is, or at least it begins with, the enclosure of habitable space. We will refine and extend that definition as we proceed.

Meet the Author

James F. O'Gorman is Grace Slack McNeil Professor of the History of American Art at Wellesley College and author of more than a dozen books on architecture and art history, including Connecticut Valley Vernacular: The Vanishing Landscape and Architecture of the New England Tobacco Fields, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

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