God is in the detail
‘God is in the detail’
by Raymond Smith, February 2022
A well-known axiom, quoted by both Friedrich Nietzsche – a 19th century German philosopher who had a profound influence on modern intellectual history – and the German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the last director of the prestigious Bauhaus School of Art, Design and Architecture in the 1930’s and who is regarded as one of the pioneers of modern architecture.
It has indeed been my experience in a design career of over thirty years, that it is one thing to have a wonderful concept, but to materialise the idea requires a vigorous process of working out the detail.
As a young student of design, I recall a competition project to design an exhibition space for Mentis Sales at a trade show in Cape Town. We had about a month to design it and the winning design had to be built by the class. I recall spending most of the time playing with the actual materials, such as expanded metal, grating and various perforated light-weight steel sections, until I identified a number of construction details. This gave rise to the overall concept, which was then further realised through building a scale model within two days. This winning design literally came about as a result of understanding the language of the materials and exploring their potential. Touching, feeling and experimenting with it in my hands helped me to figure out the various properties and to see what possibilities they may present in a potential design.
In architecture one cannot simply place different materials together, as their properties differ (for instance: some materials have different contraction and expansion rates), and these variables in properties need to be accounted for. The art of assembling a structure, referred to as tectonics, is at the end of the day the difference between a structure that is not only firm and functional, but also one that expresses a conviction in its making.
Quality is articulated in the detail
An example of such is shown in the accompanying photograph of the cranked-roof ridging detail in Veldhuis. The concealed fix zincalume roof sheeting is cranked to form a continuous ridgeline – this is not only a sensible solution to ensure that no embers can be blown in during a veldfire, but it also safeguards the roof against strong wind conditions, which otherwise tend to push rainwater underneath standard ridging. This detail references the Klein-Hangklip mountains aesthetically, which forms a visual link to the topography of the landscape.
Listen, observe and think it through
This stage of the design process – referred to as working drawings – is where experience counts, as it contributes great value to the overall project. Poor detailing will translate negatively on the quality of the work on site.
As important as it is to think through the details beforehand to a certain level of understanding, it is also important to not close off options too quickly and rather allow for improvement of details during construction on site – as sometimes this is when better solutions may present themselves. For this reason, over-thinking of the detail design during the initial stages should be guarded against. A certain language starts to develop in each project during the development stages, which usually also finds expression in the detail. Over the years I have learnt much from various tradesmen; from bricklayers to carpenters, joiners, electricians and plumbers alike, whom all influenced the way I think about detail design today.
A good architect or designer is also a good listener who never stops at trying to improve on the original idea, with the main aim being to materialise the best quality project possible within the limitations of the scheme. It is prudent to explore different ways to resolve a detail, and wise to know when to stop.