DOE Lecture: Building Parts - Walls


Introduction: the elevation of elevations

"I let myself down to the ledge, and found that it was impossible to retain a seat on it unless in one particular position. This fact confirmed my preconceived idea. I proceeded to use the glass. Of course, the 'twenty-one degrees and thirteen minutes' could allude to nothing but elevation above the visible horizon, since the horizontal direction was clearly indicated by the words, 'northeast and by north.' This latter direction I at once established by means of a pocket-compass; then, pointing the glass as nearly at an angle of twenty-one degrees of elevation as I could do it by guess, I moved it cautiously up or down, until my attention was arrested by a circular rift or opening in the foliage of a large tree that overtopped its fellows in the distance. In the centre of this rift I perceived a white spot, but could not, at first, distinguish what it was. Adjusting the focus of the telescope, I again looked, and now made it out to be a human skull." [p. 105.]

Treasure maps, like architectural plans, are typically two-dimensional representations of the horizontal plane. In the short story The Gold-Bug by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), however, Captain Kidd conceived of his treasure map in three dimensions, nearly causing the mental collapse of the protaganist who sought to locate the treasure. In this stage of the studio, students are asked to project their projects into that third dimension, and represent their walls in elevation.

The Fabric of Facades

Just as the loom can serve as a metaphor for the weaving of architectural plans, scaffolding can serve as a metaphor for the raising of architectural elevations: "Orthography is the demonstration of how the vertical raising of the building is done. The ontological demonstration of it is embodied in the structure of the scaffolding." [Frascari, p. 15].
The term "orthography" here refers to the tradition of architectural representation traceable to Vitruvius (c. 90-20 BCE), who mentions three kinds of architectural demonstration (Greek ideae) in his treatise on architecture:
ichnographia (plan), orthographia (elevation), and scaenographia (which Frascari also interprets as sciographia, with all its implications of shadow, profile, projection, and section).

The following is a selection from the entry on "scaffold" in the Oxford English Dictionary
Signification: a few examples.
1. A temporary platform usually supported on poles or (sometimes)trestles, but occasionally suspended, and designed to hold the workmen and materials employed in the erection, repairing, or decoration of a building. Also pl., but now usually sing., an assemblage of such platforms with their supporting poles, = scaffolding.
2. A military engine for assailing a wall. Obs.
6. An elevated platform on which a criminal is executed. Phr.
L. *catafalcum, of uncertain formation: according to some scholars, f. Gr. prefix kata- (see under catafalque) + -falicum, f. fala, phala wooden tower or gallery. For other related forms see catafalque, and cf. med.Lat. scadafale (12th c.), scadafaltum (13th c.), scafaldus, scalfaudus, etc. (15th c.). The Romanic word has been adopted by continental Teut. langs.: (M)Dutch schavot, G. schavot(t, Da. skafot. With the -forms in Eng. cf. scaffoldage.
* 1889 G. M. Hopkins Poems (1967) 107 But man-we, scaffold of score brittle bones.

Although the second definition is now obsolete, it played an important role in the work of Vitruvius, who might be better called a military engineer than an architect. His treatise on architeture refers to an illustration of scaffolding, later rendered in Renaissance treatises on architecture. The following is an illustration of the sixth definition:

fig. 1: Body on a gibbet; fig. 2: The seventh "muscle-man" from Vesalius.

This last definition may seem unrelated to architectural concerns, but Joseph Rykwert has interpreted Vesalius's use of the word "fabrica" in the title of his treatise on anatomy as comment on the changing role of architecture and " a necessary analogy a change in our valuation of building and of the place of our bodies within them. And I would hazard a generalization at this point: that the terms in which we describe world order, buildings and our bodies, form a constant metaphoric chain, whose shifts and deformations have their effect in our sociology and our medicine as well as in our architecture." [Rykwert, Body and Mind, p. 159]. This metaphoric chain can also be traced through a comparison of the history of medical and architectural illustration. For an eighteenth century Italian example of this link, see Marco Frascari, "A 'measure' in architecture."

More literally applicable to architecture is the first definition above, referring to constructions such as the following:

fig. 3: Wooden scaffolding; fig. 4: Prefabricated metal scaffolding.

The metaphor of scaffolding which Frascari suggests, however, is not that of independent scaffolding, but rather of scaffolding which is integral with the facade: "An understanding of the of the procedure of this demonstration can be gained by looking to the brick facade of many medieval constructions that are marked by many holes. The holes are signs that allow us to reconstruct how the scaffolding interacted with the edifice during its construction, by a mirror experience, an acute reflection." [Frascari, p. 15].

fig. 5: Integration of scaffold and facade.

The illustration above suggests a comparison with Le Corbusier's use of "regulating lines" to compose the elevations of his projects:

fig. 6: Garches, elevation; fig. 7: Garches, elevation.

fig. 8: Villa Stein, Garches.

Colin Rowe interprets Le Corbusier's facades as "the primary demonstrations of the mathematical discipline;" at Garches, for example, Le Corbusier "carefully indicates his relationships by an apparatus of regulating lines and figures and by placing on the drawings of his elevations the ratio of the golden section, A:B=B:(A+B)." [Rowe, p. 9].
In the example of Le Corbusier, these regulating lines serve as scaffolding. For further analysis of the use of geometrical and arithmetical systems to provide internal order in buildings, see Christopher Alexander, "Perception and Modular Coordination."

This metaphor of scaffolding can also be "inverted" and applied to the system of "skeleton" construction originated by the Chicago School in the later half of the nineteenth century, where the framework of iron columns and beams served as the primary "scaffolding" of the building.

fig. 9: Fair Store, William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907).

"In Chicago, seemingly, our own interests were so directly anticipated that if - as we apparently sometimes conceive it to be - the frame structure is the essence of modern architecture, then we can only assume a relationship between ourselves ourselves and Chicago comparable to that of the High Renaissance architects with Florence ... " [Rowe, "Chicago Frame," p. 90.]

Lineamenta et Structura

  1. lineamentum, -i n. line, feature, outline.
  2. structura, -ae f. structure, construction.

Rowe's mention of the relationship of Renaissance architects with Florence suggests the example of Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72), in whose architectural writings and projects facades play a fundamental role.
"The fundamental distinction that Alberti draws between lineamenta and structura in book I (I.I.7 [4]) - of design and construction - may be compared to that which Vitruvius draws between ratiocinatio and opus, in I.I.15. ... For Alberti and the art of building, design necessarily precedes construction, yet lineamenta and structura are independent." [Rykwert, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, p. 422].

Furthermore, in the prologue to his treatise on architecture, de re aedificatoria (c. 1450), Alberti "argues that architecture comprises two parts, the lineamenta - deriving from the mind - and the materia - deriving from nature - mediated by the skilled craftsman: he makes lineamenta the subject of the first book." [Rykwert, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, pp. 422-3].

Pallazzo Rucellai, Florence (1446-51)

The facade of the Pallazzo Rucellai, Alberti's first independent work, is composed of pietra forte, a fine grained sandstone that allowed Alberti to hide the joints within the overall pattern of channels and pilasters.

fig. 10: Pallazzo Rucellai, facade.

fig. 11: Stone-work pattern of the facade; fig. 12: Diagram of the facade.

Another important aspect of the elevation of this pallazzo is its division into three levels. This division is marked by the use of different Orders for each level, the typical sequence being from Doric on the lower level, to Ionic, to Corinthian on the upper level: the character of the interior space being signified by the ornamentation of the exterior. A similar, Positivist correlation was proposed by James Fergusson (1808-86), an historian of architecture who classified the ornamentaion of elevations in the following horizontal scheme:

fig. 13: Four stages of an elevation.

fig. 14: Positivist interpretation of these stages.

The ornamentation of the elevations of North Indian temples, though more complex than the examples above, is also arranged as a projection of the interior space, in this case manifestations of the deity within the sanctum.

Santa Maria Novella, Florence (1456-70)

Alberti was commissioned by Giovanni Rucellai to complete the facade of this existing Gothic church. As figure 13 indicates, the design of the facade is composed of a complex geometrical pattern based on harmonic proportions. According to Borsi, "once he had established a basic height for his design, Alberti could turn to the essential problem of the project: the incompatibility between the classical proportions to which he was instinctively inclined and those parts of the earlier church (especially their height) by which he was conditioned." [Borsi, p. 65.]

fig. 15: Marble facing of the facade; fig. 16: Regulating lines of the facade.


As representations of the three-dimensional "house" of Buddha, the mandalas of the Tibetan tantric traditon integrate both plan and elevation in one complex diagram.

List of Illustrations

fig. 1: "Nineteenth century depiction of the theft of a body from the gibbet outside Louvain." [O'Malley, plate 11].

fig. 2: "The seventh "muscle-man" from the Fabrica. Vesalius used this method of supporting the cadaver during the preparation of the dissection and illustrations of the "muscle-men." [O'Malley, plate 22].
"In short, the process of dissection perforce undercuts the teleological notion that literally animates the figures. The body itself becomes progressively unable to convey the illusion of action, even within the fictive world of its representation. It is in a sense reobjectified [fig. 2], trussed up as a "real" corpse, no longer able to sustain itself in the face of its own violation: 'Furthermore, to prevent the right scapula from falling downwards like a broken wing, we so suspended it by a rope that the whole of its hollow surface was brought into view [Caption to Fabrica 1.7]'." Harcourt, p. 48.

fig. 3: "Heavy-duty independent-pole scaffold, diagonal bracing not shown." Bureau of Naval Personnel, Basic Construction Techniques (New York: Dover Publications, 1972), figure 5-27.

fig. 4: "Prefabricated independent scaffolding." Bureau of Naval Personnel, Basic Construction Techniques (New York: Dover Publications, 1972), figure 5-29.

fig. 5: "Prospetto casa in costruzione." Lithograph from the collection of Marco Frascari.

fig. 6: "Garches, elevation." Rowe, figure 2.

fig. 7: "Garches, elevation." Rowe, figure 2.

fig. 8: "Villa Stein, Garches. Le Corbusier, 1927." Rowe, plate 5.

fig. 9: "Fair Store, Chicago. William Le Baron Jenney, 1889-90)." Rowe, plate 38.

fig. 10: "Florence, Palazzo Rucellai. Facade." Borsi, plate 36.

fig. 11: "Florence, Palazzo Rucellai. Stone-work pattern of the facade." Borsi, plate 32.

fig. 12: "Florence, Palazzo Rucellai. Diagram of the facade." Borsi, plate 33.

fig. 13: "Four stage facade." Fergusson, A History of Architecture, Diagram No. 2.

fig. 14: "Technic, esthetic and phonetic." Fergusson, A History of Architecture, Diagram No. 1.

fig. 15: "Florence, Palazzo Rucellai. Diagram of the facade." Borsi, plate 33.

fig. 16: "Florence, Palazzo Rucellai. Diagram of the facade." Borsi, plate 33.


Alberti, Leon Battista. On the Art of Building in Ten Books. Trans. Joseph Rykwert with Neil Leach and Robert Tavernor. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988.

Alexander, Christopher. "Perception and Modular Coordination." Royal Institute of British Architects Journal, vol. 66, no. 12 (October 1959), pp. 425-9.

Borsi, Franco. Leon Battista Alberti: The Complete Works. New York : Rizzoli; Milano : Electa, 1989, c1986.

Le Corbusier. "Regulating Lines." Towards a New Architecture. Translated from the French by Frederick Etchells. 1923; rpt., New York, Praeger [1970], pp. 64-79.

Fergusson, James. A History of Architecture: in All Countries from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. New Edition, R. Phene Spiers, ed., w/notes & add's by George Kriehn (Leland Stanford U.) 2 vols. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1907.

Frascari, Marco. "A New angel/angle in architectural research: the ideas of demonstration." Journal of Architectural Education, vol. 44, no. 1 (Nov. 1990), pp. 11-19.

Frascari, Marco. "A 'measure' in architecture: A medical-architectural theory by Simone Stratico, Architetto Veneto." RES, vol. 9 (Spring 1985), pp. 79-90.

Harcourt, Glenn. "Andreas Vesalius and the Anatomy of Antique Sculpture." Representations, vol. 17 (Winter 1987).

O'Malley, Charles Donald. Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, 1514-1564. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964.

Poe, Edgar Allen. "The Gold-Bug," The Gold-Bug and Other Tales. 1843; rpt. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1991, pp. 79-107.

Rowe, Colin. "The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa: Palladio and Le Corbusier compared," The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays. First Published in Architectural Review, 1947. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1976, pp. 59-87.

Rowe, Colin. "Chicago Frame," The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays. First Published in Architectural Review, 1947. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1976, pp. 89-117.

Rykwert, Joseph. "Body and Mind," in Storia delle Idee: Problemi e Prospettive. Seminario Internazionale, Roma, 29-31 ottobre 1987. A cura di Massimo L. Bianchi. Lessico Intelletuale Europeo XLIX. Roma: Edizioni dell'Ateneo, 1989, pp. 157-68.

Patrick A. George