Given the environmental and material challenges that frame architectural practice in the twenty-first century, the section provides a rich and under-explored opportunity for inventively reimagining the intersection of structural, thermal, and functional forces. Moreover, the section is the site where space, form, and material intersect with human experience, establishing most clearly the relationship of the body to the building as well as the interplay between architecture and its context.
ARCHITECTEM met with Paul Lewis of LTL Architects to discuss their most recent publication aptly titled Manual of Section, presenting a framework for describing and evaluating Section as well as a lexicon of different types of sections and their functions. Featuring essays on the history of section and its role in architectural design, LTL Architects founders Paul Lewis, Marc Tsurumaki, and David J. Lewis, describe the seven categories of section they developed—Extrusion, Stack, Shape, Shear, Hole, Incline, and Nest. Relying on extensive archival research. These sectional categories are illustrated through 63 detailed cross- section perspective drawings of significant structures built around the world over the past 100 years.
When did you first develop an interest in the section and feel the need to address its under explored opportunity.
PL Well it was a confluence of a couple of different things. Certainly Section has been instrumental in the way we go about our work. A lot of our drawings rely on sectional perspective to explicate the arguments behind the project. We are always very interested in the complicated assembly of material, the effects of this assembly, how they get inhabited, and the relationship between structure and program, that is often revealed in very different ways through the section. So there has been a consistent interest from the very early work, going back almost 20 years now, of using section instrumentally in the design and not simply as a representational tool after the fact.
What motivated or made the argument for doing a book to be clearer, was a conversation we had had with Princeton architectural press where, through a variety of different discussions, the question came up as to what kind of book do we think is missing in the discipline that we as educators would like to see. We said that there actually should be, what at that point we had called, the manual of cuts. We wanted it to be visually based, so it was not going to be a text dominated book instead one based on drawings.
Unlike analytical books that rely on a kind of an array of small diagrams to make an architectural idea visible, we try to make the argument that actually a single drawing would carry more weight and in fact start to reveal the complex inter relationship between the parts. So we are trying to argue that there is a need for a new model of book, that would be seductive in its own right visually, but also then start to explicate a kind of an argument about the cut that takes place in the building, whether a section, plan or in some case an elevation. The more we worked on it, we realised that actually there has been plenty of work been done on plan. Elevation has an incredible amount of discourse written about. Section, however, is incredibly under analysed and under theorised. There is not a lot of interesting essays or scholarship about section. In fact there is really only the handful two or three interesting essays or books about section. So we felt this was a massive absence within the discipline and hence the right place to put the emphasis.
Then there were other overlaps. I had been teaching a course on the analysis of buildings and one of my lectures was on section, as well as a lecture about plan, elevation. But the section one was where I realised there is very little work. That led to an interesting possibility that we could actually take this on as an interesting theoretical apparatus that isn’t represented within the discipline, and used that as the premise for the book.
How did the LTL partnership come about. Was the Section always a shared interest or something that grew with the partnership?
PL Its an interesting question, the origin story is on the one hand simple and complicated. The simple version is that Marc Tsurumaki was a year ahead of me in school and David and I have known each other for many years for obvious reasons*. David and I certainly had no intent of opening an office together. We wanted to have a kind of autonomy from each other coming out of high school and we maintained a healthy independence, but it made sense for various reasons to start working together in the mid 90s. The main motivation for us to collaborate was really an opportunity to do an exhibition at Storefront in about 1997 that then became our first Pamphlet Architecture book.
*Paul Lewis and David Lewis are brothers
What was the exhibition?
PL The short version is that we had done a couple of exhibition designs for Storefront for other shows they had. The exhibition designs went very well and we had developed an interesting relationship with store front. So we made the proposition, that we had this body of work that could be an exhibition in its own right and they green lighted the exhibition. I can honestly say we didn’t have that body of work, we had the idea for the body of work. Then we had about 6 months to generate what would be the equivalent of 6-8 thesis projects in a very short period of time. It was exhausting but it culminated in an exhibition in the summer of 1997, that was translated into the Pamphlet Architecture 21: Situation Normal.
We have always been interested in a practice that is simultaneously engaged in building, the more pragmatic built world of architecture, and in a more academic arena. Not to see these as opposites, our work falls between theory and practice. Our interest is how do they overlap, how do they benefit each other.
Even when we were writing the manual of section the argument was how do architects actually produce affects in section. So in some ways the classifications are straightforward. They are not meant to be complex and intellectually inaccessible. They are actually very straight forward. In that clarity we hope to provide the basis for a more nuanced understanding that can be built upon them. No one to our knowledge has actually tried to say that there are certain ways that architects produce section. I think we could critique our own typology for being too simplistic or for not being comprehensive enough, and that is okay. We had our own internal debates about are these the right categories, and in a way we said, that these are the ones that are clearest . But we fully recognise that its not meant to be exhaustive, comprehensive, or totalising.
Manual of Section not only provides novel insights on section, it compares projects in a way that defies chronological and theoretical classifications. What dictated the focus on 20th century architecture with the projects you chose to feature?
PL Well the selection of looking at how section performs or is deployed in the 20th century is because, section is used as a resistance against the hegemony of repetitive floor plates. The ease with which tectonic assembly, fabrication systems, repetitive floor plates could be built means that section is often seen as a way of spending money in ways that don’t necessarily profit, in terms of pure square footage. Thats an interesting different way of thinking about section which exists really in the efficiencies of 20th century construction system. Section takes on a different role than it did lets say in Gothic cathedrals or in construction of monuments in antiquity. To frame the work and make it relevant for contemporary practices we decided not to try and make it into an exhaustive study of the nuances of domes and arches. Others have done that work. We were particularly seeing the section as a kind of resistance, or as a way of working within constraints that are a product of 20th century or post 19th century apparatuses.
As practitioners and educators, we are invested equally in section as a type of representation and as a projective tool for spatial and material invention. We offer with this book a clear heuristic structure for a more robust discourse around the architectural section, to establish a shared basis for dialogue toward explorative and experimental architecture.
The genealogy of the section moves in parallel with the history of architecture. For young students of architecture, the book is a great device to familiarising themselves with important and notable projects of the 20th and current century. If this is a beginning of the written and published discourse around section, what next? Can this surgical study of section be packaged for pedagogical projects or programs?
PL At some level, we are trying to find a way with the book to get past the well known critique that we hear in juries where someone will comment “you have a good section” or “I like your section” or “you have a bad section”. It rarely goes beyond this. We are trying to articulate different models of section so when that critique is put forward, there can a greater clarity to it. In a sense we wanted to be able to start to articulate differences. Our hope is that there be a critique that says actually what we did was insufficient. That we sponsor other commentary and dialogue about the nature of section. One that goes beyond simply a banal judgment of good or bad, but produces a more nuanced understanding. I think architects do this anyways. I think there are a number of architects who think through section in a more instrumental way. We are trying to find a way to articulate a more clearly framed vocabulary to allow that work to now take on greater clarity.
I think the vocabulary is key here. The fact that ‘categories’ have never been assigned to these patterns or systems of section is surprising.
PL Also too often the knowledge of a building is limited to representations that an architect might make or to the photographs that might be taken. In fact more and more its the photographs that dominate. I think it is unfortunate that often drawings are not that compelling. So for us to draw 63 cross sectional perspectives with a coherence, allows for an ability to compare and contrast them. More importantly, it also creates a collection of representations and some of these cross sections, I think, are some of the better drawings of that building that might be out there.
“The section is not limited to its status as a representational technique. Today sections are used expansively to illustrate, test, and explore architectural designs.” Has technology expanded the potential of designing through section or does it remain a slice from the 3D model.
PL There are a couple of different ways to look at it. I do think thats its not something we exhaustively pursued as much as we could have, as we realised this could spiral into another book. The relationship between section and computation and digital designing is quite complex. To take two different ways to look at it, one is that section or the 2 dimensional cut is often seen as anachronistic, as a residue of a previous model or a previous way of thinking about design. That does a disservice to the clarity and analytical precision that a section generates, that does not get beyond what tends to be the optical effects that computer models often privilege. You rarely see design generated from the section. The other avenue is to say that actually where section gets used in complex computer models is, as a way to translate that complexity into the ability to be built. So you get the iterative section, where a complex form will be taken into a series of 2 dimensional planes that then can be turned into a tectonic, that can then produce the form. In a sense that, multiple sections are a way of rationalising the complexity of these forms that resist material in order to allow that material reality to have a presence and a build ability.
In a recent lecture you mentioned the possibilty of this becoming a colouring book. Can we look forward to that?
PL We’ll see where that goes [laughs]. There is a whole world of colouring books and a world of architecture books, that don’t overlap very often which is what makes it seductive to us. We had half jokingly talked about the ability to do it. Then at the book opening, the 3 of us all have children, and we realised that we had not lined up baby sitters and we were just going to bring our kids to the opening. That led to “what are they going to do?”. We decided, well why don’t we setup a table and print out a couple of pages from the book and lets see if it works – and it took off. To the point that adults were then gathered around and the colouring table was really one of the better aspects of the book opening.
We look forward to the colouring book version of The Manual of Section!