Book Review: Five Houses, Ten Details

Five Houses, Ten Details by Edward R. Ford
Princeton Architectural Press, 2009
Hardcover, 256 pages

Virginia-based architect and educator Edward R. Ford is known most for his two-volume study on The Details of Modern Architecture. Those carefully illustrated books elevated the importance of technical details in the analysis of modern architecture and the education of young architects. Not surprisingly Ford's latest book, the second in Princeton Architectural Press's "Writing Matters" series, is focused on architectural details. In this investigation of different houses he designed for his property in Charlottesville, detailing is seen as an important and necessary element in architecture, something to be expressed, not buried under a guise of abstraction. In each of the five designs that Ford undertakes for his house different themes are explored: details and abstraction, materials and form, detail and structure, detail and joints, and furniture and architecture.

Ford's writing and drawings, like his other books, is clear and extremely persuasive in arguing for an architecture where details are carefully articulated. In the final, built house the details are a mixture of articulated and abstracted, but ultimately they are expressive of what they are, details, not miniature versions of the architecture of which they are apart. This last, and the abstraction and continuity of surface, are what Ford rallies against. Not surprisingly his house exhibits a mix of the tectonic and the Arts & Crafts, dated but pleasing, a blend of the modern and the vernacular.

My quibbles with Ford's argument are two: his plans do not really change in each exploration and his argument is rooted in the autonomy of architecture. Regarding the first, the basic footprint and volume are set by local codes, but from chapter to chapter the plans have certain constants, such as mezzanines in the double-height living rooms. Basically each thematic study of the design is a refinement of what came before. The relationship between the detail and the plan is not discussed, perhaps rooted in Ford's contention that the detail is not the building in microcosm. But shouldn't the detail influence and be influenced by the plan? Here the message is that a plan can be rendered with a multiple of details. Regarding my second quibble, Ford's argument probably could not happen on any commission besides his own house. To basically explore strictly architectural problems, divorced from any of the relationships that architecture must confront (social, political) that come from public projects, is a fairly incomplete investigation. Economic and environmental concerns are dealt with, but not nearly as much as the tectonic.

Nevertheless, Ford's call for architecture to be expressive of its nature, as an assemblage of structures and materials, is an appealing one. The slick and seamless "blobitecture" that retains its popularity fifteen years after its appearance can, in this case, be seen as an architecture that denies itself. Design adopting Ford's cause need not result in the same modern-vernacular hybrid as his own house, but it might utilize technology towards creating an appropriate contemporary expression, rather than just the appearance of the contemporary as an undulating skin.