Utilizing Architectural Diagrams to Create Geometric Forms That Anticipate User Responses
The following Paper was accepted to be presented as a “Poster Presentation” at this year’s ANFA Conference (Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture) September 22-24, 2016. It was summarized as below for the Poster.
The Diagram is an architectural design tool that operates between conceptual ideas and resultant geometry, between design intent and a building’s shape. What if we could harness the power of diagramming to make a building appeal directly to human neurological processing? By inserting an honest exploration of diagram to control geometric forms via analysis of program, circulation, context, and environment, we can potentially organize architectural geometry to more effectively coordinate with expected human responses, our collective visual memories, and cognitive mapping. By the agency of contextual learning, a building’s users should be able to determine their route and occupation of a space without the need to have a floorplan or view copious signage. Many architects have been experimenting with this technique without specifically identifying the neurological research implications.
In Peter Eisenman’s book Diagram Diaries, theorist Robert Somol explains the unique character of what defines a diagram: “it appears in the first instance to operate precisely between form and word,” and it is primarily “a performative rather than a representational device.” To understand the potential of utilizing diagrams to create responsive forms, we can assess the classification, characteristics, and the evaluation criteria of their application. We can also evaluate both the historical utilization of this architectural technique and its implementation in more recent examples.
 Analysis Diagrams
Analytical diagrams are frequently created post-construction or post-concept, to either compare or explain the spatial qualities of a particular piece of architecture. Typically, these types of diagrams are in search of patterns to reveal spatial divisions or some other spatial device such as phenomenal transparency. This is primarily a mathematical exercise, evaluating standard architectural elements: column, floor, wall, and roof. Colin Rowe was a frequenter of this type of diagram, and Peter Eisenman employed a series of analytical diagrams when generating his house plans during the earlier part of his career.
Colin Rowe’s diagrams comparing Villa Malcontenta to Villa Garche
 Performance Diagrams
Of greater concern to neurological research, diagrams should indicate building performance. Typically, a performance based diagram is considered during the conceptual design phase, and, optimistically, before notions of form and typology are generated. Performative diagrams can be characterized by their adherence to three main attributes:
These diagrams concern the exhibition of programmatic relationships, environmental concerns (daylight, ventilation, solar gain, etc.), and circulation (pedestrian, vehicular, entry, etc.). Contemporary diagrams may frequently consider zoning issues, adjacent context, views, and site features.
Jeanne Gang/Studio Gang program relationship diagram of Garden in the Machine prior to recombination, and solar diagram for Carve Tower
These are the forces that may influence a building’s shape: the plasticity of form absent of meaning. This includes geometric manipulations such as: “expand, extrude, inflate, branch, merge, nest, offset, bend, and skew.” Architects frequently employ arrows to indicate which geometric forces are employed.
Split and Carve, examples of geometric actions in Operative Design. Arrows by Michael Wacht.
It is important for the investigation of the operative intent to inform the geometry of the building. One of the major distinctions of what defines a diagram is that it is essentially a drawing in search of a relationship between geometry and some outside force, what Eisenman calls an “external agent.” This is the attribute most important for studying human neurological interpretation for architectural practice, where there is a literal connection between the diagrammatic ideas and the form.
TheeAe competition entry for Varna Regional Library
The simplification of the diagram is an essential step. Without it, the complexities of the diagrams begin to elicit too many intentions and interpretations.
Reality of a siteplan vs. the simplification of the important elements in MADA s.p.a.m.’s proposal for a Xujiahui Promenade
The strategic determination of the sequence in which forces operate on the geometric form. Architects balance multiple needs of a geometric form simultaneously – environment, code, program, etc.
 Drawing Type
Diagrams may be plan, section, axonometric, or perspective; orthogonal or curvilinear; hard-lined or freehand. They can be singular, simultaneous, or sequential.
 Spatial Elements
Meaning can be injected into geometry via landmarks, pathways, nodes, volumes, areas, edges.
 Relevant Scale
The direct relationship between the scale of the investigation and the scale of the architecture within such a building may have a beneficial or negative effect on a neurological processing of space. Peter Eisenman explores the ability to ‘superpose’ different operational scales. In reference to his Wexner Center at the Ohio State University, he says “The diagrams constructed a relationship between the grid of the site and the grid of Ohio. . . A conceptual axis could be drawn from the airport along the central axis of the campus to the closed end of the stadium. This line became the axis of entry into the building.”
Peter Eisenman diagram for the Wexner Center, and satellite image from Google
It is always tricky territory for Architects to create diagrams and their resultant forms that we hope will lead to better programmatic usage and comfort. Essentially, all architecture is in some manner “hopeful” of its usage in responding to forecasted human behavior. Since the purpose of this research is specific to the application of diagramming as a tool, it is safest to leave behavioral research to the expertise of organizations like ANFA. But, there is an important distinction between designing for the memory of a user in regards to expected architectural typology and designing for a particular behavioral response.
Buildings are frequently envisioned by Architects to respond to symbolic imagery that may aptly be considered to be a functioning part of a person’s visual memory. It is worth investigating whether there may be some correlation between such a symbolic reference and a building’s relative success for neurological interpretation. One example for symbolism could be Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, which maintains its overall massing as a distorted Star of David, then becomes misaligned and slashed by linear extrapolations from various locations of Jewish culture in the city.
Daniel Libeskind drawings for Jewish Museum in Berlin
 Transparency + Legibility
A diagram should be revealed experientially within a building to effectively communicate an intended response by a user, either outside of a structure or within it.
NL Architects Crossoverzaal photograph and diagram
A truly plastic design technique would ignore standard tectonics and typologies. Common architectural elements: column, wall, floor, can be reduced to their core functions, which might be: gravity displacer, space divider, and gravity positioner, respectively.
The visual expectations of humans to form impressions via how the architecture is organized and expressed.
Many human tendencies for comfort and security are considered in the book Cognitive Architecture, by Ann Sussman and Justin Hollander. Some of the discussed spatial features highlight the human tendency to seek security at perimeter walls, the levels of facial recognition enabled by various proximities, and our relationship with the natural environment. Diagramming these relationships can lead to buildings that are more responsive to human cognition.
This is perhaps the most simple and reductive idea to be assembled by a diagram: a central guard can view all cells of a prison simultaneously.
Wright developed a continuous loop for exhibition with an honest investigation into the conduct of a museum visitor.
The centralized promenade is designed so that there is a gradual revealing of the programmatic pieces within the building.
The Architects’ investigative procedure involved a direct correlation between their concept: the “veil and the vault,” and the programmatic requirements: the display and the storage of artwork.
Extending the adjacent High Line Park into the construction of the tower, every floor has an outdoor terrace with park-like qualities. An office tenant may intuitively feel connected to the adjacent office floors and the High Line below.
Compiling programmatic needs can create legible forms for user groups. This project elucidates how buildings can be more acrobatic, simultaneously responding to multiple influences at one moment via versatile geometry.
INTUARCH RESEARCH PROJECTS
An investigation into the site’s most prominent feature, a recreation path, yields a curvilinear multi-story geometry accommodating multiple user groups.
A programmatic investigation yields distinct interpretable geometries: the archives (solid and closed), an exhibition loop, and modular research and operations spaces.
Testing may determine if average people can passively commit geometric diagrams into their spatial memories for using a building. There are parallel investigations into cognitive mapping and the cortical mechanisms of visual processing that could be mutually beneficial. How can we identify evaluation criteria to determine the success of this architectural technique? Possible studies could include evaluating the experiences of two groups within a building, one of which has been given the circulation or programmatic diagram. Another possibility is to test cognitive mapping by exploring the utility of color and edges to delineate clear zones and circulation paths in existing diagrammatic buildings.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Wacht, AIA LEED
B.Arch. Cornell University; M.Arch. University of Pennsylvania.
Michael is the President of IntuArch, a Los Angeles based architecture firm which focuses on developing innovative geometries in response to research in programmatic, environmental, circulatory, and contextual analysis. Previously, as Director of the Los Angeles Studio of MADA s.p.a.m., Michael acquired his focus on creating effective design strategies while working for the Dean of the USC School of Architecture, Qingyun Ma. Michael is now a jury critic at USC.
Di Mari, Anthony and Yoo, Nora. Operative Design: A Catalogue of Spatial Verbs. BIS Publishers, 2012
Eberhard, John P. Architecture and the Brain: A Knowledge Base from Neuroscience. Ostberg, 2007
Eisenman, Peter. Diagram Diaries. St. Martin’s Press, 1999
O’Donnell, Caroline. Niche Tactics: Generative Relationships Between Architecture and Site. Routledge, 2015.
Rowe, Colin. Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays (Revised Edition). The MIT Press, 1982
Sussman, Ann and Hollander, Justin B. Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment. Routledge, 2009
Zeisel, John. Inquiry by Design: Environment/Behavior/Neuroscience in Architecture, Interiors, Landscape, and Planning. W. W. Norton & Company, 2006