101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick


The line type most specific to architecture is drawn with an emphasis at the beginning and at the end. To make strong lines, practice making a small blob or kickback at the beginning and end of every stroke. Overlap lines slightly where they meet. Move your pencil from start to end in a controlled, fluid motion. Don’t erase your guide lines when the drawing is complete—they will end it character and life. 

Space is called negative space if it is unshaped after the placement of figures. It is positive if it has a shape. 

We move through negative space 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. 

Suburban buildings are freestanding objects in space. Urban buildings are often shapers of space. 

“Architecture is the thoughtful making of space.” — Louis Kahn

Genius loci literally means genius of place. It is used to describe places that are deeply memorable for their architectural and experiential qualities. 

A tall, bright space will feel taller and brighter if counterpointed by a low-ceilinged, softly lit space. A room with south-facing windows will be more strongly experienced after one passes through a series of north-facing spaces. 

Use “denial and reward” to enrich passage through the built environment. In designing paths of travel, try presenting users a view of their target—a staircase, building entrance, monument, or other element—then momentarily screen it from view as they continue their approach. Reveal the target a second time from a different angle or with an interesting new detail. Divert users onto an unexpected path to create additional intrigue or even momentary lostness; then reward them with other interesting experiences or other views of their target. This additional “work” will make the journey more interesting, the arrival more rewarding. 

Envision actual situations or experiences that will happen in those spaces, and design an architecture that accommodates and enhances them. 

A space planner addresses the functional problem of fitting a building on its site: an architect is also concerned with the meaning of a site and its buildings. 

Architecture begins with an idea. An idea is a specific mental structure by which we organize, understand, and give meaning to external experiences and information. 

A parti is the central idea or concept of a building. A diagram depicting the general floor plan organization of a building and, by implication, its experiential and aesthetic sensibility. The design process is the struggle to create a uniquely appropriate parti for a project. Some will argue that an ideal parti is wholly inclusive—that it informs every aspect of a building from its overall configuration and structural system to the shape of the doorknobs. Others believe that a perfect parti is neither attainable nor desirable. 

Parti derives from understandings that are non architectural and must be cultivated before architectural form can be bornParti derives from matters more transcendent than mere architecture. 

The more specific a design idea is, the greater its appeal is likely to be. Draw upon a specific observations. Create environments others will identify with in their own way. Designing in idea-specific ways will not limit the ways in which people use and understand your buildings; it will give them license to bring their own interpretations and idiosyncrasies to them.

Any design decision should be justified in at least two ways. A stair’s primary purpose is to permit passage from floor to floor, but if well designed it can also serve as a congregation space, a sculptural element, and an orienting device in the building interior. Opportunities for multiple design justifications can be found in almost every element of a building. The more justifications you can find or create for any element, the better. 

Draw hierarchically. Start with the most general elements of the composition and work gradually toward the more specific aspects of it. 

Architects are more directly concerned with the human interface with physical things.

An architect knows something about everything. An engineer knows everything about one thing. An architect is a generalist, not a specialist. An architect must know enough about each discipline to negotiate and synthesize competing demands while honoring the needs of the client and the integrity of the entire project. 

How to make architectural hand-lettering. Use guide lines (actual or imagined) to ensure uniformity. Emphasize the beginning and end of all strokes, and overlap them slightly where they meet—just as in drawing lines. Give your horizontal strokes a slight upward tilt. If they slope downward, your letters will look tired. Give curved strokes a ballon-like fullness. Give careful attention to the amount of white space between letters. 

Use your parti as a guidepost in designing the many aspects of a building.

A good designer understands the erosion of a parti as a helpful indication of where a project needs to go next. When complications in the design process ruin your scheme, change—or if necessary, abandon—your parti. But don’t abandon having a parti, and don’t dig in tenaciously in defense of a scheme that no longer works. Create another parti that holistically incorporates all that you now know about the building.

Your goal as a designer should be to create an integrated whole. Think of a parti as an author employs a thesis, or as a composer employs a musical theme: not every idea a creator conjures up belongs in the work at hand! 

Being process-oriented, not product-driven, is the most important and difficult skill for a designer to develop. Being process-oriented means: seeking to understand a design problem before chasing after solutions; not force-fitting solutions to old problems onto new problems; being slow to fall in love with your ideas; making design investigations and decisions holistically; making design decisions conditionally; knowing when to change and when to stick with previous decisions; accepting as normal the anxiety that comes from not knowing what to do; working fluidly between concept-scale and detail-scale to see how each informs the other; always asking “What if…?” regardless of how satisfied you are with your solution. 

“A proper building grows naturally, logically, and poetically out of all its conditions.” — Louis Sullivan

Improved design process, not a perfectly realized building, is the most valuable thing you gain.

The most effective, most creative problem solvers engage in a process of meta-thinking, or “thinking about the thinking.” Meta-thinking means that you are aware of how you are thinking as you are doing the thinking. Meta-thinkers engage in continual dialogue of testing, stretching, criticizing, and redirecting their thought processes. 

If you with to imbue an architectural space or element with a particular quality, make sure that quality is really there. The clear demonstration of design intent is crucial. 

Frame a view, don’t merely exhibit it. Richer experiences are often found in views that are discreetly selected, framed, screened, or even denied. As a designer, work to carefully shape, size, and place windows such that they are specific to the views and experiences they address. 

Value drawings (rendered in shade and shadow) tend to convey emotions better than line drawings.

Any aesthetic quality is usually enhanced by the presence of a counterpoint. If you want a room to feel tall and bright, try designing an approach through a low, dark space. If you want an atrium to feel like a geometrically pure, highly organized center of a building, surround it with spaces that are more organically or randomly organized. If you want to emphasize the richness of a material, counterpose it with humble, less refined product. 

The cardinal points of the compass offer associations of mining that can enhance architectural experience. EAST: youthful, innocence, freshness. SOUTH: activity, clarity, simplicity. WEST: aging, questioning, wisdom. NORTH: maturity, acceptance, death. 

Cool colors tend to recede from the viewer—that is, they appear to be farther away, while warm colors advance. 

INFORMED SIMPLICITY is an enlightened view of reality. It is founded upon an ability to discern or create clarifying patterns within complex mixtures. Pattern recognition is a crucial skill for an architect, who must create a highly ordered building amid many competing and frequently nebulous design considerations. 

Create architectural richness through informed simplicity or an interaction of simples rather than through unnecessarily busy agglomerations.

Professionals who know their subject area well know how to communicate their knowledge to others in everyday language. 

IN THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE: Daylight from NORTH-facing windows tends to be shadowless, diffuse, and neutral or slightly grayish most of the day and year. Daylight from the EAST is strongest in the morning. It tends to be of low altitude, with soft, long shadows, and gray-yellow in color. Daylight from the SOUTH is dominant from late morning to mid-afternoon. It tends to render colors accurately and cast strong, crisp shadows. Daylight from the WEST is strongest in the late afternoon and early evening and has a rich gold-orange cast. It can penetrate deeply into buildings and occasionally be overbearing. 

Windows look dark in the daytime. When rendering an exterior building view, making the windows dark (except when the glass is reflective or a light-colored blind or curtain is behind the glass) will add depth and realism.

Beauty is due more to harmonious relationships amongst the elements themselves. It’s the dialogue of the pieces, not the pieces themselves, that creates aesthetic success. 

An appreciation for asymmetrical balance is considered by many to demonstrate a capacity for higher-order thinking. Balance is inherent in a symmetrical composition, but asymmetrical compositions can be either balanced or unbalanced. Consequently, asymmetry tends to require a more complex and sophisticated understanding of wholeness. 

A good building reveals different things about itself when viewed from different distances. 

Geometric shapes have inherent dynamic qualities that influence our perception and experience of the built environment. A room of square or cubic proportions may feel restful, although if not carefully designed, it can feel due or vacuous. A rectangle, because it has two long sides and two shorter sides, is inherently directional. The longer a rectangular room is, the more it will encourage visual and physical movement parallel to its long axis. A round or cylindrical building addresses every surrounding point equally and therefore can be an effective focal point on the landscape.

The best placement of a circulation path through a small room is usually straight through, a few feet from one wall. 

Most architectural forms can be classified as additive, subtractive, shaped, or abstract. ADDITIVE FORMS appear to have been assembled from individual pieces. SUBTRACTIVE FORMS appear to have been carved or cut from a previously “whole” form. SHAPED OR MOLDED FORMS appear to have been formed from a plastic material through directly applied force. ABSTRACT FORMS are of uncertain origin. 

The proportions of a building are an aesthetic statement of how it was built. 

Traditional buildings have thick exterior walls. Modern buildings have thin walls. Traditional architecture uses the exterior walls to support the weight of the building. Most modern buildings employ a frame of steel or concrete columns and beams to support structural loads and transfer the building’s weight to the earth. 

Traditional architecture employs a tripartite, or base-middle-top, format. 

“Less is more.” — Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe

“Less is a bore.” — Robert Venturi

A three-step differentiation between floor levels is usually the minimum that feels right.

Always show structural columns on your floor plan — even very early in the design process. Ordinary wood frame buildings typically have a column line or bearing wall every 10 to 18 feet; commercial-scale buildings of steel or concrete, every 25 to 50 feet. Structural systems for exhibit halls, arenas, and other such spaces can have spans of 90 feet or more. 

Columns are not merely structural elements; they are tools for organizing and shaping space. A row of columns can define the spaces on one side as different from those on the other side; distinguish circulation pathways from gathering spaces; act as a “way finding” element in a building interior; or serve as a rhythmic element on a building exterior. Square columns are directionally neutral; rectangular columns establish “grain” or directionality; and round columns contribute to a flowing sense of space. Complex column shapes were often employed in traditional masonry architecture to create richly interwoven spaces.

A good graphic presentation meets the Ten-Foot Test.

Design in section! Good designers work back and forth between plans and sections, allowing each to inform the other. Poor designers fixate on floor plans and draw building sections afterward as a record of decisions already made in plan. 

A floor plan demonstrates the organizational logic of a building; a section embodies its emotional experience.

Design is perspective! Sketching accurate one- and two-point perspectives of your buildings and building interiors throughout the design process will allow you to test your expectations of how your building will look, work, and feel in actual experience and to visualize design opportunities not evident in two-dimensional drawings. 

The two most important keys to effectively organizing a floor plan are managing solid-void relationships and resolving circulation. Solving a floor plan means creating practical and pleasing relationships between core spaces and primary program spaces. A building’s circulation—where people walk—should interconnect the program spaces with the stairs and elevator lobbies in a way that is both logical and interesting; the circulation system has to work both efficiently and aesthetically, offering pleasant surprises, unexpected vistas, intriguing nooks, agreeable lighting variations, and other interesting experiences along the way. 

When an object seems too complex to draw, first draw the box you imagine it came in. Then draw the object within that simplified container. 

Overdesign. At the outset of the design process, make your spaces about 10 percent larger than they need to be to meet the assigned program. The point of over designing is not to design a larger building than is necessary but to design one that is ultimately the right size. 

No design system his or should be perfect.

Always place fire stairs at opposite ends of the buildings you design, even in the earliest stages of the design process.

Use a light-colored marker with a big chisel point to form lowercase architectural letters; then trace around the resulting shapes with a hint black pen. 

Properly gaining control of the design process tends to feel like one is losing control of the design process. Being genuinely creative means that you don’t know where you are going, even though you are responsible for shepherding the process. Engage the design process with patience. 

True architectural style does not come from a conscious effort to create a particular look. It results obliquely—even accidentally—out of a holistic process. 

Don’t draw every brick in a brick wall, every shingle on a shingled roof, or every tile in a tile floor. Selectively hint at material qualities. 

In the spaces between, create interesting architectural experiences for your captive audience!

An object, surface, or space usually will feel more balanced or whole when its secondary articulation runs counter to its primary geometry.

Fabric buildings, or background buildings, are the more numerous buildings of a city. Object or foreground buildings are buildings of unusual importance. 

Roll your drawings for transport or storage with the image side facing out. 

Build to the street wall. Setting buildings back from the sidewalk makes them less accessible to passersby, reduces the economic viability of first floor businesses, and weakens the spatial definition of the street. 

“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” — Eliel Saarinen

The primary mechanism by which the government regulates the design of buildings are zoning laws, building codes, and accessibility codes.

Limitations encourage creativity.

The Chinese symbol for crisis is comprised of two characters: one indicating “danger,” and the other, “opportunity.” A design problem is not something to be overcome, but an opportunity to be embraced. The best design solutions do not make a problem go away, but accept the problem as a necessary state of the world. Frequently they are little more than an eloquent restatement of the problem. 

Drawing is not simply a way of depicting a design solution; it is itself a way of learning about the problem you are trying to solve.