Five Houses, Ten Details
Edward R. Ford
Princeton Architectural Press
Depending on where you stand, details can be the dominion of either God or the devil. Edward Ford, a practicing architect, academic, and author of two of the late 20th century’s most seminal practical volumes on the subject, The Details of Modern Architecture, Volumes 1 and 2, convincingly makes the case for both parties. Ford’s earlier books have long been cherished by both students and practitioners, but their didactic, instructional style makes them more appropriate for deskside reference than bedside reading. If there’s a flaw to Ford’s otherwise excellent volumes, it’s that the author’s clear, engaging talent for writing is underserved.
Ford’s new book for the publisher’s “Writing Matters” series, Five Houses, Ten Details, sets things right. It presents a compelling, concise, and accessible narrative documenting in-depth explorations of the ideologies and methods of detailing, as applied to the design of five very different houses, all designed by Ford, all for himself and his family, and all for the same site at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Each of the designs is explicitly concerned with a different approach to detailing: the various ways it abstracts or connects to place and historic moment; how it engages material assembly; how it expresses structure; how it gives voice to a particular constructional system; and how detailing can highlight important juxtapositions in the building’s design. Ford states his reverence for Frank Lloyd Wright early in the book, and each section is prefaced with a pertinent excerpt from Norris Smith’s important eponymous study of Wright’s life and work.
Ford writes in a personal style that reads more like memoir than textbook or theoretical exegesis. In the course of describing the nature of detailing, he invokes his personal history both as an aspiring author and junior academic, writing openly about his anxieties as a designer and a newcomer to this Virginia community. One of the most charming, illuminating aspects of Ford’s book is his frankness in the elements of the prospective designs that ultimately didn’t work so well, and that led to their eventual abandonment.
Dispensing with jargon, Ford demonstrates in lucid, engaging fashion the ways that well-formed architectural theory can be applied to actual design practice, for better and worse. Too often, especially in contemporary practice, the marriage of theory and construction can seem hollow or gimmicky, built on a rickety foundation of rarefied linguistic turns-of-phrase or ironic reductivism.
Unlike many of his architectural peers, Ford is a terrific writer, and throughout Five Houses, Ten Details, his love of literature is obvious. In explaining the circumstances that led to his arrival in Virginia and the design of the first house (which is explicitly concerned with referencing the regional built vernacular), he invokes literary sources as diverse as Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and Robert Frost. Additionally, the book is illustrated with wide-ranging examples of the use of detailing in the history of architecture, and extends beyond its core subject to touch thoughtfully on issues of materiality and scale, rendering it all the more enjoyable as a general introduction to architecture for the lay reader or beginning student.
At the conclusion of each section of Five Houses, Ten Details, Ford presents simple illustrations of his proposed designs in a series of standardized elevations, perspectives, and sections, the better to highlight their theoretical and formal peculiars. The designs themselves aren’t the prettiest things in the world, but their variety further underscores Ford’s main point: that shifting one’s approach to detailing can lead to radically different formal outcomes, each with unique benefits and drawbacks.
The house that Ford eventually went on to build primarily incorporates elements of his fourth and fifth proposed experiments. The final structure is given more in-depth treatment than the earlier, jettisoned experiments, and is documented with more drawings and color photos. The final design is presented as a summary of Ford’s previous explorations, bringing elements of each into a purportedly cohesive whole.
After so much rigor, however, this mélange is a little anti-climactic. It seems to contradict many of Ford’s earlier arguments about maintaining a single-mindedness of approach to detailing, and the reader is left wishing the final house announced itself with the clarity and boldness that marked the aborted designs, or at least with the sure-footedness present in Ford’s writing.
Nevertheless, Five Houses, Ten Details succeeds on multiple levels. Ford has crafted a fine study not only of an indispensable element of architectural practice, but also an illuminating look into the maturation of an individual designer’s process, and the elements of personal history that led him to approach design the way that he does.
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