Diagramming the Big Idea: Methods for Architectural Composition

In my search for precedent publications that discuss how to utilize diagramming in architecture, a professor friend of mine suggested I read Diagramming the Big Idea: Methods for Architectural Composition (2013), by Jeffrey Balmer and Michael T. Swisher, professors at UNC Charlotte. I was cautioned that the book was written primarily for first-year architecture students: less theoretical and more about basic implementation. The book presents a clear pedagogy for what architecture students should learn about a certain type of diagramming and how to implement the techniques.


While the book offers many architectural lessons about space, figure/ground relationships, and standard drawing types of axonometric and orthographic projection, it has a limited view of the larger potentials of diagramming to inform the design process.  The text maintains an unwavering predilection towards pattern making via diagram, and prematurely introduces tectonic elements as part of the diagrammatic process without a serious discussion of the potential volumetric and performative impact of diagrams.

This limited view of diagramming may be intentional for the authors, to limit students’ early exposure of the technique to a purely figurative lesson. Therefore my review is meant to: (1) extrapolate techniques for teaching diagramming, and (2) uncover the gaps in the limited viewpoint presented.



The first skills. . . focus on the perception and implementation of order. Order leads to pattern and ideas of pattern.  Thus, our first discussions confront recognizing patterns and pattern systems, identifying useful strategies and tactics, and diagramming patterns with particular intent. [x]

Order and hence pattern are important to the understanding of buildings. The book never arrives at defining why that’s important, or to connect how order relates to human use of space.  Regardless, identifying patterns in existing architecture is an essential analytical tool for achieving a sophisticated knowledge of how humans use space.

Pattern, however, is also only one of the two major types of diagrams I’ve defined in my paper for this year’s ANFA conference (Academy of Neurosciences for Architecture). There, I outline the two general categories of diagram: pattern and performance.  Diagramming the Big Idea is about the more basic type of pattern diagram, that of Colin Rowe and Christopher Alexander, outlined in books like Mathematics of the Ideal Villa.



Why is architecture difficult, and how can diagrams help?  Succinct points from the book:

First, the criteria for realizing buildings are intrinsically complex. . . Second, the process of designing and building engages the technical expertise of a wide range of specialists. . . third, architects indulge in bewildering jargon that renders their discourse largely unintelligible to others. . . Architects create diagrams in order to clarify their understanding of both particular projects and general principles.  Diagrams can form the basis for analyzing existing precedents, or they may generate entirely new works of architecture. [1]

Diagramming is indeed a great vehicle for architectural explanation, and important for architecture students to master.

But, there is an odd concurrent discussion on this first page of the text: “the fundamental alpha-numeric bias of our education system” denies our culture spatial sophistication. To the authors, that spatial sophistication should conform to the their own predisposition for idealized patterns.

Reading, writing and arithmetic alone do not and cannot provide the means for evaluating form and space. . . each of us shares in an innate understanding of order in the perception and comprehension of the world around us.  This native sensibility can, and should, form the basis for engaging in the fundamental principles that underpin architectural composition. [1]

There is considerable disagreement in the academic architectural community whether orthogonal pattern making is inherently better than other forms of geometries. Unfortunately, because of this blatant unqualified statement, the text begins to wear a bit of arrogance about the author’s predilection towards this idealization of form.

If we can assume a more broad interpretation of how diagram can assist in design, there is a plethora of accurate statements about their inclusion in the design process.  Because formal organization is integral to our profession, Balmer and Swisher explain how the word “architect” has been borrowed by other fields:

While it is possible and desirable to build toward a purpose, it is not a foregone conclusion. . . Architecture is a conceptual organization, an intellectual structuring.  It is the means by which we give order to what is knowable.  It is in this larger sense that other disciplines borrow the term architecture.  Invariably, architecture denotes a system of organization, of order. [2-3]

The diagram as an agent of analysis, serves to make sense of the physical environment by revealing or proposing its underlying conceptual organization. [3]

Rarely do theory books so eloquently define the field of architecture, especially in the context of other professions.  But, what do they mean by “purpose?” I encountered the same issue with using that term in my article in ArchDaily in January 2015. Though eventually I refrained from reading the comments section, I’m confident most contributors were antagonized by the broad swath of assumption about the word “purpose.” First-year architecture students should be curious as well: what is this “order” for?  In practice, most students may begin to take these formal pattern arguments as fact, acquiescing, for example, that there is some sort of magic to seemingly random intersecting planes coordinated via tangential adherence to the fibonacci sequence.  

Now is a good moment to ask, “what about the humans?,” along with some self-referential proof of the primacy of patterns (caps are the authors):

It starts with ORDER – the hierarchical heart of organization.  Order in architecture is a FORMAL idea.  Order begets COMPOSITION, and composition organizes both form and space.. . . in all cases we recognize that form and purpose can be intertwined conceptually . . .order facilitates human objectives.  Order refers to, or directs, the form and space of a  building by way of composition. [4]

The point of “purpose” in design – as a greater goal than that of merely function – is parallel with my own thinking, and is defined very well by these authors:

Purpose allows us to avoid problematic associations with function, thus disabusing students of the notion that architecture is necessarily utilitarian.  Purpose implies using with meaning.  It denotes resolution, determination, intent.  It primarily requires clarity of form and composition. Clarity defines the Big Idea. [4]

 The next section mentions performance, but, oddly, only in reference to material properties:

In addition to being subject to order and composition, matter’s physical properties must satisfy an additional pair of covalent criteria, what we might categorize as the performative and the palpable.  The performance of any given material allows it to fulfill two fundamental roles in architecture – as structure and as skin. [4]

For the authors, performance is something that is achieved with tectonics, the structural and material elements of a design. I prefer to conceive design in a world of pliable volume, without tectonic givens.  How we define the components of a building is a creative process, not an absolute condition of given components.  What the authors propose is potentially a Revitist approach to design, where architects must define every component as a wall, door, or window, before committing to larger concepts. For example, one might consider why a wall is positioned for programmatic or circulatory purposes before applying material aspects or accepting its role as a gravity displacer. Regardless, it may be premature to teach students notions about structure and skin so early in the discussion of diagram.



This book utilizes the term gestalt generously, though I’m not sure we would all agree on the definition. Google says gestalt is: “an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts.”  I tend to agree, that it’s an abstract condition whereby the brain processes components together as a system of assumed relationships.  This has immensely important implications in architecture and diagramming, and is an integral component of how one should construct either pattern or performative diagrams.

The overall prejudice in this text appears with the first theme: we represent analyzing architecture as engaging the fundamental language of GESTALT. . . [it] offers the clearest language for describing form and formal perception. [6]

By page 11, it becomes noticeable that the authors’ definition of order does not engage with many contemporary concepts of spatial organization.  Their view of pattern is limited to standard geometric shapes: circles, pyramids, squares, planes, etc.  What about fractal geometries, like those found in nature?  How shall we include studies of biomimicry?  What about parametric order?  There has been considerable academic research determining the value in how humans interpret some of those environments too.  We need a working definition of order and diagram that incorporates these elements as well.


One main difference between pattern and performance diagrams emerges: the former is primarily concerned with shapes and the latter is engaging with the loaded relationship between shapes. Performative diagrams also consider an ample variety of outside forces. Though a first-year’s education may be too early to invoke a full consideration of “context,” there surely should be a way to teach students about order in relationship to internal and external forces.


On the same page where the authors further define gestalt, they employ a copious use of gradient in their diagram examples.  It is uncommon for gradient to be utilized as a component of gestalt. By nature a transitional technique, gradient is a form of graphic representation that avoids the complexities of the relationships between elements in favor of a tonal shmear.

In my opinion, this use of gradient and gray tones is “lazy diagramming.” How I was educated at Cornell, there are no ambiguous areas with esteemed professor Andrea Simitch.  We were taught to be decisive about space and volume.  She had us draw only with single-line or solid poche.  Sketching – the use of multiple lines to infer just one – was not allowed.  Gray implies some type of transparency, which in space becomes a type of purgatory.  For my architectural theory, humans do not positively interpret ambiguous spaces, they feel spaces instinctively by edges and views, the forces of compression and exposure.  



We have defined the diagram as an agent of analysis.  The diagram reveals or proposes an underlying conceptual organization of some aspect of the physical environment. . . . The definitions in two dictionaries point to a first issue: do diagrams represent?* We believe they do, but that they are selective representations.  They demonstrate, through abstraction, a particular subset of the fullness of reality.  [19]

* Webster’s defines the diagram as a ‘graphic design that explains rather than represents especially a drawing that shows arrangement and relations (as of parts).’ In contrast, the Oxford English Dictionary describes the diagram as a ‘simplified drawing showing the appearance, structure, or workings of something; a schematic representation. [19]

An integral component of how Architects frequently use diagrams in practice includes the use of the ubiquitous arrow, as typical diagrams often employ arrows to emphasize or denote an action. The brief mention of arrows on page 20 in the text highlights the general absence of forces acting on the representative diagrams/patterns. Apparently they missed my installation at the AIA convention #embodythearrow.

Among the least ambiguous element found in diagrams is the arrow.  It is safe to say that an arrow always represents direction by virtue of its formal structure: it points. [20]

Let’s applaud this quotation:

Design is not about style: it is either competent, or it is hapless. . . Making buildings without making diagrams is certainly possible.  Designing architecture within the tradition of the diagram is preferable. [25]



Fun!  The authors touch on one of my favorite conundrums, how to define and discern between collage and montage.  “Technically, this means that these diagrams play from readings where the elements are visual only – collage – to those readings where each element brings with it some independent meaning – montage.” [23]  In my efforts to distinguish between the two techniques, I have mostly focused on the relationships between the components themselves, whether overlapping/engaged – collage – or merely adjacent in structure – montage.  I would agree with Balmer and Swisher that the independence of montage components could be key to understanding the difference between the terms.  Collage involves fragments from some previous incarnation, often devoid of whole original meaning, whereas montage components are distinct and intact.



The authors propose a subdivided grid as the foundation for diagramming, always square and entirely orthogonal. Diagonal lines are included only to supplement the orthogonal patterns and curves never appear in all 242 dense pages of the book. This primary “tartan” grid is repeated several times throughout the book as the origin of design, with a seemingly arbitrary hierarchy of line proximities and an overwhelming condition of implied symmetry. Pattern is presented as a given before idea generation, a dangerous stage to conduct a play.  This could be an attempt by the authors to simplify the concept of pattern creation for the young students exploring the text, but then there should at least be an acknowledgement of how to deploy this technique in other project formats. The authors’ defense:

We begin our investigation of the evolving figure the same way as the previous figure-ground episodes – by dividing a square ground into eighths and twelfths.  We then place a single figure into the resulting relational grid and analyze the formal conditions.  Generating multiple examples allows us to better illustrate the role that geometry may play in developing compositional integrity. [96]


I often begin creating project icons with a square grid, a 10×10 figure.  But, if i’m meant to generate ideas for a project, I usually begin with some simplification of the site, context, or whatever I presume may become a guiding principle for the design to develop.  In both cases, a grid is a starting point, a canvas expecting surgical manipulation. A grid enables a consistency of thickness and scale that requires of the designer that she think strategically about where difference develops.  It is in that moment, where the designer chooses difference, that an outside force disfigures the icon to add meaning.



The book includes an allegiance to the “divine” proportions in architecture.  The square root of 2 and the golden rectangle are discussed on page 184.  Though an important consideration to any type of designer, the devotion to these exemplary proportions signify the authors’ predilection towards pattern as a design force, rather than performative ideas of program, circulation, daylighting, ventilation, or even spatial forces such as compression, solidity, airiness, etc.



To understand the power of solid/void, a designer has to embrace what solidity and absence mean conceptually when their relationship becomes more complex.  This book provides great diagrams to understand how gestalt applies to architectural diagramming.




The vast chunk of the middle of the book is given to a relentless barrage of figural diagramming.  The authors apply titles to each tiny diagram, describing in detail when components rotate, move, thicken, or disappear.  This type of exercise has some value for teaching students composition in the context of a drawing seminar, but it’s arbitrary nonsense for the domain of a studio class. Without any response of the geometry to internal or external forces, the patterns are as numerous as they are purposeless.


On page 66 the authors note the tools of composition: “size, shape, orientation, alignment, repetition, and proximity.”  Though, on page 96, there’s a separate indication of what to consider for ones figures: “placement, orientation, and proportion.”  Seeing these purposeless shapes together led me, finally, to coin a term for the current trend of contemporary architecture fashionable amongst most multifamily and residential homes today: compositional modernism.  It is an aesthetic style devoid of overall conceptual meaning. The designer would begin by placing a shape via impulse, then they come up with additional shapes via impulse to make a work of art.  There certainly isn’t anything wrong with this type of figural representation, though the lack of purpose has more in common with a Mondrian painting than my firm’s researched concept of design. By reading books like this, I’m glad to understand how these designers have been educated, and how they vomit this stuff all over Los Angeles.

18-diagram-07 18-diagram-08

There are so many full spreads of nonsense compositional drawings that I wonder if the authors are a bit too obsessed with squares. I’m not sure what the pedagogical purpose might be to include this relentless number of little drawings; I think first-year students would otherwise have an innate ability to utilize the terms “rotate” or “thicken” without 16 pages of options.


What if instead of purely figural exercises, a professor might gave students performative terms that require a spatial sensation.  Words like balance, volume, intersection, compression, stretch, etc., might inform these compositions while giving genetic meanings without being too specific about pragmatic architectural components.



By page 130, the authors have extruded their diagrams to make little buildings.  As an aspiring professor, I think it is dangerous to move so quickly into tectonics.  Disturbingly, the diagrams also begin to disappear, becoming illegible when the authors move into the third dimension. These former solids – both thick and thin – are now little buildings with roofs, columns, walls and thresholds. As a purely drawing exercise, there is a utility to simple extrusion. But, those architectural terms are incredibly limiting for young minds, especially delivered so quickly via diagram devoid of larger conceptual ideas.  


And these tectonics are loaded with spatial meaning. The authors hastily translate the following drawing into the third dimension without a discussion about the forces inherent by utilizing each type of tectonic component.




The authors unconditionally praise modernism as an ideal.  That is Modernism with a capital M – the style from the mid 20th century – not modernism as a term meaning current.  

. . . the ubiquity of the rational grid as part of contemporary life often obscures both its Modernism and its brilliance. . . What makes it [the rational grid] Modernist is the philosophical proposition that rationality and its methods will lead to a final evolutionary state of humanity and that the struggle between opposites will eventually resolve itself into a better world.  These sorts of post-Enlightenment beliefs underscore the idea that invoking the Modernist grid is not a neutral act.  It aligns the grid with an emerging sense of progress, as well as rationality. [145]

This book was completed in 2012, when many other approaches to contemporary style had already been introduced. The authors do add some semblance of modesty: “However, one does not have to agree with this view of destiny to use a rational grid.”  I think it’s improper for professors to have emotional attachment to style instead of less impressionable attachments to process and theory.



There are historic examples of projects throughout the book, the analyses of Louis Kahn’s Exeter Library are particularly useful for pattern analysis. Still, a student might wonder what to do with such pattern information.  There is no apparent relationship mentioned between the patterns and their program or circulation, or, for example, whether they represent areas which are more dense or more lit. Kahn prejudiced a 9-square plan for his building, then he deposited the program within its predetermined confines and its overwhelming symmetry.

I would argue that symmetry is an accidental feature, when it is implemented.  It is highly unlikely in the real world for a well researched context and program to be identically split into two equal halves, there’s almost always some type of hierarchy to be expressed.




While the analysis of completed projects is of enduring value to architects, the role that diagrams may play in the design process – in the development of new works of architecture – is even more important.  In other words, diagrams as analytical tools are surpassed only by their capacity as generative instruments, capable of clarifying the intentions of a design , and revealing possible directions for its evolution and enhancement. . . In Toward an Architecture, Le Corbusier declared that “the plan is the generator.”  We reply that the diagram is the generator. [208]

The authors’ conclusion leads me to believe that they appreciate the promise of diagram as an idea generator. So, why did they spend the entirety of their text expressing only pattern and denying clear criteria for judging the variations between their example patterns?  There isn’t a great argument for why a new set of tectonic pieces designed with their standard tartan square would be better than one that came before, it would just be different.  I think most architects think their job is making new things different, and they believe that their value is in that argument.  It’s a shame that our broader culture believes Architects make things different, but not analytically improved or inherently more intelligent or responsive.

Throughout the text the authors reference the primacy of the Big Idea.  Sadly, they never define what that might be for them or for any of the projects beyond their obsession of compositional arrangements.


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