Jeff Elkins

I love sections. I guess I am not the only one: Architects (and twins) Paul Lewis, AIA, and David Lewis, AIA, together with their partner Marc Tsurumaki, AIA, of LTL Architects, have authored a new book, Manual of Section (Princeton Architectural Press, Aug. 2016, $29.95), that is their own paean to this slicing through the building fabric that reveals the secret life of architecture. After a short introduction and concise history of the technique, they dive into the meat of the matter, subjecting 63 buildings from the modern era to the pen’s scalpel, opening up the objects of inspection with perspectives revealing the relations of space, structure, and form. They do so in a sequence constructed as much by their choice of drawing location as it is by the actual buildings. As dessert, they offer some of their own designs, which hold up well after the servings of architectural derring-do that precede them. It has been a while since I devoured a book on architecture with as much pleasure.

How much of that is due to the skill inherent in words, drawings, and editing, and how much is the result to my own predilection to this kind of architecture pornography, I cannot say, but Tsurumaki and the Lewises certainly make a good case for the section. As they say in their foreword:

[T]he 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 … Sections provide a unique form of knowledge, one that by necessity shifts the emphasis from image to performance, from surface to the intersection of structure and materiality that comprises the tectonic logic of architecture. At the same time, section demonstrates the exchange among multiple aspects of embodied experience and architectural space, making explicit the intersection of scale and proportion, sight and view, touch and reach that is rendered visible in the vertical dimension (as opposed to from top down). In a section, the interior elevations of walls and surfaces are revealed, combining –for examination and exploration—structure and ornament, envelope and exterior.

The authors trace the emergence of this technique as a necessary tool to help architects and construction crews understand the increasing layering of materials and construction, while the architect can understand how spaces relate to each other. Over time, the section, they point out, also has become a way to control in advance the relationships between different programmatic elements and the urban context. These days the section must work even harder as buildings become mash-ups of all kinds of programs and structural systems.

Jeff Elkins

Note that none of this involves communicating to clients or users. Sections are the secret language of architects. They reveal to those priests in the Temple of Space the inner mysteries of their creations. Our love of them is logical, as they are productive and, indeed, revealing, but also our guilty secret.

Section of Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France
Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press Section of Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France

The Lewises and Tsurumaki claim that the section is necessary now more than ever because of, as they put it, “the increasingly dense programmatic and performative obligations of projects, enabled in part by increasingly sophisticated data and computational software” (their prose is often as much part of the cult as their drawings). This might be true, but that same software is also making sections irrelevant in terms of explaining those complex relations. Between fly-throughs of various sorts and the ability to rotate, zoom, unpack layers, and otherwise manipulate the kind of all-in-one drawings computers enable, the functions of the section have become integrated into this more complex set of tools that are analytic, expository, compositional, and construction-oriented, all at the same time.

Jeff Elkins

What we lose in letting go of the arcana of sections, as well as in printing models, is the sense of both the cut and the whole. Sections open up, stop time and space, and fix relations in a manner that no screen view can, just as the constructed model fixes relations in a way whose very certainty commands choices and turns relations from flings of a millisecond into proposals for lasting commitments.

Jeff Elkins

I realize such an interior perspective is in itself tied to notions of a privileged view and static relations that might not always be appropriate in a society where not just forms and programs, but social relations of all sorts have become much more complex. If my language in the preceding has been sexualized, it is because the section is also by its very nature part of menu of operations that are tied to ways of seeing and knowing that have grown up with a paternalistic and chauvinistic world view. The one thing the section has going for it is the way it foregrounds the interior over the object, and the way you might experience it over the way it might appear in the abstractions of a plan.

Jeff Elkins

For all that, I love a good section and I love this book. It might be perverse and old fashioned, but the section opens a world in architecture in which I gladly, with this book as my Baedeker Guide, go wandering.

Peruse a preview of Manual of Section below:

This piece has been updated. Manual of Section was released in August.